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North America Facing a Biodiversity Crisis
Published on Monday, January 7, 2002 by Reuters
North America Facing a Biodiversity Crisis
Pollution and other ills threaten animal species survival, says a study. Losing those species would hurt humans.
by Robert Melnbardis
 
MONTREAL - At least 235 North American animal species such as the monarch butterfly and northern codfish are threatened by pollution, human encroachment on their natural habitats, and aggressive harvesting practices, says an environmental agency set up under NAFTA.


At the turn of the millennium, North Americans are faced with the paradox that many activities on which the North American economy is based impoverish the environment on which our well-being ultimately depends.

A broad study by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a Montreal-based agency created under the North American Free Trade Agreement comprising the United States, Canada and Mexico, says the continent faces a "biodiversity crisis" in which threatened species could disappear. That harms evolution and depletes the natural environment humans depend on to survive.

Half of North America's most biodiverse eco-regions are severely degraded, says the report, which will be formally released to the three governments today.

"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 commission. "A significant proportion of the plant and animal species of North America is threatened."

The monarch butterfly, which migrates from Canada to Mexico, faces a number of threats, including coastal development in California, deforestation of fir forests in Mexico, and the use of pesticides on milkweed plants, its main food.

The report notes that some experts believe humans are "fishing down the food chain" in over-harvested stocks such as salmon, cod, halibut and swordfish. That means catching fish that are needed to rebuild depleted species.

Freshwater species such as crayfish, 48 percent of which are at risk, are even more vulnerable to extinction because they cannot escape to new ecosystems when their own habitats are degraded by pollution.

An apparent inability to develop North America's economies while sustaining its environment not only threatens biodiversity, but imperils people's future, the report says.

"At the turn of the millennium, North Americans are faced with the paradox that many activities on which the North American economy is based impoverish the environment on which our well-being ultimately depends," the report says.

It notes that the poor are the hardest hit by environmental problems.

In an interview, Ferretti said the United States, Canada and Mexico had made progress in creating refuges for wildlife, protecting species, and gathering data on biodiversity. Much more was needed to reverse the degradation of biodiversity, she said, adding that she hoped the commission's report, "The North American Mosaic," would become a key resource for planning and policymaking.

"It's a panoramic view of the state of the environment in North America, and it's the first time that information from all three countries has been collected on such a broad sweep of issues," Ferretti said.

Future studies would focus on a core set of indicators to provide a snapshot of the state of the environment, she added.

The current report raises alarm bells on a number of fronts, including the effect of modern transportation systems on the environment, the overuse of water resources and rising threat of drought, and bio-invasion, the spread of nonnative species imported into North America.

"Bio-invasion, that is something that wasn't in our lexicon 10 years ago. The magnitude of this threat is quite significant," Ferretti said.

Agriculture and thermoelectric power generation account for about 80 percent of water withdrawals in North America. Irrigation is a particular threat. The Oglala Aquifer underneath the Great Plains has water resources equivalent to Lake Huron, but it is being depleted by irrigation faster than it can recharge, the report says.

Copyright 2001 Reuters Ltd.

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