This post was sparked by a recent piece written by Steven Rinella, who discussed the terminology and legalities of endangered species in the United States. While the U.S. and Canadian contexts have many similarities, I thought it might be interesting to offer some information on the ecological and legal meanings of the various species at risk classifications in Canada. I’ve also encountered more than one comment that a particular hunted species is endangered, so there is at least some degree of misunderstanding about how the species at risk system works both in Canada and internationally and what these classifications mean.
Above the 49th parallel, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is responsible for assessing individual wildlife species and recommending species that should be protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC was established in 1977, as a national independent committee of experts, to identify, assess, and classify species at risk in Canada. In 2003, the Canadian government passed SARA to provide legal protections and determine recovery strategies for species at risk. COSEWIC now acts as an advisory board, submitting its assessments to Environment and Climate Change Canada for final decision about whether to list a species under SARA.
Under COSEWIC’s assessment process, there are seven status categories: not at risk (NAR), data deficient (DD), special concern (SC), threatened (T), endangered (E), extirpated (XT), and extinct (X).
Some quick definitions: extinct means that the species no longer exists anywhere. This differs from extirpated, which refers to a species that still exists but has disappeared from a part of its range (such as wild turkeys in Ontario in the 19th century). Endangered means that a species is facing extirpation or extinction. Threatened refers to a species that is not yet endangered but is likely to become endangered if no action is taken. Special concern means that a species may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of threats. So it’s important to remember that just because there are concerns about a species, this doesn’t mean it is endangered.
Internationally, the IUCN, established in 1964, is an inventory of species classified along similar criteria. The IUCN system includes 9 categories: not evaluated and data deficient; least concern and near threatened; vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered; extinct in the wild and extinct.
COSEWIC assessments consider a combination of criteria, including a species’ population and habitat status, trends, and threats. As an example of how an assessment would recommend a particular status, a species would be considered endangered if the number of mature individuals shows a decline of 70% of more over 3 generations (or 10 years, whichever is longer). This decline can be a result of observed reduction in actual numbers, deterioration of habitat quality, a reduction in extent of area occupied by the species, exploitation/over harvesting, or factors such as diseases and pollutants. Species may also be considered endangered when they have small ranges, drastic fluctuations in population, or fragmented populations. COSEWIC assessments specifically exclude consideration of the socioeconomic costs or benefits to listing a species.
Part of the intent (and benefit) of having separate bodies responsible for assessing a species and its actual listing under species at risk legislation is to maintain a separation between the science (COSEWIC) and politics (SARA) of endangered species. In other words, science makes recommendations for a species’ status, but the decision to list a species is made by elected officials who are accountable to a voting public.
The problem with this system is also the separation of science and politics.
The multistep process between submission of a COSEWIC report to the Minister (of Environment and Climate Change Canada) and a final decision on whether or not to list a species under SARA includes a 90 day window during which the Minister publishes “Response Statements” indicating how he/she intends to respond to the COSEWIC assessment, followed by a review by the Governor in Council (GIC), who (on the advice of the Minister) will make a final decision to either list the species, not list the species, or send the assessment back to COSEWIC to request more information. The decision about whether to list a species is therefore a political decision that does take into account the socioeconomic costs of the decision. Only after a species is listed under SARA is it afforded legal protections. At this point, the species’ critical habitat must be identified and management plans and recovery strategies must be designed.
A note about how the Canadian system compares to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. A 2013 study published in the journal Bioscience compared the Canadian and American systems and recommended that they could each benefit from adopting some of the strengths of the other. In particular, this study suggested that the American system could benefit from an overarching national scientific body responsible for all species assessments. On the other hand, the ESA has stricter timelines, and listing decisions in the U.S. are not permitted to consider socioeconomic costs.
I personally agree that socioeconomic factors should be kept out of decisions on whether to afford legal protections to species at risk. These decisions should also not be determined by the priorities of the political party of the day. Perhaps I am taking an overly narrow or romanticized position here, but if a species is in any way at risk of extirpation or extinction, we should be doing everything in our power to protect the species and its habitat.
In fact, there is some basis for my disdain of political involvement in species at risk legislation. Multiple studies have found that harvested species and northern species are less likely to be listed under SARA. For example, a 2007 report profiled 8 northern and marine species that were not listed despite COSEWIC recommendations. For instance, beginning in 1991, multiple COSEWIC assessments have recommended that polar bears be listed as special concern, but they were only listed under SARA in 2011. This particular species example is somewhat of a political storm that is not the topic of this post, but it does illustrate the complications that politics introduce into this issue (though I will say that part of the decision not to list a number of northern species is due to the need to consult with wildlife co-management organizations that protect Inuit rights to wildlife, an issue I strongly support).
Regardless of my personal opinion, the real meat and potatoes question is whether or not species at risk legislation works. Does it do what it is supposed to do – lead to recovery of endangered species and protection of habitat? In the U.S., there is a notable example of species at risk legislation working in the case of grizzly bears. On our side of the border, a 2014 study examined cases of species that have been assessed more than once by COSEWIC, indicating that at least some time had passed for recovery strategies to work. This study found that out of 369 species that fit this criteria, 47% of species initially classified as special concern deteriorated in status (later being classified as threatened or worse). Only 20 species out of 369 received a “not at risk assessment” after initially being assessed as one of the at risk categories (special concern, threatened, etc.). The number of species that deteriorated in status outnumbered those that recovered by approximately 2 to 1. In addition, there is a general gap in identifying species’ critical habitat, meaning that fully effective implementation of recovery plans is impossible.
So the problem is that our species at risk legislation is not working well enough. Might it be doing everything it can? Perhaps. Am I satisfied with the results when even 1 species shows a deterioration in status? No.
What all of this points to is the urgent need to protect habitat. We can do everything we want to try to protect individual species, but without healthy habitat, it won’t be enough. We also need to follow the precautionary principle in every case of a species at risk to ensure we minimize the chances we take with its future survival. We need to make habitat and species protection a management priority in Canada (and of course beyond). This means that species at risk legislation needs to be timely in developing recovery strategies and strict in their implementation. Further, COSEWIC assessments, and therefore SARA listings, only consider the Canadian range of a species, even though its full range and ecological role may extend across borders. I would argue that we need to be taking action at the scale of a species’ historic range and ecology, not merely on a national scale limited by political borders. This will take internationally coordinated effort, and it’s worth the work.
Having said all this, I should also note that I’m not demonizing the system. I’ve said it before, but I have an immense pride in the North American model of wildlife conservation. There have been tremendous successes in the record of species that have come precipitously close to extinction and been recovered. But pride should not preclude critical reflection and a drive to improve. We also need to be accurate in our conversations. The next time someone comments about how hunters kill endangered species, take the opportunity to explain that this is not true. Though there is room for improvement in their management, there is no hunting season for any endangered species. Remember also that many of the biggest successes in actions on endangered species have been thanks to hunter dollars and efforts.