Last Mountain Lake Sanctuary in Saskatchewan was created in 1887 and was the very first wildlife area not only in Canada but also in North America. Since that time Saskatchewan's network of conservation areas has expanded to ensure that representative areas of the province's natural and cultural heritage are sustained for present and future generations. Areas are conserved for a multitude of purposes including sustaining ecological goods and services, biodiversity conservation, providing areas for scientific study and research, as benchmarks or control sites for ecological health monitoring, the provision of areas of public use for recreation, education and interpretation, and spiritual and aesthetic fulfillment. To fully represent the varied roles of protected areas and to address threats to biodiversity, Saskatchewan committed in 1997 to the development of a Representative Areas Network (RAN) that would serve to conserve samples of the range of biodiversity found in Saskatchewan, and as benchmarks or long-term reference points against which the impact of management practices being applied outside of the network could be compared.
Approximately 9% (57,600 km2) of Saskatchewan's territory is managed under 30 different types of conservation categories. Almost 70% of those lands are within provincial conservation categories and 23% are federal lands (see Figure CA-1). The majority of conservation areas (57,553 km2) are included with Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network (RAN).
Over the past 100 years, human perception of the vastness and apparent inexhaustibility of resources of the province has fundamentally changed. The lessons learned include: interactions between the environment (air, water, land and biota) and human activities (social, cultural and economic systems) are inseparable parts of an ecosystem; the importance of critical connections at the continental and macro ecosystem scales; the realization that what was happening elsewhere outside of a region such as the prairies, a province and, at times, a nation could have critical impacts within the region; the thresholds and breaking points of critical ecosystems and habitats could be breached under the pressure of human-generated stresses; that seemingly minor or negligible by-products of humans activities could accumulate in ecosystems and have significant negative long-term impacts on habitats and species (for example, that pollution levels and impacts of land use could reach such inordinate levels of magnitude) - that is, humans through their activities and decisions are a major driving force of ecological change; that entire ecosystems could become so extensively degraded and altered at the continental and macro ecosystem scales; that wildlife and habitats would reach unexpected degrees of economic and social importance; and that to protect species, it is critical to conserve their habitats and the ecosystems that contain those habitats.
From those lessons learned, it has become clear that conservation can only be accomplished if humans think, plan and act in terms of ecosystems. Ecosystem-based management is a practice and philosophy aimed at integrated management of natural landscapes/seascapes, ecological processes, physical and biological components and human activities to maintain ecological health and integrity of an ecosystem. Saskatchewan has adopted an ecosystem planning approach in which land/water management is conducted according to geographic areas (ecozones and ecoregions) defined by their ecosystem structure and functions. Conservation areas are distributed throughout Saskatchewan's four ecozones and eleven ecoregions. Approximately 3% of the Boreal Shield ecozone is contained within a park or conservation area, most notably the Athabasca Sand Dunes (see Great Sand Hills), Lac La Ronge and Clearwater River provincial parks. Approximately 8% of the Boreal Plain ecozone is managed within parks and conservation areas, principally national and provincial parks and Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands. These include Prince Albert National Park and Duck Mountain, Greenwater Lake, Narrow Hills, and Meadow Lake provincial parks. Just under 9% of the Prairie ecozone is in some form of park or conservation area. Canada's only national park dedicated to the conservation of grasslands, Grasslands National Park, occurs in this zone.
David A. Gauthier, Lorena Patino