Agricultural Landscapes as Habitat

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Wildlife Habitat Capacity Indicator

The capacity of agricultural landscapes to provide habitat for wildlife depends upon the mosaic of land-cover types and their management. One way to measure the potential of these lands to support populations of terrestrial vertebrates is through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Wildlife Habitat Capacity on Agricultural Land Indicator.3 The indicator ranks potential wildlife habitat capacity for 15 habitat categories based on an assessment of the use and value of 31 land-cover types to 588 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Results show that natural areas and unimproved pasture provide the highest values, while cultivated lands, in particular croplands, provide the lowest. Natural lands, including woodlands, wetlands, and riparian areas, can provide all breeding and feeding habitat requirements for 75% of the species assessed, whereas croplands can only provide requirements for 13%.3

Wildlife habitat capacity on the agricultural landscape

Status in 2006
Graphic Thumbnail: Wildlife Habitat Capacity on the agricultural landscape
Long Description for Wildlife habitat capacity on the agricultural landscape

This map shows the capacity of agricultural landscape in Canada to support wildlife habitat in 2006, by ranking it in five categories: very low, low, moderate, high, and very high. The areas with the highest capacity were the agricultural landscapes of the Atlantic Maritime and Boreal Shield. The Prairies, Boreal Plains, and Mixedwood Plains had the lowest capacity. Agricultural areas in British Columbia were ranked mostly as moderate as were some areas on the edges of the Prairie, Boreal Plains, and Mixedwood Plains ecozones+.

Source: adapted from Javorek and Grant, 20103

In 2006, the average potential ability of the agricultural landscape to support wildlife was lowest in the Prairies, Boreal Plains, and Mixedwood Plains ecozones+, which together make up 92% of the agricultural landscape in Canada.3 Trends for individual parcels of land are variable and depend upon changes in their particular use. Although individual parcels, particularly pasture, provide critical wildlife habitat, the dominance of cropland results in a low overall capacity for much of these ecozones+. The ecozones+ where the agricultural footprint was lighter and the dominant land cover within the agricultural landscape was natural (Atlantic Maritime and Boreal Shield) or unimproved pasture (Montane Cordillera, Western Interior Basin, and Pacific Maritime) had the highest wildlife capacity.3

Change in the average wildlife habitat capacity on the agricultural landscape by ecozone+

Habitat Capacity Index, 1986 to 2006
Graphic thumbnail: change in average wildlife habitat capacity on the agricultural landscape by ecozone+
Long Description for Change in the average wildlife habitat capacity on the agricultural landscape by ecozone+

This bar graph shows the average wildlife habitat capacity for each ecozone+ with agricultural landscapes in 1986, 1996, and 2006. It shows declining trends in the Pacific Maritime, Western Interior Basin, Montane Cordillera, Boreal Shield, and Atlantic Maritime ecozones+. Small declines were found between 1986 and 1996 in the Boreal Plains and Mixedwood Plains. The capacity in the Prairies ecozone+ remained stable. Change is measured by the habitat capacity index, listed as following: very low habitat capacity is less than 30, low is from 30 to 50, moderate is from 50 to 70, high is from 70 to 90 and very high is more than 90. Changes in average wildlife capacity are presented in the following table:

  1986 1996 2006
Pacific Maritime 64.5 61.7 52.6
Western Interior Basin 70.4 65.4 61.3
Montane Cordillera 71.04 66.7 58.6
Prairie 42.9 43.0 43.4
Boreal Plains 49.8 47.9 47.8
Boreal Shield 79.7 76.5 63.9
Mixedwood Plains 52.5 50.4 50.1
Atlantic Maritime 94.2 93.2 88.8
Source: adapted from Javorek and Grant, 20103

Average wildlife habitat capacity, considering both declines in capacity of some individual parcels and increases in others, declined significantly between 1986 and 2006 in all ecozones+ except the Prairies, where it remained low.3 Conversion of small habitat parcels, such as on field margins in the Prairies,5 are not always detected at this broad scale and could represent further degradation of habitat capacity.3 Overall declines in Canada are due primarily to the intensification of farming and the conversion of natural lands to other land-cover types, such as cropland, that are less suitable to wildlife. From 1986 to 2006, the proportion of agricultural land classified as cropland increased from 46 to 53%.3

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Agricultural land management and wildlife capacity

Management practices also influence the ability of the land to support wildlife and sound stewardship through best management practices has had positive results in some regions. The dynamic nature of agricultural landscapes results in beneficial and detrimental land-cover changes happening concurrently.

Northern pintail population, southern Canada

Millions, 1955 to 2007
Graphic thumbnail: northern pintail population, southern Canada
Long Description for Northern pintail population, southern Canada

This line graph shows the southern Canada northern pintail population from 1955 to 2007. Though there were annual fluctuations, the overall trend shows a steep decline to the late 1980s. In 1956 the population peaked at just over 8 million. It then declined sharply to about 1 million in the early 1960s, before rising to approximately 4.5 million in 1974. This peak was followed by another sharp decline to fewer than 0.5 million ducks in the late 1980s. After that, until 2007, the population fluctuated around 1 million.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 20076

Intensification of agriculture in the Prairies over the last 40 years, including the decline of fallow land in summer and increased conversion to cropland, has impacted nest success of some species of breeding waterfowl.7, 8 For example, a primary cause of the decline of northern pintail is their tendency to nest in standing stubble, mulched stubble, or fallow fields early in the season, often prior to seeding. The reduction of summerfallow and increase of spring-seeding since the 1970s3 has been linked to reduced nest success and a decline in the Prairie northern pintail population.9

Application of zero-till seeding practices in Saskatchewan
Percent of total hectares seeded, 1991 to 2006
Graphic thumbnail: application of zero-till seeding practices in Saskatchewan
Long Description for Application of zero-till seeding practices in Saskatchewan

This line graph shows the percent of total hectares that were seeded in Saskatchewan using zero-till seeding practices from 1991 to 2006. The graph shows a steady increase from 8% in 1991 to 60% in 2006.

Source: Prairie Habitat Joint Venture, 200612.

Farmers have been working with conservation agencies to reduce the impact of agricultural practices on waterfowl. The planting of winter wheat in the fall in a zero-till seeding practice eliminates the need for spring tillage, thereby reducing disruption to nesting ducks. Application of these practices has increased since the early 1990s10, 11 (see Stewardship).

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