Ecosystem Crisis Looms over North America

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, January 9, 2002 (ENS) - North America's natural environments face a "widespread crisis" due to vanishing biodiversity, says a new report by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

Half of North America's most biodiverse eco-regions are now severely degraded, and North America now has at least 235 threatened species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, according to "The North American Mosaic: A State of the Environment Report."

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Endangered Canada lynx (Photo courtesy National Wildlife Federation)
"North America's diminishing biological diversity has profound consequences," the report states. "Because the loss is irreversible - species that are lost are lost forever - the potential impact on the human condition, on the fabric of the continent's living systems, and on the process of evolution is immense."

Released Monday, the report was required under the environmental accord of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and was submitted by top environmental officials of the NAFTA partners, Canada, Mexico and the United States.

"Our report shows that over the past few decades, the loss and alteration of habitat has become the main threat to biodiversity," said Janine Ferretti, executive director of the CEC. "A significant proportion of the plant and animal species of North America is threatened."

The amount of land in North America protected from development has tripled over the last 20 years, but still a decline in habitat, plus specific hunting and harvesting practices, has led to a widespread crisis not confined to any one country or region, the report says.

The creation of new wilderness areas accounted for most of the increase in protected land, including the doubling in the size of U.S. areas in 1980 with enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act. Nineteen new biosphere reserves were created in Mexico in the 1990s, and Canada has tripled the area of its protected sites over the past 30 years.

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Boats at a marine a Monroe, Michigan (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
But "looming threats overshadow these positive achievements," the report warns. All three countries are in danger of being overwhelmed by factors such as the attraction of visitors to natural areas, the allocation of insufficient funds to manage natural places, and adjacent development that turns protected areas into threatened islands.

Islands of natural ecosystems are not enough, the study confirms. "Some of the region's species depend on healthy, contiguous forest ecosystems. Habitat fragmentation and loss within these forests now threaten many migratory species. Birds are losing nesting, feeding, and resting areas."

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Monarch butterfly (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
The commission says monarch butterflies face threats, including "coastal development in California, deforestation of oyamel fir forests in Mexico and the use of pesticides on and around milkweed plants," the species' primary food and where they lay their eggs.

North Americans are fishing down the food chain, and freshwater species are more vulnerable to extinction, the report warns.

On a positive note, soil erosion is on the decline, but the threat of drought increasing due to global warming.

Transportation is following unsustainable trend, the commission warns, and global warming induced by the burning of fossil fuels may lead to a rise in sea level that would threaten Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, among other areas worldwide.

Natural disasters becoming more frequent, and more expensive, the report says and the poor are hit hardest by environmental problems.

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The California gnatcatcher stands to lose habitat protection based on new DNA evidence (Photo by Arnold Small, courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
The growing number of invasive species introduced to North America through increased travel and trade poses some of the most serious threats to native biodiversity, the report says, including species competition, predation, disease, parasitism and hybridization.

"Bio-invasion," or the spread of non-native species, has become one of the greatest threats to natural biological diversity. Without additional safeguards, it is almost inevitable that increased international trade will also increase the rates at which alien species are introduced into domestic waters and terrestrial ecosystems, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation reports.

The North American Mosaic presents the first analysis of the overall state of the North American environment by the Montreal based Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The commission was established to build cooperation among the NAFTA partners - Canada, Mexico and the United States - in protecting shared environments, with a particular focus on the opportunities and challenges presented by continent wide free trade.