Endangering Extinction: Assessing Canada’s effort for vulnerable populations

Ian T. D. Thomson

A new report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reveals that nearly two-thirds of all wildlife will be eliminated by 2020. While many have criticized the organization’s statistical methods for obtaining this grand conclusion (i.e. the study has been said to not adequately represent species in South America), the report’s main message, that we are destroying biodiversity and eliminating species from this planet, should not be dismissed.

So how well does Canada, a nation with a diverse ecological landscape, perform in protecting and assisting our vulnerable species? A look into our policies, efforts and outcomes would suggest that there is still work to be done.

Acts and their enforcement

The Woodland Caribou is a threatened species

Canada has some measures in place to address the concern of vulnerable populations. In 2002, the Government of Canada passed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). This Act saw the creation of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a board funded by Environment Canada yet acting independently. COSEWIC has a five-step process to evaluate a wildlife population, analyse the population dynamics, and determine what recovery strategies must be implemented to aid the species at risk.

Additionally, provinces have developed their own endangered species protocols to further manage the diminishment in biodiversity from reduced species populations. For instance, Ontario has the Endangered Species Act, which, similar to the federal counterpart, aims to evaluate an at-risk species, and protect the species and their habitat.

Whereas the Endangered Species Act provides rights for animals that are vulnerable to elimination, this court decision now places the animals in a direct trade off with industrial interests.

Unfortunately, this act is not fully enforced. Last month, Ontario’s Court of Appeal allowed for 19(!) exemptions of the Ontario Endangered Species Act for oil, gas, forestry and mining industries. One such exemption allows an individual to kill or hurt a caribou and/or damage its habitat if the person is conducting forest operations and has an approved management plan.

It is important to understand that the modus operandi of profit-based corporations is to earn profit for shareholders via economic efficiency. Whereas the Endangered Species Act provides rights for animals that are vulnerable to elimination, this court decision now places the animals in a direct trade off with industrial interests. Simply put, why even have an Endangered Species Act, if its provisions cannot be mobilized?

The morbid evidence

While SARA presents a well-documented plan to systematically respond to species at risk, morose numbers and evidence regarding vulnerable inhabitants still appear on a regular basis. Environment Canada has reported that there are 521 at-risk species of animals and plants under SARA with the list expected to grow. A report released in May by the North America Bird Conservation Initiative conveyed that one-third of migratory birds across the continent are approaching extinction. And then, of course, there is the Asian Carp; an invasive species with the capability to outcompete and overtake native fish in the Great Lakes of Canada. Recent news that fertile grass carp have been found in the Sandusky River (a stream which connects to Lake Erie), does not bode well for the well-being of native fish in the area.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome

As for further examples, one can observe the increasing vulnerability of bat populations due to white nose syndrome. Since we became aware of the fungal disease in 2006, the syndrome has largely wiped out bats in Eastern Canada; there was a count of 22 brown bats in New Brunswick in 2014. As a result, three bat species have been placed on the endangered list. SARA has given legal rights to the endangered bats and provided emergency listing orders for how to best to preserve the fragile habitat in Canada with respect to caving tourism, bat researchers, and forestry. These have been developed to stop humans from picking up and transporting the fungus to new areas. However, these orders have been largely unsuccessful; in only three years, some Canadian bat populations are down by 90 percent, and the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats has made its way out west into Alberta and British Columbia.

Suffice to say, there are policies in place for all these matters. Some are even labeled as “emergency orders”. However, these actions aren’t achieving their desired outcomes. A good policy is only as good as aiding what it is designed to do and if it is properly enforced.

Let’s not give up just yet

It’s easy to take a grieving-style approach to the outcome of extirpated or endangered species. However, there is hope in solving these issues.

The Sea Otter has seen its population improve

Some populations have been saved from the brink of extinction. Historically, one can look to the Sea Otter. In North America, this animal was heavily exploited by hunters in the 1700’s and 1800’s for their pelts. By the 1900’s the species was all but extinct. A 1911 international treaty sought to protect the endangered otter, which soon led to its re-population. In 1996, Sea Otters were down-listed from “endangered” to “threatened,” and by 2007 were down-listed to the category of “special concern”.

It’s easy to take a grieving-style approach to the outcome of extirpated or endangered species. However, there is hope in solving these issues.

Some progress is being made. Last month, the National Conservancy of Canada announced the protection of 70 hectares of habitat in the Lower Musquodoboit River in Nova Scotia. The conservancy of this river helps protect endangered wildlife such as wood turtles, snapping turtles, and chimney swifts from industrial practices. While, mining, agriculture and forestry industries have already altered much of the upper Musquodoboit River, it is reassuring to know that action has been taken to protect the habitat now and into the future. Additionally, the National Conservancy of Canada, with the assistance of Canadian and U.S. institutions, purchased 178 hectares of property on Saskatchewan’s “boreal transition,” with hopes of creating a sanctuary for 10 species at risk, including two species of bat, the Canada warbler, and the rusty blackbird.

As Canadians, it is imperative that we understand and accept that we are not alone on this planet. Our continued existence as one species among many is ensured by the protection of global biodiversity. The prevention of the extinction of species begins with an appropriate amount of respect for our legislation on the part of citizens and industries, and stronger enforcement of our policies by government bodies.

Ian T. D. Thomson is a 2018 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance.  He holds a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from the University of Manitoba. His policy interests include broadcast and telecommunications policy, cultural policy, and fisheries policy.  

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