Often referred to as “biodiversity”, biological diversity refers to the variety of species and ecosystems and the ecological processes of which they are a part.

Three components of biodiversity are ecosystem diversity, species diversity and genetic diversity.

Ecosystem Diversity
Ecosystem diversity is reflected in the range of large units on the landscape, defined by climate, topography and vegetation, and the biological and physical processes that operate within them. Major ecosystems, or natural regions and subregions, in southern Alberta have been defined and mapped by the Alberta Natural Heritage Information Centre. They include:

            Rocky Mountain Natural Region
                        Foothills Parkland
                        Central Parkland
                        Dry Mixedgrass
                        Mixed grass
                        Northern Fescue
                        Foothills Fescue

Rocky Mountain Natural Region: Adanac Ridge in the Castle Wildland (photo by Cyndi Smith)

Parkland Natural Region, Rumsey Natural Area (photo by Cliff Wallis)

Grassland Natural Region, Ross Grassland Natural Area on the Milk River Ridge (photo by Lorne Fitch)

Species Diversity
Species diversity is the sum of total living organisms, including plants, insects, bacteria, fungi, mites and ticks, crustaceans, fishes, reptiles and amphibians, birds, and mammals. Scientists believe that there are somewhere between 5 and 25 million species on Earth. About 1.5 million species have been recorded to date.
The total number of known species in Canada is around 71,000 and there are about 68,000 other species which are believed to exist, but have not been described. Less than five percent of the nation’s species are thought to be endemic, that is occurring only in Canada and nowhere else.
In Alberta, there are about 2900 plants (vascular and non-vascular) and 450 vertebrate animal species. The precise number of invertebrate (e.g. insects) and fungi species are unknown. Over two-thirds of the province’s species occur in the ecosystems of southern Alberta.
Vertebrate Animal Species in Alberta
Mammals – 84
Birds – 297
Fish – 51
Amphibians – 10
Reptiles – 9
Vascular plants – 1600
Mosses and liverworts - >650
Lichens - >650

Mammal, Richardson’s Ground Squirrel is a keystone prairie species (photo by Lorne Fitch)

Mammal, Cougar kittens (photo by Orval Pall)

Bird, Sharp-tailed Grouse dancing in Spring (photo by Lorne Fitch)

Bird, Rufous Hummingbird (photo by Lorne Fitch)

Reptile, Prairie Rattlesnake (photo by Lorne Fitch)

      Vascular plants – 1600
      Mosses and liverworts - >650
      Lichens - >650

Vascular Plant, Wood Lily (Above Right; photo by Lorne Fitch) 
Vascular Plant, Prairie Crocus (Above; photo by Lorne Fitch)


Lichens on rock (photo by Lorne Fitch)

Invertebrate, Swallowtail Butterfly (photo by Lorne Fitch)

The network of species found in each ecosystem is different and unique in the distribution and numbers.
Recent research is showing that the productivity and resiliency of ecosystems is related to species richness.

Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity is the variability at the level of DNA within species. This variability, by conferring resilience and flexibility, is assumed to be responsible for the evolutionary persistence of species. For example, with a reduced genetic base, species like grizzly bears or leopard frogs are more vulnerable to a new threat such as predation, disease, or environmental change.



Decline of biodiversity is one of the most serious global environmental threats now facing humanity. Studies of the geological record suggest that extinction is occurring at rates faster than it has ever occurred before. In Canada, since Europeans began arriving in the early 1500s, twenty species or populations are known to have disappeared.
In southern Alberta two species or populations have become extinct – the plains grizzly and greater prairie-chicken – and two species were extirpated, but still occur elsewhere – the black-footed ferret and swift fox. The swift fox has recently been reintroduced.
Forty-five species in southern Alberta are assessed At Risk by federal or provincial expert committees.

See:  COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada & Alberta Species at Risk.

