White Paper Draft: Ontario Biodiversity Knowledge/ Information/ Expertise Gaps

Authors: Justina Ray, Wildlife Conservation Society
Bill Crins, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
Nick Mandrak, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Chris Wilson, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

Goal of the Report

This report will discuss, at a high level, the gaps that exist in Ontario’s knowledge, information, and expertise that will impede our ability to achieve the ambitious goals of Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy.

Structure of the Report

This report will set the context for this exercise by beginning with a high-level overview of the current state of scientific investigation and expertise as it relates to Ontario’s biodiversity conservation needs and issues. We will then discuss the information and knowledge gaps relative to the two goals of the Ontario Biodiversity Strategy and follow with an analysis of how we propose to assess these gaps, in terms of key research questions as well as the expertise to address them. The report will not attempt to compile a comprehensive list of these gaps, but rather will outline potential mechanisms for clarifying priorities as the province proceeds with implementing the Ontario Biodiversity Strategy. By framing the report around the specific goals and context provided by the Strategy, we are separating those gaps that we would like to address as scientists (the research laundry list) from those gaps that matter to Ontario’s stakeholders.


In the face of the growing set of pressures in a province seeking to accommodate an increasing human population and expanding natural resource interests, there are concomitant concerns about the status of Ontario’s biodiversity and the suite of challenges facing their conservation and management. There are critical gaps in biodiversity information (data) as well as in the knowledge and understanding needed to analyze, assess, and solve biodiversity conservation problems. The introduction will elaborate on the increasing need for information, knowledge, and expertise regarding biodiversity and its conservation in Ontario as a result of new legislative and regulatory requirements and other commitments that relate to biodiversity conservation. These include but are not limited to:
• Endangered Species Act, 2009
• Far North Planning
• Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act
• Commitment to effectiveness monitoring as a condition for renewal of the Class Environmental Assessment of Forestry (2005)
• Ontario’s commitment to the Global Biodiversity Convention
• International and national reporting commitments (IUCN, CITES, Ecosystem Status and Trends reporting)
• Increasing commitment to source water protection

As the same time, there have been disturbing trends in cutbacks to research and information gathering over the past two decades in provincial and federal government agencies, where most of the applied biodiversity research and policy expertise has traditionally resided in Canada. Universities have not made up for this shortfall, both because of the low density of institutions and scientists relative to the vast geography of the land, and because this type of research generally has not been promoted or supported within academia (with a few prominent exceptions). We also observe a trend away from field-based research (sampling, field studies, identification of organisms) and organismal biology to molecular biology, with one consequence being the loss of natural history knowledge and identification skills for Ontario’s biota.

Identifying Gaps in Relation to Biodiversity Goals:

In restricting this inquiry to needs related to biodiversity conservation in Ontario, we frame this discussion around the two goals of Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy: 1) Protect the genetic, species and ecosystem diversity of Ontario; and 2) Use and develop the biological assets of Ontario’s sustainably, and capture benefits from such use of Ontarians.

1. What is the Biodiversity of Ontario?

There are gaps in information, knowledge, and expertise as they relate to genetics, species, and ecosystem diversity in Ontario, at various spatial and temporal scales, concerning: a) diversity patterns within and among taxa; b) distribution and abundance of key species; and, c) status and trends in populations of these species.
- Conservation/population genetics and metapopulation dynamics;
- Major taxonomic gaps (particularly in speciose invertebrate groups such as Diptera, Hymenoptera, mites, and nematodes, but also in non-vascular plants such as mosses, liverworts, and algae, and also in fungi);
- Species groups that provide fundamental ecosystem services (e.g., invertebrate predators, pollinators, detritivores);
- Composition, structure, and function of northern boreal and sub-artic ecosystems;
- Ecosystem processes, including trophic interactions, nutrient cycling (inputs, ouputs, mediators), energy and material fluxes (e.g., decomposition; impacts of native vs. non-native species on these fluxes, in terms of quality and rates;
- Transfer of knowledge from local scale to broader scales (uncertainty with regard to generalization);
- Aquatic ecosystem classification (and subsequent determination of representation, gaps, status, and restoration needs).

