Innovative Conservation Data Centres enable informed decision-making

One of the most exciting aspects of conservation today is the increasing availability of data on species and habitats, and the ability to use that data in ways that inform decision-making. “I like to think about our conservation planners at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) as biodiversity investment advisers,” says Dan Kraus, NCC’s Weston conservation scientist. “We have the ability to access, analyze and share information on species and habitats that wasn’t available just a decade ago. Conservation Data Centres are among the most important innovations in how biodiversity information is managed and shared across Canada.”

Conservation Data Centres (CDCs) are a hemispheric network established by NatureServe in 1974. CDCs now extend to all Canadian provinces and territories as well as across the U.S. and many Latin American countries. “The more than 80 NatureServe Network CDCs collect and analyze data about the plants, animals and ecological communities of the Western Hemisphere,” says NatureServe Canada executive director Patrick Henry. “CDCs are the leading source of information on the precise locations and status of at-risk species and threatened ecosystems in their jurisdictions.”

This information is made available online and through custom data requests, leading to better decision-making about conservation and land management. “CDCs are portals to information that should be consulted as part of any environmental assessment project,” says Mr. Henry.

The NatureServe Canada Network of CDCs was established with support from NCC, and they help provide critical information NCC needs to identify priority conservation land protection and management actions, says Mr. Kraus. “CDCs are our key information source on the provincial, national and global status of species,” he explains. “CDC information is essential to identifying the most important places where we should be investing conservation resources.”

NaturServe and its network of CDCs has been an innovator in data management. Earlier this year it unveiled its Biodiversity Indicators Dashboard, an interactive tool that visualizes the status and trends of biodiversity and tracks conservation performance at regional, national, basin and site levels. Earlier this year it also received: a $1.2-million (U.S.) grant from Microsoft to secure and renew essential software licences; a Special Achievement in GIS (SAG) Award from Esri; and a 2016 CIO 100 Award for its innovation in cloud-based biodiversity data, technology associated with Biotics 5, the Network’s online biodiversity data, which allows the sharing of information about biodiversity between CDCs and the central NatureServe database.

The majority of CDCs in Canada are operated by provincial and territorial governments, including the CDC in Manitoba. Since its establishment in 1994, the centre has become the go-to source for information about rare and endangered species in the province. However, Nicole Firlotte, who manages the Manitoba CDC, is hoping to raise its profile in an effort to attract more interest by the general public, including young people.

“That’s the constituency we need to engage,” she says. She adds that one of the strengths of the CDC network is its scale and scope. Regional CDCs can comment on biodiversity or species health, not just locally or even nationally, but throughout the hemisphere. “Species do not recognize borders,” she says. “Migrating birds can spend the summer in Canada, but travel through the United States to winter in Mexico or Central America.”

“NCC now uses information from provincial CDCs on an almost daily basis to help inform our conservation plans,” says Mr. Kraus. “NCC also shares our species observations with CDCs to make sure they become part of the national record. These records will be important for assessing future changes in the status or range of species.” Looking ahead, Mr. Kraus says it is important to continue to build the capacity of Canadian CDCs, particularly in the north. “Having a network of CDCs that spans across Canada will ensure that credible and accessible biodiversity information is available to help conservationists make better decisions about both conservation and sustainable development, today and into the future.”

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