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An aerial view of Walbran Valley in British Columbia is shown in a handout photo.

Ancient Forest Alliance / The Canadian Press

The time of peak wilderness is past and we are rapidly headed toward "the last wild," warns a new report by researchers in Canada and Australia.

According to the study, led by the University of Queensland and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), there have been "alarming losses … of global wilderness areas over the last two decades."

By comparing maps from the 1990s with more recent data, the research team was able to determine how wilderness areas have shrunk around the planet.

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In two decades more than three million square kilometres of wilderness have been lost.

Wilderness is defined in the study to mean "largely intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance."

Globally, about 30 million square kilometres of such wilderness remain.

But the rate at which those areas are declining is so alarming that the researchers call it "catastrophic."

"The continued loss of wilderness areas is a globally significant problem with largely irreversible outcomes for both humans and nature," states the paper, published recently in the journal Current Biology. "If these trends continue, there could be no globally significant wilderness areas left in less than a century."

British Columbia and northern Canada still have a lot of wilderness, but the global trend could soon change that, said Dr. Oscar Venter, an associate professor at UNBC and one of the study's co-authors.

"We are doing amazingly well in terms of the remaining tracts of wilderness that we have and that's in part because we have a big country with not a lot of people," Dr. Venter said.

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"But I think [federal and provincial governments] need to realize, not only in Canada but everywhere, that these wilderness areas are threatened," he said.

"There has been a broad assumption that [wilderness areas] are fairly stable because they are so isolated, but our study is really showing that [all] wilderness is susceptible to development pressure and as wilderness declines a large amount of very unique values disappear."

Dr. Venter said large wilderness zones have recently been fragmented in northeastern B.C. by oil and gas development, and the province's northwest wilderness could soon be compromised by several new mines.

The researchers found that the remaining wilderness areas "sustain the last strongholds of many imperilled species," and they state that many of the world's large carnivores – such as grizzly bears – need large intact wilderness to survive. "Thus, ongoing and rapid loss of wilderness increases the risk of extinction for species that are already highly threatened," warns the study.

The report also states that protecting large forested areas is important from a climate change perspective because intact forests store carbon.

The researchers call for a greater international effort in protecting the world's remaining large wilderness areas.

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In B.C., that could be accomplished quickly by embracing Y2Y, the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative, which proposes linking the fragmented wilderness areas along the Rocky Mountains.

The Y2Y strategy was first proposed in 1993 when a group of conservations and scientists had the vision of an intact wilderness corridor stretching from Yellowstone, in Wyoming, to the Yukon. They said that by setting aside key areas, the existing national and provincial parks along the Rocky Mountain corridor could be joined, creating a wilderness zone stretching more than 3,000 kilometres.

Since then, the Y2Y project has managed to convince governments to protect over 35,000 square kilometres in the Nahanni region, in the Northwest Territories, and to ban oil and gas development on more than 160,000 hectares in the Flathead River Valley, in southeast B.C. But governments have largely been reluctant to take the bold steps necessary to complete the Y2Y vision and there are still huge gaps in the proposed corridor. The study indicates those gaps are widening and time is fast running out.

"If we don't act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation," Dr. James Watson of the University of Queensland said in a statement. "We have a duty to act for our children and their children."

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