Smiling portrait of biology professor Ryan Norris
Prof. Ryan Norris

As many as 1 million species of living things worldwide are at risk of extinction, says a United Nations report released this month.

Now, a University of Guelph biologist hopes his new position with one of Canada’s largest land conservation groups will help the country meet national and international commitments to protect natural spaces and endangered species from ever-growing impacts of human activity.

Prof. Ryan Norris, Department of Integrative Biology, was recently named the Weston Family Senior Scientist for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).

Radio-Canada International covered the announcement.

He will retain his U of G faculty appointment while conducting research intended to help the organization better preserve the country’s natural habitats and biodiversity.

“The NCC is an outstanding conservation organization, and I look forward to being part of their team,” he said.

Along with his graduate students, Norris will investigate conservation topics intended to help the NCC guard against threats to loss of biodiversity.

“We have a strong research group here at the University of Guelph in biodiversity science and conservation, and this new position extends that,” said Norris, who, under his five-year, renewable appointment, will divide his time between campus and the national organization’s downtown Guelph office.

He will work with the organization’s conservation team across Canada who acquire and manage its portfolio of some of the country’s most ecologically significant lands in partnership with universities, Indigenous groups, private landowners and other agencies.

Norris will also help develop and launch a new program of Weston Conservation Science Fellowships to support Canadian graduate students investigating such topics as species at risk, invasive species and effective conservation measures. The fellowship program may begin as soon as fall 2019.

His appointment and the fellowship program are supported by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

The U of G professor expects to help inform the NCC’s acquisition and stewardship of lands intended to protect the country’s biodiversity.

Established in 1962 and based in Toronto, the Nature Conservancy of Canada now oversees about 1.1 million hectares of protected land. The organization plans to acquire another 200,000 hectares under a four-year, $100-million program announced this spring by the federal government; the NCC plans to raise $200 million to supplement Ottawa’s contribution.

“Acquiring land through purchase or donation is the foundation of what we do, and we build on that foundation through our land stewardship, community outreach and engagement,” said Lisa McLaughlin, the NCC’s national vice-president of conservation, policy and planning. She said the new U of G-based senior scientist will “help us think about the best places to invest our money for conservation outcomes.”

Those outcomes are partly intended to help Canada meet its goal as a signatory to the International Convention on Biodiversity. Under that agreement, Ottawa has pledged to protect 17 per cent of its lands and inland waters by 2020.

Currently, about 12 per cent of Canada’s land mass is protected.

Norris said: “As we continue to develop lands, protected areas are going to play a larger role across Canada. We will be even more reliant on these areas to preserve biodiversity in the next 40 years.

“We need to continue to build our capacity for using scientific evidence to not just help acquire and effectively manage protected lands but also to assess their effectiveness in conserving threatened species. The time is now to be doing conservation science.”

A recognized authority on migratory birds and monarch butterflies, Norris plans to shift his research focus toward a wide range of endangered and threatened species.

He said the new position will enable him to influence conservation and management efforts. He also expects to help communicate the organization’s research and land management activities to the public.

“I’m interested in doing research with direct impact on policy and management of species.”

Referring to the recent UN report about extinction risks, Norris said, “The report emphasizes the urgency of the global biodiversity crisis. More than ever, we need conservation science to help develop solutions that will halt the loss of species.”


Prof. Ryan Norris