Mammals (5 species)
swift fox
kangaroo rat
plains bison
woodland caribou
Birds (14 species)
burrowing owl
piping plover
mountain plover
greater sage-grouse
sage thrasher
peregrine falcon
Sprague’s pipit
loggerhead shrike
rusty blackbird
long-billed curlew
ferruginous hawk
McCown’s longspur
trumpeter swan
short-eared owl

Sage Grouse, an Endangered Species (photo by Lorne Fitch)

Reptiles (2 species)
eastern yellow-bellied racer
greater short-horned lizard

Amphibians (3 species)
northern leopard frog
great plains toad
western toad

Amphibian, Leopard Frog

Fish (6 species)
Banff longnose dace
lake sturgeon
shortjaw cisco
western silvery minnow
eastslope sculpin
westslope cutthroad trout

Insect (3 species)
yucca moth
monarch butterfly
Weidemeyer’s admiral

Mollusc (1 species)
Banff Springs snail

Plants (12 species)
tiny cryptanthe
small-flowered sand verbena
western blue flag
smooth goosefoot
slender mouse-ear-cress
Bolander’s quillwort
western spiderwort
slender mouse-ear cress
smooth goosefoot
hare-footed locoweed
dwarf woollyheads

Some of these species occur in the mountains but the majority are species of the plains.

In fact, 85% of Alberta’s species at risk are found in the Grassland and
Parkland natural regions

Loss of suitable habitat is the biggest contributing factor to putting species at risk.

Only 26% of the Grassland and Parkland natural regions remain in a relatively natural state and there are increasing demands on the remnants of native habitat from human activities such as agricultural expansion, energy development (oil and gas, coal, wind, transmission lines), urban residential development, recreation (e.g. all terrain vehicle use) and rural subdivision.

In the Rocky Mountain Natural Region, loss of suitable habitat is attributed to many of these same factors as well as clearcut logging.
Other factors which contribute to species risk and loss of biodiversity are overharvesting, introduction of alien species, pesticides, disease and isolation. 



Protecting biodiversity – ecosystems, species and genetics – requires good science and the belief among southern Albertans that it is the right thing to do.
It requires leadership by governments to put in place appropriate legislation, policy and programs. It requires cooperation among a variety of interests.

There are many initiatives underway in southern Alberta to protect biodiversity and SAGE is active in several of these. The initiatives can be summarized under three categories:
  1. Parks and protected areas, 
  2. Private conservancy and stewardship, and 
  3. Species at risk legislation and programs.

1.  Parks and Protected Areas

In southern Alberta, areas legally designated to protect significant biodiversity, both ecosystems and species, include about two dozen national parks, national wildlife areas, provincial parks, ecological reserves and natural areas.

Targets have been set for adequate representation of important (Level 1) natural history themes in the Albert Parks protected areas system. 

In the Rocky Mountain Natural Region (Montane, Alpine and Subalpine subregions), targets have been mostly met. In the Parkland Natural Region (Central Parkland, Foothills Parkland subregions) less that a third of the targets have been achieved. In the Grassland Natural Region, about two-thirds of the targets have been achieved for the Mixedgrass and Dry Mixedgrass subregions, but only about one-third for the Northern Fescue subregion and less than one quarter for the Foothills Fescue subregion.

In planning the province’s protected areas network it is important to consider not only adequate representation of the province’s biodiversity, but also how to connect designated areas by corridors of natural habitat. For example, although natural history theme targets are met in the mountains with protection of Waterton Lakes National Park and, further north, the Whaleback, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Banff National Park, protected corridors are needed to ensure large mammals such as wolf, cougar and grizzly bear can move safely between these.

SAGE works to promote completion of the province’s protected areas network and also to ensure that management of existing protected areas sustains ecological integrity. For example, SAGE studied protected area needs in southern Alberta and nominated several prairie and parkland areas for designation under the province’s Special Places program. SAGE is represented on the Milk River Natural Area Management Committee. SAGE has written letters to elected politicians expressing concern about proposed gas well drilling in the Suffield National Wildlife Area.

supports the Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition and the Yukon to Yellowstone Initiative in their efforts to protect the Castle River wildlands and migration pathways across the Crowsnest Pass
so that populations of large mammals can experience genetic exchange throughout their Eastern Slopes ranges.

