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Birds and Climate Change: Canaries in the Coalmine
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Birds and Climate Change: Canaries in the Coalmine

This year's Blog Action Day on climate change falls right at the end of an amazing ecological spectacle in North America: the annual southward migration of millions of birds headed for warmer climes for the winter. Our yards are quieter, our skies are emptier. And today's a good day to think about the impacts facing these departing bird populations as a result of climate change.
In many instances, we read about the projected impacts of a changing climate on a country, or an ecological community, or a species, and the effects seem hard to imagine because they are so distant. Well, for many bird species, including many Canadian birds, the effects of climate change are being felt now. Not generations from now. Not 50 or 20 years from now. Now. Birds are laying their eggs earlier to correspond to warmer spring temperatures. They are migrating earlier - or, if not, like some long-distance migrants, they risk arriving on their breeding grounds after their insect food sources have already peaked. They are shifting their distributions more northward. They are suffering from changes in ecological communities resulting in increased parasites and decreased food supply. What does this mean? Birds can fly, after all, you might think, so can't they just fly to habitat with a more suitable climate? Well, yes, in some cases. But this is not a strategy that will work forever, and it won't work for all species. In some cases, there just won't be any more suitable habitat. We are already seeing this in Arctic breeding birds. For example, the Ivory Gull is one of the most northerly nesting Canadian birds. Ivory Gulls forage along sea ice. As sea ice is disappearing, so too are Canadian Ivory Gulls: they have declined 90% in the past two decades. Consider that 15% of the world's birds breed in Arctic areas and you quickly understand that these impacts will extend well beyond our beautiful Ivory Gulls. It's time for Canada to take significant action on climate change, to save all our bird species that are canaries in the coalmine.
Photos: Shorebirds in flight (Shutterstock); Ivory Gull (Simon Stirrup)

Small fish makes big splash for Species at Risk Act
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Small fish makes big splash for Species at Risk Act

This week has brought another precedent-setting legal victory for species protected under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA). In 2007, environmental groups filed a lawsuit regarding the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' SARA recovery strategy for the Nooksack Dace, an endangered minnow that is found in Canada in only four streams in British Columbia. The recovery strategy did not include an identification of the species' critical habitat, despite NGOs including Nature Canada telling them that it could be identified. This was backed up by a scientist on the recovery team, whose maps and descriptions of critical habitat for the fish were stripped out of the recovery strategy by DFO before it was finalized. On Wednesday, the federal court judge ruled in favour of the environmental groups and the fish. The judge found that the Fisheries Minister was using an unlawful policy direction for recovery strategies in BC, choosing to not identify critical habitat in recovery strategies even though SARA states that there is an obligation to do so to the extent possible using the best available information. This unlawful policy was applied not only to Nooksack Dace, but to at least 20 other endangered or threatened aquatic species in BC. The judge also determined that critical habitat for a species at risk is not merely an area on a map, but the suite of biophysical attributes that are critical to the species. This will help to ensure that the identification and protection of critical habitat will encompass all of the characteristics necessary to ensure the survival and recovery of a species. The repercussions of this ruling extend far beyond just the identification of critical habitat for these 20 species. The case sets a strong precedent for the obligation to identify critical habitat in all SARA recovery strategies. It also comes close on the heels of another important court decision where a federal judge ruled that the federal government acted unreasonably by not identifying critical habitat in a recovery plan for the endangered Greater Sage Grouse. This fall, Canadian Parliament will resume its legislative review of the Species at Risk Act. Nature Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice and Environmental Defence will be there to ensure that the inadequacies in SARA implementation that have been highlighted by these court cases are thoroughly examined and acted on. Read about the Nooksack Dace court decision here. photo: Nooksack Dace

Piping Plover Recovery Strategy 3 Years Late
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Piping Plover Recovery Strategy 3 Years Late

A CBC online news article this week is shining the spotlight on what is becoming an all too familiar refrain for species at risk in Canada. Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), legally mandated timelines to set forth recovery measures and identify and protect critical habitat for at-risk species are often not being met. In this case, it's the endangered Piping Plover (melodus subspecies) in Eastern Canada that's losing out. According to the article:

