Learn: Ecosystem Management

What is ecosystem management? 

 Ecosystem management is an integrated approach to managing the health and diversity of natural systems to ensure the continuation of ecosystem goods and services for societal needs[1]. Ecosystem goods and services are functions an ecosystem provides that are necessary for human growth and success.  Some examples of these ecosystem goods and services include clean air, water and soil. Ecosystem management is a science-based approach that accounts for different ecosystem uses of air, land and water by humans while at the same time ensuring the health, resiliency and longevity of the ecosystem[2].  Currently, water systems globally are stressed and continue to face increased pressure from development and human activity. To address this issue, ecosystem management creates a more holistic and integrated approach that takes into account elements needed to ensure healthy ecosystems and societies. 

How does this option help to mitigate the impacts of a flood? 

Ecosystem management helps to mitigate flooding in ways that are significantly different than engineered structures such as dams. Ecosystem management utilizes natural systems such a reforestation, designated riparian zones, and restoration of wetlands to mitigate against the damaging impacts of a flood. Natural solutions have the ability to slow down flood flows and retain flood waters in natural areas such as forests, wetlands, and floodplains. Furthermore, restorations of natural ecosystems have many positive feedback loops including climate stabilization, habitat restoration, and carbon and nitrogen storage[3]

Is ecosystem management already being done in Alberta? 

In Alberta, there are various groups and projects dedicated to improving ecosystem management throughout the Province. Examples include; the Ecosystem Management research underway at the University of Alberta[4] and programs managed by Alberta Innovates Technology Futures[5]. In addition, the Government of Alberta’s policy on cumulative effects management is reflective of Alberta’s approach to integrating environmental management with economic growth[6]. There is also a variety of Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) in Alberta established under the Water for Life Strategy. WPACs are multi-stakeholder, non-profit organizations that implement plans for addressing challenges and issues existent within their watershed[7].  For example, the Bow River Basin Council (BRBC) is mandated by the Government of Alberta to provide strategies for water management in the Bow River Basin[8]. The BRBC achieves ecosystem management initiatives by protecting riparian zones, aquatic ecosystems as well as water quantity and quality issues by collaborating with other stakeholders and engaging Albertans throughout the Bow River Basin region.     

After the June 2013 floods in southern Alberta, consideration of ecosystem management has shed light on alternative methods of flood mitigation. While ecosystem management has been discussed and implemented throughout the province and in specific sectors, application of this approach to flood management is being considered. 

What level of government is responsible? 

To fully implement ecosystem management practices, there must be cooperation and collaboration between all levels of government. Specifically, however, current ecosystem management policies are administered at the provincial level of government within the Environment and Sustainable Resources Development (ESRD) Ministry. Ecosystem management policies implemented and managed by the ESRD include; cumulative effects management, integrated land management, land-use framework and subsequent regional plans such as the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, and Alberta’s wetland policy among others[9]

Does ecosystem management account for differences between jurisdictions? 

Yes, the main feature of ecosystem management is that different regions and jurisdictions are addressed for their unique ecosystems. For example, the land-use framework implemented by the Government of Alberta attempts to create a new approach to managing Alberta’s natural resources to achieve greater social, economic and environmental well-being[10]. Within the framework, Alberta is divided into seven regions based on local watersheds where land-use issues such as those related to water are addressed.  

What is the scale and boundary of ecosystem management? 

In Alberta, ecosystem management at the provincial level of government is administered within the province and addresses all regions. Ecosystem management can also be applied at the local level through municipalities, communities, businesses and individuals to address specific areas of concern. 

What are the enforcement measures?

Currently, enforcement measures for ecosystem management practices in Alberta are lacking. Despite the implementation of various policies to address land-use, ecosystem, and water issues, enforcement measures have been slow to follow. To address this gap, the Government of Alberta is in the process of creating an environmental monitoring agency aimed at overseeing environmental monitoring, evaluation, and reporting across the province[11].

What are the effects on the surrounding environment and watershed?

Ecosystem management has a positive impact on the surrounding environment and watershed of regions in Alberta and around the world. As identified in a UN report on their ecosystem management programme, this integrated approach to managing ecosystem will have a positive impact on climate regulation, water regulation, natural hazard protection and land-use in different communities[12]. 

In Alberta, an ecosystem management approach to natural hazards such as flooding can help to reduce damage to the surrounding environment and watershed. By ensuring land-use near water systems are limited or best practiced, vegetation can grow and erosion caused by flooding can be avoided. 

Would ecosystem management help in a drought? 

In drought conditions, ecosystem management would help to reduce land-use practices, ensure the fragility of the ecosystem is protected, and safeguard natural resources such as water from being degraded[13]. Managing the conditions that lead to drought and desertification could limit the extent and damage caused by drought.   


[1] Kappel, Carrie. “Ecosystem-based management.” The Encyclopedia of Earth. Updated January 22, 2011. Accessed December 16, 2013. http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152249/ 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Poff, N. LeRoy. “Ecological Response to and Management of increased flooding caused by climate change.” The Royal Society. (2002): Pg. 10. 

[4] “Ecosystem Management.” University of Alberta. Accessed December 16, 2013. http://www.ualbertacentennial.ca/achievements/areas/established/ecosystem_mgmt.html 

[5] “Managing the landscape for sustainability and future generations is an increasingly complex endeavour.” Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. Accessed December 16, 2013. http://www.albertatechfutures.ca/RDSupport/EnvironmentandCarbonManagement/EcosystemManagement.aspx 

[6] “Cumulative Effects Management.” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Accessed December 16, 2013. http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/industrial-activity/oil-sands/cumulative-effects-management.aspx

[7] “Alberta Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils.” Alberta WPACs. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.albertawpacs.ca/ 

[8] “About the BRBC.” Bow River Basin Council. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.brbc.ab.ca/index.php/about-us/about-the-brbc 

[9] “Lands and Forests features.” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Accessed March 7, 2014. http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/default.aspx 

[10] “Land-Use Framework.” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Accessed March 7, 2014. https://landuse.alberta.ca/PlanforAlberta/LanduseFramework/Pages/default.aspx  

[11] “Environmental Monitoring Agency.” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Accessed March 7, 2014. http://environment.alberta.ca/03379.html 

[12] “Ecosystem Management Programme.” UNEP. Published February 2009. Accessed March 7, 2014. http://www.unep.org/ecosystemmanagement/Portals/7/Documents/EMP-Booklet.pdf 

[13] “Managing fragile ecosystem: combating desertification and drought.” Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN. Accessed March 7, 2014. http://www.fao.org/sd/epdirect/epre0031.htm