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WWF-Canada studied 903 species of vertebrates across Canada for their report on the status of wildlife in Canada. [Photo © Cassandra Plourde]

A recent report by World Wildlife Fund Canada is painting an alarming picture of the state of Canada’s wildlife.

WWF-Canada found that half of the species they studied are in decline, even species under federal protection.

The report measured 903 species of vertebrates, which includes mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish beginning in 1970 until 2014, and tracked the change of aggregate populations relative to that year. Their results show that the species that declined did so at an average rate of 83 per cent.

The meadowlark is a species of grassland bird, which has seen serious decline according to the WWF-Canada report. [Photo courtesy of David A. Mitchell, Flickr]

“I think for many Canadians, this is really eye-opening,” said James Snider, lead author of the report and vice-president of science research and innovation at WWF-Canada. “We often think this question of wildlife loss is happening somewhere else in the world, but through the results of our study, it’s quite clear there are examples of major species groups right across the country that are declining.”

Grassland birds (which include meadowlarks and vesper sparrows), for example, showed a decline of 69 per cent.

Average trend in population abundance from 1970-2014. The Living Planet Index has a benchmark value of 1.0 in 1970. An increase in the index, above the baseline of 1 would represent an increase in wildlife population abundance. Alternatively a decline in the index, below a value of 1, would represent a decline in wildlife population abundance.

“This is the most dramatic loss we’ve seen, over the last 100 years especially, of species on the planet,” said Michael Runtz, professor of natural history at Carleton University. “Generally in Canada, we’re doing a very poor job of protecting our species, especially endangered species.”

Natural history professor Michael Runtz leads weekly bird walks at Carleton University to get students excited about nature. [Photo © Cassandra Plourde]

In 2002, the Canadian government adopted the Species at Risk Act (commonly called SARA), which identifies species that are deemed endangered or threatened and in need of federal protection, and creates implementation plans to help recover them.

Of the 903 species in the WWF-Canada analysis, 87 were listed under the act. But those species showed an average decline of 63 per cent.

“It’s a bit sobering,” said Eric Taylor, chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a group that assesses the health of species in Canada and provides recommendations to the government on which species to list under the legislation. “There just aren’t enough resources to put towards a problem that has been generated over the last 200 years.”

Even using 1970 as the starting point for the report, Snider said, isn’t ideal because several species had already seen serious loss at that point.

The St. Lawrence beluga, for example, was hunted intensely starting in the 1920s. Fishermen believed that belugas were responsible for a decline in fish populations, so the government handed out cash rewards for anyone who hunted the whales. It wasn’t until 1979 that hunting belugas was banned, and by then the belugas were at just a small fraction of their previous population size. Current populations look healthy compared to 1970, but haven’t regained their pre-1920 numbers.

The Zoological Society of London and its partners compiled survey results that estimated populations using photographic aerial technology. While it did factor into the Living Planet Index, the index does not look at individual population trends, but rather trends in groups of species. The sources included in the above figure are a few examples of data that was incorporated into the Living Planet Index.

Surveys obtained from:
-Michaud, R. and P. Beland (1999). Looking for trends in the endangered St. Lawrence beluga population- a critique of Kingsley
-Kingsley, M. C. S. (1998). Population Index Estimates for the St. Lawrence Belugas, 1973–1995:
-The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (2005). Recovery potential assessment of Cumberland sound, Ungava bay, Eastern Hudson Bay amd St. Lawrence beluga populations:

Snider recognized that while most of the species protected by the legislation did decline, they would likely have fared worse without it.

“It’s not to say that SARA has been fully ineffective,” said Snider. “We just don’t know how much worse those species could have been if the act weren’t there.”

Silke Neve, director of assessment and recovery with the Canadian Wildlife Service, which is a branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that it may take decades to see any signs of improvement or recovery in species.

“A species is on the list as a result of many years or decades of threat,” she said. “We have to be a bit patient in terms of the timeline for their recovery.”

But timelines are already being stretched, according to the report and scholars like Runtz.

“In some cases it takes many years – some species more than a decade – to get something in print that might protect them,” said Runtz.

The St. Lawrence beluga was designated as threatened in 2005 under the act. The process normally grants two years for the government to publish an implementation plan for threatened species. It’s allowed one year for endangered species. The St. Lawrence belugas did not receive a plan until 2012, well after the deadline. The plan calls for a reduction of contaminants and human disturbances like boats in the water, and protecting the designated critical habitat of the whales.

The WWF-Canada report recommends pushing an ecosystems-based approach, which the report says isn’t happening enough with current recovery plans. This would mean focussing conservation efforts on multiple at-risk species in one area, rather than just one at a time. The approach would focus more on the critical habitat, and all the species that interact with it.

A Downy Woodpecker in its natural environment, seen on one of professor Michale Runtz’s bird walks. [Photo © Cassandra Plourde]

“These are complex systems,” said Snider. “Species depend on one another; they depend on their environment.”

Neve said that both individual species and ecosystems approaches are necessary. “It’s absolutely feasible,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier or faster, but I think it’s a logical way of proceeding.”

Snider also acknowledged that it may not be the fastest or most efficient way of handling wildlife conservation, but he said “it needs to be done.”

The WWF-Canada report also calls on all Canadians to become involved, not for people to “just foist this onto the government,” said Snider. Even if that’s a much harder task.

“There’s really no magic bullet,” said Taylor. “You just have to try to educate people about the importance of wildlife to the whole ethos of being a Canadian.”

That means hard and constant work, said Taylor, Neve, Snider and Runtz, to maintain the wildlife that is a hallmark of Canada.

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