2. What are the Threats to Ontario’s Biodiversity?

Threats to Ontario’s biodiversity are identified in the Biodiversity Strategy as belonging to six categories: 1) pollution; 2) habitat loss; 3) invasive species; 4) unsustainable use; 5) climate change; and, 6) cumulative impacts. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to re-analyze the threats, it is important to note that the threats in this list are not mutually exclusive. We are beyond the days of considering threats separately. For most organisms and ecosystems in Ontario, there is a need to analyze and respond to the multiple factors they may impede their persistence and viability in an integrative fashion. In breaking from the tradition of examing individual threats to individual populations, increasing attention must be paid to the last two threats in the above list: climate change and cumulative effects. By the latter, we are referring to the constellation of factors that affect populations, species, and ecosystems simultaneously, and/or those that accumulate over space or time. For example, the traditional approach to evaluationg possible impacts of development to biodiversity is to examine one project at a time, without due consideration of the accompanying factors or context that will come into play over time and space.

Addressing Information/Knowledge Gaps:

1. Approaches to Obtaining and Transferring Information/Knowledge

We recognize three broad types of knowledge, and note that these gaps can be filled using western science, aboriginal traditional knowledge, or local community knowledge, or a combination of these sources.

a. Research designed to address questions that will improve our ability to conserve and manage components of biodiversity.
There is a plethora of potential research topics, but this report focuses on broad areas with direct links to applied management and conservation:
- Improved understanding of natural patterns of biodiversity and their underlying sustaining or causative processes;
- Determination of the direct and indirect impacts of human use of resources on biodiversity;
- Understanding the effects of different management actions and scenarios using an adaptive management framework;
-Incorporation of ecosystem dynamics (natural and anthropogenically mediated) into models and forecasting based on climate change scenarios and multiple scales

b. Monitoring and Inventory. There are still substantial parts of the province where there are gaps in baseline information on biodiversity patterns and processes, and there are many species for which there are significant knowledge gaps concerning distribution and/or status. Monitoring often has been considered discretionary and has been cut from budgets in favour of other activities, but it is now increasingly being enshrined in legislation. Monitoring is a key component of adaptive management and is the primary means by which trends can be detected and then assessed. Important inventory and monitoring needs include:
- Determination of baseline biodiversity patterns;
- Determination of baseline distribution and status of key species;
- Assessment of trends through time and detection of changes in distribution and abundance; and
- Determination of the efficacy of management actions and the need for subsequent adjustment, if necessary.

c. Tools.
Important effort must be devoted to the development of methodologies and technologies for measuring and assessing various components of biodiversity. Gaps also exist regarding the effective communication and transfer of scientific results and the sharing of expertise:
- Develop reliable and cost-effective ecological inventory tools.
- Develop better geospatial tools (e.g., finer resolution, incorporation of temporal change, etc);
- Improve modeling techniques (e.g., habitat supply and predictive occurrence modeling for a broader range of organisms; ecosystem dynamics – succession, hydrology, other fluxes);
- Improve the integration of western science and aboriginal knowledge.
- Improve the transfer of information and knowledge and the sharing of expertise at the policy-science interface.

Possible methods for scoping a-c: 1) use subgroup expertise; 2) use forum expertise; 3) use forum and colleagues expertise; 4) conduct formal survey; and 5) conduct focused workshops. Note that we believe 4 and 5 are beyond scope of the forum, but are options that could be proposed to the OBS Steering Committee.

2. Expertise and training required to address these gaps?

a. What we have now in Ontario (scientists specializing in applied biodiversity science housed in universities, government agencies, and non-government organizations)

Possible methods to determine current expertise: Summarize the current levels of biodiversity expertise at post-graduation institutions in Ontario (universities and colleges).

b. How well equipped are we in Ontario to train the next generation of biodiversity scientists?

Possible methods to assess current training. Assess the biology/ecology curricula (course offerings) at post-graduate institutions in Ontario with emphasis on organismal biology, field ecology, and biodiversity courses.

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