Technology & Science

Why Canada's endangered species are declining faster than ever

Canadian laws designed to protect wildlife species at risk of extinction and rebuild their populations are failing to stop those animals from vanishing faster than ever, a new report shows. Here are some of the reasons why.

Effectiveness of Species at Risk Act depends on government enthusiasm, scientists say

Canada warblers have been lsted as "special concern" since they were added to the species at risk list in 2009. (Jeff Nadler/Boreal Birds Need Half)

Canadian laws designed to protect wildlife species at risk of extinction and rebuild their populations are failing to stop those animals from vanishing faster than ever, a new report shows.

The Living Planet Report Canada released Thursday by World Wildlife Fund Canada shows that 87 species vulnerable enough to be given protection under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA), such as woodland caribou, southern resident killer whales, and Canada warblers, declined by an average of 63 per cent between 1970 and 2014. And their average rate of decline has increased since SARA was enacted in 2002.

Just because you have a piece of legislation doesn't mean that you're going to have action on the ground and in the water, and that's what ultimately matters.- C. Scott Findlay, University of Ottawa

"What we don't know is how bad would wildlife populations be doing if that act wasn't in place," says James Snider, vice-president of scientific research and innovation for the conservation group lead author of the report.

But, he added, that the finding "suggests we need to be doing more."

Why has SARA been so ineffective at stopping the loss of endangered species, let alone helping them recover?

Researchers say the problem isn't the legislation itself, but the way it's been implemented by the federal government.

"Just because you have a piece of legislation doesn't mean that you're going to have action on the ground and in the water and that's what ultimately matters," says C. Scott Findlay, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa who has studied Canada's Species at Risk Act.

The WWF report cites:

  • Delays in every step of the process.
  • Underfunding.
  • Withholding of protection for some species, such as Atlantic cod or or West Coast chinook and sockeye salmon populations, due to economic interests.

Some researchers say the fact that the provinces and territories — not the federal government —  have jurisdiction over most of the habitats where endangered and threatened species live is also an issue.

The elusive Lake Sturgeon is considered endangered in Ontario. (Engbretson Underwater Photo)

In order for a species to be federally protected, a science-based recommendation is needed from the biologists on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Then the federal government must decide whether to take that recommendation and actually list a species under SARA, giving it protection — something that can take a long time.

For example, COSEWIC recommended listing eight populations of lake sturgeon in 2007, but as of this summer, the federal government has not made a listing decision.

Findlay notes that no listing decisions were made between 2011 and 2015 (except for the emergency listing of three bats requested by the Nova Scotia government) under Stephen Harper's Conservative government and by the end of 2015 there was a backlog of about 150 species recommended for listing.

Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, told CBC News the current Liberal government is committed to clearing that backlog within three years. It has already listed more than two dozen since being elected in 2015.

Government enthusiasm

But the situation shows the implementation of SARA, as with other laws, "is a matter of the enthusiasm of governments to proceed with whatever it is that the legislation stipulates," Findlay says.

And the current government claims to be more enthusiastic than the last when it comes to conservation.

"At the end of the day, this government believes that protecting biodiversity is important," Wilkinson said.

In the past, the federal government hasn't gone with scientists' recommendation. The WWF report cites a 2015 study that found of 65 species of fish recommended for protection; only 12 have been listed since 2003.

The government decided not to list certain populations of Atlantic cod, Atlantic bluefin tuna and B.C. chinook and sockeye salmon. SARA listing means the fish can't be commercially harvested at all, and economic concerns have been suggested as reasons for the decisions.

Cowichan Valley snow-pack is not large enough to provide the water that fish need to survive. Officials say a crisis for salmon is under a month away. (Paul Vecsei/Engbretson Underwater Photography)

"SARA to date has largely failed for marine fishes," said Julia Baum, a University of Victoria marine biologist who co-authored the fish study.

"We have an excellent process in COSEWIC that provides all of the scientific evidence that we need to conserve marine fishes and all wildlife really, but then between COSEWIC and SARA, marine fishes simply fall off the plate."

She's also frustrated by the delays in the process: "It's like the house is on fire, you call the fire department and they sit there for 10 years twiddling their thumbs and debating whether or not they should put the fire out. It's a ridiculous system."

Even after a species is listed, there are often further delays before action is taken.

Not 'by design'

For example,boreal populations of the woodland caribou were listed under SARA as threatened in 2003, but their recovery strategy wasn't released until 2012 and action plans from most provinces and territories aren't due until the end of this year.

A woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) wanders in the boreal forest in Ontario's Slate Islands. (Gary and Joannie McGuffin/WWF-Canada)

Philip McLoughlin, a population biologist at the University of Saskatchewan who studies a number of large mammal populations including woodland caribou in northern Saskatchewan, says the delays aren't "by design" — it's just that wildlife populations can be complicated.

For example, woodland caribou range across the country, and the threats they face vary with location. In northern Saskatchewan, their main threat is wildfires. In Alberta, McLoughlin says, climate change and industrial development have helped white-tailed deer invade woodland caribou habitat, bringing with them deadly predators like wolves.

"Where I see the Species at Risk Act failing species are for those large distribution populations like woodland caribou or boreal caribou or barren-ground caribou, where the reasons for population decline can be quite varied depending on where you are in the country and this really makes it difficult to establish a recovery strategy that everyone can buy into."

The WWF recommends that SARA would be more effective if the government focused more on protecting ecosystems where endangered species live rather than individual species.

Snider said there are already some examples where this has been effective, such as a recovery strategy that covers a number of grassland species in the Prairies such as the sage grouse, blackfooted ferret and the swift fox.

Wilkinson suggests we can expect more of that in the future from the current government.

"This is exactly where we're taking the Species at Risk portfolio."

Provincial problem

But the researchers also say we can't rely on SARA and the federal government alone to protect our at-risk species.

Most of the habitats where wildlife live are under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, Findlay says. "The vast majority of activities that pose threats — agriculture, mining forestry, hydroelectric dams, all of these things are under provincial jurisdiction," he adds.

McLoughlin says part of the problem is the provincial and territorial wildlife acts that parallel SARA don't have enough teeth.

"There's a lot of wiggle room."

Findlay says SARA does have a "safety net" clause that would force the provinces to protect SARA-listed species, but in the 15 years since SARA was enacted, it's never been used.

"To my mind," he said. "This is a substantial problem."

Wilkinson says the federal government is already working more closely with the provinces on species at risk files and has boosted staffing to help with the woodland caribou action plans.

"We're working actively with every province that has a boreal caribou population on a very active basis as we move towards this fall," he said. 

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.