It could be another six months before a recovery plan for the piping plover in Eastern Canada, which was due in 2006, is finally finished. The plover was one of the first animals listed under the federal Species at Risk Act, proclaimed in December 2002. A recovery strategy for the bird was supposed to be posted three years ago. That still hasn't happened. "The truth is it's an incredibly complex process to get through," said Andrew Boyne, who leads the Species at Risk recovery unit in Atlantic Canada. Many areas are working to protect the bird, and in those areas plover numbers are rebuilding. But there is no overall strategy, and in places where little or no work is happening, numbers are actually decreasing. The recovery strategy would identify what needs to be done, including the critical habitat the endangered shorebirds need to survive. Most of the delay is because of consultation, Boyne said. About 1,000 private landowners in Atlantic Canada and Quebec may have critical habitat on their property and have to be notified, he said. Boyne said letters are about to go out. Two years ago, when CBC News contacted Environment Canada on the same issue, letters were also about to be mailed. So why the delay? Boyne said his team has faced a big challenge in tracking down who the landowners are for around 200 beaches where the birds are thought to breed.
Here's what Environment Canada published on its Species At Risk Public Registry way back in February 2007, to justify the delay in posting the finalized recovery strategy:
The proposed recovery strategy for the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus melodus), melodus subspecies, was due for posting on the SARA Public Registry by June 5, 2006 for a 60-day public comment period (SARA s.42 & 43). Environment Canada is leading the recovery planning process for this species. A draft of the recovery strategy is in final stages of preparation. After it is completed, the Minister of the Environment will post it on the SARA Registry. Environment Canada will continue to work in cooperation with all interested parties to ensure a draft is completed and posted on the SARA Public Registry in a timely manner.
It's disappointing that Environment Canada has been singing the same refrain on Piping Plovers for more than two years (consultation letters are about to be sent out, the recovery strategy is in the final stages of preparation...). For the sake of the plovers at unprotected sites, and those in areas where populations are declining, let's hope that this time Environment Canada really means it when they say the recovery strategy is almost done.

Good News for Right Whales
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Good News for Right Whales

Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales received some good news this week. The federal government has formally identified their critical habitat under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in their two main Atlantic Canadian feeding grounds, and now they must protect it. These areas, the Grand Manan Basin located at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, and the Roseway Basin located off the southeastern tip of Nova Scotia, are home to an abundance of copepods, which are the whales' main food source.
These areas will offer much needed protection for an endangered species that is down to around 400 individuals. The whale was hunted to critically low numbers in the past, and its recovery is now hampered by the threat of strikes from ships and entanglement in fishing gear. The whales are slowly recovering, with 39 calves born this winter in their wintering grounds off the coast of Florida. Protection of their Canadian feeding areas as critical habitat will help to ensure that the species continues on the path towards recovery.
This is also a good news story for the implementation of the Species at Risk Act. All too often, recovery strategies for endangered and threatened species are finalized without the identification of areas of critical habitat for the species, even when there is much available science that can be used to identify those areas. In this case, when the draft recovery strategy for North Atlantic Right Whale was published with only one critical habitat area proposed, scientists and environmentalists told the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that enough is known about the Roseway and Grand Manan Basins to declare them both critical habitat areas for the species.
DFO agreed and did the right thing to protect the Right Whale. I hope this is the beginning of a positive trend from the federal government for the protection of our species at risk.
The final recovery strategy for North Atlantic Right Whale is available here.
photo: Handout, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Species at Risk Act Parliamentary Review Underway
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Species at Risk Act Parliamentary Review Underway

The long awaited (and overdue) five-year review of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) is finally underway in Parliament. The review is being conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. This review is mandated under the act, and is an opportunity to shine light on the legislative and implementation shortcomings of SARA, as well as to put us on the right path towards strengthening the act and how it is being applied across the country. I had the privilege of appearing in front of the Standing Committee in early June to represent Nature Canada together with NGO and industry association members of the Species at Risk Advisory Committee (SARAC). Because SARAC boasts members from diverse industry, academic and environmental perspectives, it is a unique committee providing multi-faceted advice about SARA to Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans and Parks Canada. SARAC's consensus message to the Standing Committee was clear: there is much work to be done on many elements of SARA to ensure that it lives up to its promise as a strong piece of legislation for the protection of wildlife at risk and their habitats in Canada. You can read the full SARAC brief submitted to the Standing Committee, and read a transcript of my testimony to the Standing Committee (and that of my SARAC colleagues from the David Suzuki Foundation, the Mining Association of Canada, and the Fisheries Council of Canada) here. There have been a few other sessions of this review so far (with much still to talk about!). A particularly interesting witness was Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings, chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSEWIC is the independent science committee tasked under SARA with assessing the status of species at risk in Canada, and recommending species for listing and protection under the act. During his very compelling testimony, Dr. Hutchings told the Standing Committee about the paramount importance of maintaining the independence of COSEWIC so that the best possible unbiased scientific information is used to assess species status. COSEWIC also recommended to the Standing Committee that the legal listing loophole of SARA be closed so that species assessed as at risk actually receive timely legal protection under the act. You can read a transcript of Dr. Hutching's testimony (including a lively debate among the Standing Committe's MPs about the appropriateness of discussing Ministerial appointments to COSEWIC) here. There are no additional SARA sessions scheduled for the Standing Committee before Parliament rises later this month for the summer. Nature Canada has spent the past year collaborating with David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice and Environmental Defence on an analysis of SARA's shortcomings. We've also mapped out detailed solutions to fix these problems. I'm eagerly anticipating the opportunity for Nature Canada and our NGO partners to present this information to the five-year review once the Standing Committee resumes its work in the fall. Stay tuned for updates!

