Nature Canada
Polar bear by Regehr Eric, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Scientific committee fingers climate change in latest species at risk assessments

Alex MacDonald, click for contact informationAfter an unexpected delay earlier this month, the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, released its latest assessments of the status of species threatened with extinction in Canada. COSEWIC’s assessments provide the scientific basis for the listing of species under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), and for this reason they are often called “recommendations”.

The Committee, which is made up of scientists and wildlife experts from academia, the private sector, NGOs and government representatives, assessed the status of 19 species at its late November meeting here in Ottawa. Of the species reviewed, 4 were assessed as Endangered (e.g., Nuttall’s Sheep Moth) , 9 as Threatened (e.g., Gray Fox, Louisiana Waterthrush),  and 5 as Special Concern (e.g., Flooded Jellyskin lichen). A British Columbia plant species, Giant Helleborine, was reassessed as Not at Risk. COSEWIC’s report includes ‘positive’ news for 6 species that were reassessed as being in a lower risk category, including the Peary Caribou, found in Canada’s High Arctic, being downlisted from Endangered (assessed in 2004) to Threatened status, and the Lake Erie Watersnake going from Endangered (assessed in 2006) to Special Concern. But downlisting doesn’t mean that the threats have disappeared, nor does it rule out the role of citizens in the conservation and stewardship of a species. In fact in some cases it is the very involvement of Canadians, through actions like expanded survey efforts, that sheds light on previously unknown occurrences or populations of a species at risk – thereby helping COSEWIC better understand its status in Canada.

Image of a glacierWhile Canada’s growing number of species at risk is newsworthy enough, the biggest and most timely news in COSEWIC’s recommendations is the “recurring theme” among the species assessed: climate change. And climate change is not only a direct threat to some of these and other species at risk — COSEWIC notes that in some cases it is actually compounding the intensity of threats they already face, such as degrading wetland habitats or allowing destructive invasive species to expand farther northward over time. The delay in COSEWIC’s climate change-linked release proved to be heraldic given the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, also known as COP21. Canada has shown ambitious leadership during these climate talks, widely considered to global leaders’ last chance to get the planet on a ‘reasonable’ trajectory with respect to future climate impacts. Indeed, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced during COP21 meetings on Sunday night that Canada would support a goal of just 1.5° C of future global warming coming out of the Paris Agreement. That support sends a strong signal that Canada is taking climate change seriously. This couldn’t come at a better time, because it is almost too late.

Ladybug on red maple leafI congratulate COSEWIC for using its latest species assessment report to draw attention to climate change*. At very least it importantly provides context and immediate relevance to what could be pessimistically dismissed as the ‘routine’, semiannual work of COSEWIC. But in the bigger picture this approach demonstrates how the effects of climate change have far-reaching policy and legal implications. On that note Nature Canada and other environmental groups recently issued a joint letter calling on the new federal government to provide better support to COSEWIC in carrying out its scientific responsibilities.  As well, we are asking that the government fill vacancies on COSEWIC’s Species Specialist Subcommittees, and reinstate its former policy of authorizing COSEWIC to recommend new COSEWIC members to the government. Action on these matters would support the renewed federal focus on the role of science in decision making.

Peary Caribou standing on the frozen tundra; barren ground caribou; Arctic

Peary Caribou, now considered “Threatened” in Canada based on COSEWIC’s latest assessment.

Now that COSEWIC has delivered its species status assessments to Minister McKenna, a ‘legal clock’ has begun ticking down on an official response: a Response Statement must be published on the SARA Public Registry within 90 days. The Minister’s Statement must indicate how she/he will respond to each species’ assessment and how consultations with the affected governments and parties will be undertaken for each species; for example, the January 2015 Plains Bison Response Statement is available here. Once this indefinite consultation period has ended for each species, the Minister then presents COSEWIC’s assessments, and her/his recommendations regarding them, to Cabinet and the Prime Minister, who then have nine months to decide to:

  1. Add the species to the ‘official’ list of species at risk in Schedule 1 of the SARA (this triggers legal protections);
  2. Decide not to add the species to the official list; or,
  3. Send a species assessment back to COSEWIC for more information or reconsideration.

You can find the detailed version of COSEWIC’s November 2015 Wildlife Species Assessments here, including the rationale for the status assigned to each species. And once again, the Committee’s latest press release entitled “Climate Change Matters for Species at Risk” can be found here. I encourage you to have a look at the release, which captures the cautious optimism of what may come out of COP21 Paris on Dec 11th while adding an important reminder that conserving our “species at risk and rich and valuable biodiversity” depends on all of us.

*In the interests of full disclosure, Nature Canada is one of the original NGO partners, including WWF Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, that helped to establish COSEWIC. In recognition of this history, Nature Canada and the other groups have standing “Observer” status at the Committee’s meetings. We do not participate in discussions or decision making at the meetings.

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