Healthy Watersheds are Biodiverse and Resilient
‘Biodiverse’, ‘Resilient’, words like these don’t mean a lot to the average Muskokan, but we all understand the idea of a healthy environment occupied by the kinds of plants and animals that are ‘supposed’ to live there. Such an environment is resistant to outbreaks of pests or tree diseases such as Beech bark disease and is able to cope well with a severe winter or a hot dry summer without having large numbers of its plants and animals die. Healthy environments are what we all want for Muskoka, if only because our wonderful Muskoka environment drives our economy.
The 2014 Muskoka Watershed Report Card evaluates the health of our environment by looking at a series of indicators that tell us something about particular aspects of that health – sort of like using blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature, weight, and waist size as indicators of human health. These indicators are then grouped to report on the health of the land, water, wetlands, and biodiversity of our environment. Of these, the most difficult to assess has been biodiversity.
Biodiversity refers to the richness of life in the environment – the number of different species, their genetic variability, and the extent to which different groups of species occur from one place to another within the region.
Muskoka is blessed with a rich biodiversity primarily because of the extensiveness of our natural ecosystems here. Regions in southern Ontario have been far more substantially altered as we farmed them and then turned them into towns and cities, and they are no longer able to support many of the species that used to occur.
Our rich biodiversity confers resilience – the ability of our natural ecosystems to cope with environmental changes. But how do we measure biodiversity?
Neither the District government, nor the MNR or MOE have detailed, up-to-date records of where in Muskoka each kind of plant and animal occurs, and information on the genetics of these plants and animals is even more limited! Still there is some information on two relevant aspects of biodiversity – species at risk and invasive species. Here is how the Report Card uses data on species at risk as an indicator of environmental health.
Species at risk are plants and animals that have been examined and determined to be in imminent risk of extinction within Ontario. Of the 200 species listed, 42 are known to occur in Muskoka-Parry Sound, including the whip-poor-will, cerulean warbler, eastern hognose snake, Blanding’s turtle, lake sturgeon, little brown bat, butternut, and the rust-patched bumblebee.
That they occur here is wonderful, and keeping them here is a very worthwhile goal. While it is known that these 42 species are here, we do not know everywhere in Muskoka they now occur. But we do know everywhere in Muskoka where there are patches of habitat that would be suitable for each of them, and it turns out some parts of Muskoka provide a greater amount of suitable habitat for more species at risk than others.
By mapping habitat suitable for all the species at risk, it is possible to identify those portions of the Muskoka watershed that are potentially most valuable as places for species at risk to live.
These portions of Muskoka are considered to be of special concern for species at risk, and for that reason are colored red on the Report Card maps. By taking more care in places that might be home to species at risk we can enhance the chances that these species will continue to thrive here.