Legal Action to Protect Sage-Grouse Habitat
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Legal Action to Protect Sage-Grouse Habitat

More species at risk news this week, as a coalition of environmental groups represented by Ecojustice is in court to force the government to protect critical habitat for the endangered Greater Sage-Grouse. The lawsuit alleges the federal Minister of Environment failed to comply with Canada’s Species at Risk Act which requires the Sage-Grouse’s critical habitat to be identified in its recovery strategy, so it can be protected. The argument that the government failed in its duty to identify critical habitat in the recovery strategy is particularly compelling given that Greater Sage-Grouse is a very well known species, with much of its critical habitat for nesting and brood-rearing already identified in independent scientific studies. Nature Canada is not one of the organizations represented on the case, but we're a supporting player. We commented on the proposed recovery strategy, telling the government that the information existed to allow them to identify critical habitat for the species. And our conservation ecologist, Ted Cheskey, provided an affidavit about this for the court case. Ted also supplied us with the following conservation information about Sage-Grouse:

Greater Sage-Grouse is the largest member of the Grouse family, and lives exclusively in sagebrush habitat in the central western United States and arid parts of south-western Canada. Historically the population in Canada included populations in the Okanagan in British Columbia, south-eastern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan. Currently the population is limited to a small area of south-eastern Alberta and south-western and south-central Saskatchewan. Its Canadian range has shrunk from about 100,000 km2 to 6,000 km2 or six percent of the historical range. Similar declines have occurred in the United States populations. The total Canadian population has plummeted about 90% over two decades from roughly 5000 individuals to approximately 500. Greater Sage-Grouse is very sensitive to habitat fragmentation and disturbance. In Canada, much of its remaining population outside of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan is in community pasture that is either Federal Crown land in Saskatchewan, or Alberta Crown land in Alberta. The installation of well heads for gas or oil exploration or extraction, wind turbines, irrigation projects and intensified grazing all are linked to its decline. With each passing day, the potential for more applications for gas wells or wind turbines in Sage-Grouse habitat increases. Unfortunately, there is a correlation between the sagebrush habitat upon which Sage-Grouse depends, and gas deposits.These facts underlie the urgency to identify critical habitat immediately, and protect it.
You can read about the court case being heard this week here and here.

List of Endangered Species Grows in Canada
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List of Endangered Species Grows in Canada

Last week the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) met to assess the status of wildlife species in Canada believed to be at risk of extinction. COSEWIC is the independent scientific advisory body that assesses the status of species under the federal Species at Risk Act.

COSEWIC summarized the results of the meeting as "From Abalone to Whales: Aquatic Species in Canada Face Risk of Extinction." Indeed, the message is clear, and quite grim, for two marine species, the American Plaice and the Northern Abalone.

Both species have undergone precipitous declines, with American Plaice suffering declines of 90% in some areas of Canada's east coast, and Northern Abalone still declining in British Columbia due to poaching. These declines have continued despite a 20 year moratorium on abalone harvesting and a long-standing plaice moratorium in some fishery areas.


The American Plaice is a flatfish, which, as a juvenile looks like a conventional fish, but as it develops into adulthood, its left eye migrates from the left side of its head to the right side, and from that point onward swims on its side.


The Northern Abalone is marine snail with a flat, oval-shaped shell mottled reddish or greenish, with areas of white or blue. It was the first marine invertebrate to be designated at risk by COSEWIC, in 1999.

The assessment meeting also brought some good news for a marine species - the status of Bowhead Whales in Canada's eastern Arctic has been upgraded to special concern from the previous status of threatened. Hundreds of years of commercial whaling had depleted Bowhead Whale populations but recent decades of conservation have resulted in increased numbers. However, COSEWIC notes, "Although the increased abundance is encouraging, the species faces an uncertain future in a rapidly changing Arctic climate."


Two Canadian bird species were also assessed as at-risk for the first time, Whip-poor-will and Horned Grebe (below). Whip-poor-wills are found across much of Canada, but, like many other aerial insectivorous bird species, habitat loss and degradation as well as changes to the insect prey base may be affecting their population.

Abundance indices indicate that Whip-poor-wills have declined by more than 30% over the past 10 years (3 generations), leading COSEWIC to assess them as threatened. Horned Grebes found west of Quebec were assessed as special concern. Canada has approximately 92% of the North American breeding range of this species, and long-term and short-term population declines have resulted from threats like degradation of wetland breeding habitat and pressure on their wintering habitats. Horned Grebes found in the Magdalen Islands were assessed as endangered. Their very small population size (average of 15 adult birds) makes them particularly vulnerable.

