Trends in Extinction Risk for Imperiled Species in Canada
Protecting and promoting recovery of species at risk of extinction is a critical component of biodiversity conservation. In Canada, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) determines whether species are at risk of extinction or extirpation, and has conducted these assessments since 1977. We examined trends in COSEWIC assessments to identify whether at-risk species that have been assessed more than once tended to improve, remain constant, or deteriorate in status, as a way of assessing the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation in Canada. Of 369 species that met our criteria for examination, 115 deteriorated, 202 remained unchanged, and 52 improved in status. Only 20 species (5.4%) improved to the point where they were ‘not at risk’, and five of those were due to increased sampling efforts rather than an increase in population size. Species outcomes were also dependent on the severity of their initial assessment; for example, 47% of species that were initially listed as special concern deteriorated between assessments. After receiving an at-risk assessment by COSEWIC, a species is considered for listing under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), which is the primary national tool that mandates protection for at-risk species. We examined whether SARA-listing was associated with improved COSEWIC assessment outcomes relative to unlisted species. Of 305 species that had multiple assessments and were SARA-listed, 221 were listed at a level that required identification and protection of critical habitat; however, critical habitat was fully identified for only 56 of these species. We suggest that the Canadian government should formally identify and protect critical habitat, as is required by existing legislation. In addition, our finding that at-risk species in Canada rarely recover leads us to recommend that every effort be made to actively prevent species from becoming at-risk in the first place.