Lenore Fahrig loves nature, but as an ecologist, she has little professional interest in the vast northern wilderness that defines Canada in the world’s eyes.
Instead, Dr. Fahrig has spent her career studying the stubborn patches of nature that persist alongside farm fields, highways and suburban strip malls – places where the landscape has been highly altered by human activity.
What she has uncovered is life’s surprising capacity for resilience in small and fractured spaces. It is a crucial insight at a time when Canada is looking to preserve its own native species while encouraging the preservation of biodiversity around the globe.
On Tuesday, the Carleton University professor was named this year’s winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal. The award, bestowed annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a federal funding agency, takes into account both the excellence and influence of a scientist’s work. It is the country’s highest prize for those who specialize in non-medical fields of research.
Dr. Fahrig spoke to The Globe and Mail about her quest to discern how nature endures, and how we can help.
What drew you to study biodiversity in places where humans have had a big impact?
There aren’t really any ecoregions left where humans have had no impact, but if there were, the biodiversity there would take care of itself. It’s the places where you have the most land given over to human use where we find the most threatened biodiversity.
How do you study nature in places like that?
It’s a combination of things. I’ve done quite a bit of spatial simulation modelling – computer simulations of species in different landscapes. You build the computer model to try to come up with hypotheses and then you do the field work to test the hypotheses.
What is your favourite part of the job?
When I see what the answer is! That’s when you get the surprises.
What has been the biggest surprise so far?
When I started my faculty position, I decided to see if I could come up with any situations where fragmenting the habitat would not have a negative effect on the ability of a species to persist. I was thinking maybe there is some combination of factors where you don’t have to worry about that when structuring a landscape to conserve species.
I started running these simulations using what was then considered powerful computer. But I didn’t find what I was expecting. In a place where half the landscape was habitat, let’s say, it didn’t matter if the habitat was in three big patches or 500 little patches.
What happened next?
I thought, this can’t be right, and of course, reviewers thought so, too. I would get these reviews back saying you didn’t include this or that. And I could include those things and the results wouldn’t change. I started to try to publish in 1993 and went through five journals before the result was finally published in 1998. Meanwhile, I had a student who was working on a project using bird data that ended up testing the idea. He found that while losing forest overall had a consistent negative effect on forest birds there was essentially no effect from fragmentation.
What is the practical take-away from this work?
When you’re in a human dominated landscape a lot of the habitat is in these little patches. It can be hard to make an argument to save a small patch of forest or wetland – especially when there’s this idea that natural spaces have to be big to have any value. So what this work is really saying is that if you have a whole bunch of little patches, it can be just as valuable or even more valuable than having one large area of the same total size.
What has been the reaction been like to your work outside the scientific community?
It’s been pretty rewarding. People who are interested in protecting some space in their neighbourhood get really excited when they find out that small bits of land are valuable. Of course, you still need to have lots and lots of those spaces.
Where does your own passion for nature come from?
I’m from Ottawa and I grew up on the river. It was at the end of a road and the next property was a small farm, so it was kind of country living. My best friend and I spend a lot of time just mucking around. I’ve never been a real naturalist in the sense of identifying all the different species, but I’ve always loved nature.
What are you hoping for when international delegates gather in Montreal later this year to lay out their commitments for protecting nature? (Canada is among the countries that has committed to protecting 30 per cent of its land and territorial waters for nature by 2030.)
I don’t know. I guess I’m sort of fed up with talk. The problem with commitments is that the public thinks that when a commitment has been made, it’s actually carried out. We’re doing 30 by ‘30 because we didn’t manage to do 20 by ‘20. And when we don’t do 30 by ‘30, then it’s going to be 50 by ‘50. These commitments make people feel that it’s all in hand. I’m not cynical about the intentions of the people who are at the meetings, but I just find it pretty frustrating.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.