2. Private Conservancy and Stewardship

Owners of private land and holders of grazing leases on public lands have an important role to play in southern Alberta to protect biodiversity through stewardship. Stewardship is an ethic of taking good care of natural resources entrusted to us.

Conservation easements are an important tool in the stewardship tool kit for private lands. In southern Alberta, landowners can place conservation easements on ecologically significant lands through agreements with: 

Nature Conservancy Canada  

Southern Alberta Land Trust Society 

Alberta Parks  

For example, local landowners and Nature Conservancy Canada have protected over 10,500 hectares of ranchland on the Waterton Park Front through conservation easements.

More information on stewardship initiatives in Alberta can be found through the Alberta Stewardship Network.  Resources available to stewards include range and riparian habitat health assessment guides, assistance with developing ranch management plans and financial support for organizing and implementing community watershed projects. There is a guide on living with Alberta’s prairie species at risk available from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development regional offices. Alberta Prairie Conservation Forum involves Albertans from many different walks of life in cooperative efforts to conserve the biological diversity of native prairie ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations.

is assisting with efforts to encourage stewardship that protects biodiversity in southern Alberta. We are partners in work of the Oldman Watershed Council and the Clean Air Strategic Alliance to improve practices that affect land, water and air. We review proposed projects that would affect environmentally significant areas and provide comments on the environmental implications to proponents and government decision-makers. We respond to requests from landowners for information on biodiversity and mechanisms for protecting ecosystems and species.

3. Species at Risk Legislation and Programs

Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) was proclaimed on June 1, 2004. The purpose of SARA is to prevent native species from becoming extinct. Status reports on individual species are prepared and assessed through the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Species determined to be extirpated, endangered, threatened or of special concern are recommended for listing under SARA. Recovery planning is then undertaken to encourage management that protects the species and its critical habitat.

SARA applies only to federal land and to migratory birds. Provinces are expected to protect species at risk on provincial and private lands. If a province fails to protect a federally listed species, the federal government can step in and act to protect a population under imminent threat.

Alberta’s Wildlife Act was amended in 1998 to provide for evaluating the status of species and listing those determined to be at risk. Species are listed by the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development upon a recommendation from the Endangered Species Conservation Committee that has evaluated the species’ status as Endangered or Threatened. Once a species is recommended for listing, a recovery team is formed to develop a recovery plan for the species and guide its implementation. Potentially affected landholders are involved in recovery planning.

By January 2007, over 40 species found in southern Alberta were listed under SARA. Only fifteen animals had been listed as endangered under provincial legislation; endangered fish, invertebrates or plants recommended for listing have not yet been included in the legislation. Federal and provincial recovery plans have been completed for a handful of species including mountain plover, piping plover, western silvery minnow, tiny cryptanthe, soapweed and western blue flag.

SAGE supported passage of federal species at risk legislation through written and verbal submissions in federal consultation processes and a presentation to Lethbridge City Council. We have participated in recovery planning for western silvery minnow. We will continue to work for effective protection of species at risk in southern Alberta.


A wealth of biodiversity – ecosystems, species, genetic – is something which enriches the lives of southern Albertans. We enjoy spectacular prairie, parkland and mountain landscapes. We benefit from environmental services provided by our native ecosystems including clean air, clean water and productive soils. Over 2000 animal and plant species help provide those services and enrich our lives. However, we have long taken this biodiversity for granted and only recently are coming to terms with the significant loss of ecosystems and significant risk to wild species that our activities have caused. Many initiatives are underway to gather information about southern Alberta’s biodiversity and to develop mechanisms for protecting it, including parks and protected areas, private conservancy and stewardship, and species at risk legislation and programs.

SAGE is committed to speak up and help where we can be most effective.

There is still much work to be done to accomplish effective long-term protection of biodiversity in southern Alberta.