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Wetlands provide food and habitat for about one-third of bird species in the United States and more than 200 species in Canada. They are also home to some 5 000 plant species and 190 kinds of amphibians in the United States and 50 species of mammals and 45 species of waterfowl in Canada. About one-third of North America's threatened and endangered species live in wetlands (NRC 2001).

Prior to the 1970s, government programmes encouraged wetland drainage and filling to allow conversion to agriculture, settlements and industrial sites (US EPA 1997). As a result, North America, excluding Alaska and Canada's undeveloped northern regions, lost more than one-half of its original wetland habitat (EC 1999) with agricultural expansion responsible for between 85 and 87 per cent of the losses (NRC 2001). Since the 1980s, wetland losses have slowed considerably. Changes in agricultural policies, particularly improvements in hydrological conditions and cooperative efforts to conserve wetlands for waterfowl were factors in these achievements (NAWMP 1998). Although more than 250 000 ha of wetlands were lost in the United States between 1986 and 1997, this was an 80 per cent reduction from the previous decade (US FWS 2000).

At the global level, both countries are parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. North America currently has 53 Wetlands of International Importance - 36 in Canada and 17 in the United States (Ramsar 2000).

Wetlands and waterfowl

Cooperation between governments and NGOs to restore and improve wetlands across North America is an ongoing success story. Ducks Unlimited, a private organization originally established to preserve waterfowl for hunters, began a cooperative programme between its branches in Canada, Mexico and the United States in the 1990s that has improved more than 3.8 million ha of wetlands (Ducks Unlimited 2000).

Canada and the United States signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) in 1986 and Mexico joined in 1994. NAWMP is a partnership between government, NGOs, the private sector and landowners for improving wetlands. During 1988-93, more than 850 000 ha of wetlands and associated habitats were protected in Canada alone through NAWMP (NRC 2001).

More than 70 per cent of Canada's wetland resources are now covered by federal and provincial wetland policies and about 15 US states regulate inland wetlands (NRC 2001, Schmid 2000). In the United States, federal subsidies that allowed wetlands to be converted to agriculture ceased in 1985 and a Wetland Plan was issued in 1993 to make wetland regulation more fair, flexible and effective (US EPA 1999, Schmid 2000). Although past US government authority over wetlands has been fragmented and inconsistent, plans for the restoration of the Florida Everglades are testimony to the success of combined efforts among many levels of government, business and environmental NGOs (Schmid 2000).

The Canadian government does not currently track or report on the status of its wetland resources but Canada was the first nation to adopt a federal policy on wetland conservation. Wetland ecosystems make up about 17 per cent of Canada's national parks, and about 10 per cent are excluded from development (Rubec and Thibault 1998).

The reduction in the rate of wetland loss is a considerable achievement but wetlands are still being lost to development. The future of wetland habitat and the biodiversity it harbours may be compromised by changing conditions such as population growth, expansion of agricultural production, economic growth and changes in hydrological conditions and the flow of people (Wilcove and others 1998).