Securing habitats for at-risk species

UBC zoologist Sarah Otto is putting her MacArthur “genius grant” towards the preservation of fragile habitats in the South Okanagan region of BC. Two gifts of $50,000 each to The Nature Trust of BC and the Nature Conservancy of Canada will help purchase habitats for at-risk species of woodpeckers, sparrows, badgers, turtles, plants and trees.

Otto was one of last year’s 22 MacArthur Fellows, who receive no-strings-attached grants of $500,000 over five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Otto is putting her 2012 fellowship towards conserving biodiversity in BC. “We strive to eat locally and act locally, and I would argue that we also need to preserve locally,” says Otto, a Canada Research Chair in theoretical and experimental evolution.

BC grasslands make up less than one per cent of the province’s natural landscape, yet they provide habitat for a third of BC’s species at risk. Nationally, only 10 per cent of Canada’s land areas and less than one per cent of the country’s oceans and Great Lakes are protected, according to 2011 Environment Canada figures. “Many of the existing protected areas are remote and not the hotspots of potential biodiversity loss,” says Otto. “We are lagging behind in Canada, both in comparison to the global average and to our own previously agreed upon targets.”

Otto says the Okanagan region holds special personal significance as the location of her first biodiversity field trip as a new faculty member at UBC in 1995. “Seeing this remarkable region, home to so many species from bighorn sheep to cacti, made me aware of the diversity of life in this part of Canada and also its fragility as an ecosystem,” says Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC. “I don’t think we can ask other countries to preserve their forests, their waters, and ecosystems unless we also set a good example here in Canada.”

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