The Horned Grebe wasn't the only wetland species assessed as at risk. Northern Leopard Frogs (below), once ubiquitous wetland residents in many parts of Canada, were determined to be endangered in British Columbia (where they are now only found in a single population in the Creston Valley). The western boreal and prairie populations were assessed as special concern. The Maritime Ringlet, a specialist butterfly found only in Canada, and only in 10 coastal salt marshes in New Brunswick and the Gaspé Peninsula, was classified as endangered.

There are now 585 wildlife species in various COSEWIC risk categories, including 244 endangered, 145 threatened, 160 special concern, and 23 extirpated wildlife species. In addition, 13 are extinct and 45 are data deficient.



As always, Nature Canada will keep tabs on these assessments to make sure that the species receive timely listing under the Species at Risk Act, so that they and their habitats are protected.



photo: Elena Kreuzbert (frog), Vladamir Morozov (grebe)

Nova Scotia IBA gets protected
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Nova Scotia IBA gets protected

A globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA) off Nova Scotia's northeastern Cape Breton coast has been formally protected as a provincial wildlife management area. This IBA consists of two long, narrow islands, Hertford Island and Ciboux Island. The islands support the largest Great Cormorant colony in North America, with counts of more than 500 breeding pairs of this species, representing as much as 9% of the western Atlantic North American population of Great Cormorants. Other breeding seabirds, including Atlantic Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake and Razorbill also make this IBA home. These islands join the growing number of Canadian IBAs with formal protected-area status. Such legal protection is one important way to safeguard our network of close to 600 IBAs that are vital breeding, wintering and migrating habitat for our birds from coast to coast to coast.

U.S. State of the Birds Report has Warning Signs for Canadian Birds
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U.S. State of the Birds Report has Warning Signs for Canadian Birds

Image of the state of the birdsA fascinating look at the State of the Birds in the United States has just been released by several government, NGO and academic partners, including our BirdLife partner in the U.S., National Audubon Society. The report uses data from three continent-wide bird monitoring programs, as well as species specific survey data, to create bird population indicators for major U.S. habitats.

The results indicate significant conservation challenges. Every U.S. habitat is home to birds of conservation concern. Particularly worrisome is the status of birds in Hawaii and ocean birds. These populations need immediate and concerted conservation effort to safeguard them. However, declines are taking place in other habitats as well: populations in grasslands and aridland habitats show the most rapid decline over the past 40 years, and forest birds are also declining.
The good news? Wetland dependent species, waterfowl, and some wintering coastal birds are increasing, demonstrating the positive effects of decades of conservation action aimed at wetland preservation. And birds that have adapted to urban habitats are thriving, demonstrating the importance of creating and maintaining greenspaces in urban settings to benefit birds.
There are important messages in this report about the status of Canadian bird species as well. Many Arctic nesting species are of significant conservation concern. Some Arctic landbirds and seabirds, and many shorebirds, are declining in this region. Habitat loss in the Arctic from resource extraction and global warming is a major concern. The Ivory Gull, pictured below, which nests in northern Canada and is dependent on sea ice, has undergone a dramatic population decline just in the last decade.
Image of a seagull
Canada is also home to many of the grassland, forest and shoreline species that are highlighted as conservation concern in the report. The habitat pressures facing declining birds like Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Wood Thrushes, Whip-poor-wills, Rusty Blackbirds and Semipalmated Sandpipersare found in Canada too. Because these birds, and many others, cross our border (and often have the majority of their breeding range in Canada) we share conservation responsibility for them.
Visit the State of the Birds website here, or download the full report. While you're on the State of the Birds website, take a bit of time to watch the beautiful and powerful video that talks about the findings of the report.
photo: Ivory Gull by Simon Stirup, BirdLife

Killer Whales win habitat protection
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Killer Whales win habitat protection

Good news to report for Killer Whales in BC this week: the federal government has issued an order that provides legal protection for this endangered species' habitat.

This order comes after a lawsuit was launched by environmental groups in October when the feds decided to not protect killer whale critical habitat after they had formally identified it as part of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) process.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans had claimed that existing legislation and guidelines were enough to protect the whales' habitat, but environmentalists argued that these provisions were weak, insufficient and clearly not effective given the perilous status of the whales. This order will make it illegal to destroy the critical habitat of the Northeast Pacific Northern and Southern Resident populations of Killer Whales. Other articles on this victory are here and here.
This order is big news for SARA implementation too. The federal government has been very slow to formally identify critical habitat for species at risk, and its track record of actually protecting critical habitat once identified has been downright abysmal. This order is a step in the right direction towards putting into place concrete measures under SARA that will ensure that the habitat needed for the survival and recovery of species at risk is safeguarded.
This news follows close on the heels of another positive development for Killer Whales this week - two new baby whales have been spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island, bringing the total population of the Southern Resident population to 85. Way to go, whales!

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