Conservation is the process whereby groups and agencies attempt to maintain biodiversity at as high a level as possible, for the good health of the environment in which all the species, including humans, live. It is a combination of protection of present-day natural habitats and of restoration of some disturbed and simplified environments to as close to their original natural state as possible. The conservation movement began as a 20th century reaction to the impact of human population growth and 19th century industrial practices. At first, it centered on individual species, usually birds or mammals, which had been seen to diminish from large populations to near extinction, often within the lifetime of one human: the American bison nearly became extinct, and the passenger pigeon did. Now conservation recognizes that it is the habitat or natural community, made up of a large number of species, which must be protected. The recognition that natural habitats throughout the world were being lost led to the development of natural reserves, such as Canada’s National Park system, and to a variety of government agencies and citizens’ groups (see conservation agencies). Conservation activities range from private individuals who retain wetlands on their farm (rather than filling and plowing them) in order to preserve the breeding habitat of a wide range of plants and animals, to international treaties on cessation of whaling.
Saskatchewan, like many jurisdictions, began its conservation activities in reaction to the visible reduction in numbers of migrating birds. The province is on one of the major migratory pathways between the breeding grounds of the arctic tundra and boreal forest, and the wintering grounds further south. The Last Mountain Lake National Bird Sanctuary is located at the north end of the lake, a staging area for large flocks of migrating waterfowls and other species. It was established in 1887, when the flocks began to be reduced by hunting pressure. It is one of the oldest public sanctuaries in the world, the first in Canada, and now the home of the Last Mountain Bird Observatory. The Migratory Bird Protection Act, between Canada and the United States, was the first international treaty for the protection of wild species.
In Saskatchewan, areas designated as reserves or parks offer a range of protection to habitats. These are the province’s Protected Areas. This protection varies, since the areas are often also used for recreation, grazing, or mineral exploration and exploitation. These areas range from international projects (e.g., the Chaplin Shorebird Sanctuary; Nature Conservancy of Canada sites), through national initiatives (the two national parks; national wildlife areas; national bird sanctuaries), to provincial lands (ecological reserves; provincial forests; provincial parks; provincial wildlife areas) and lands protected by local groups such as Nature Saskatchewan or by municipalities. A number of these sites are recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).