Half of Canada's vertebrate wildlife species have experienced population declines in the past 40 years, according to an alarming new report from WWF-Canada.
The Living Planet Report Canada, a national look at species loss published Thursday, highlights population trends for just over 900 vertebrate species, including 106 species of mammals, 386 bird species, 365 fish species and 46 reptiles and amphibians. Of the monitored species, 50 per cent were found to have declined between 1970 and 2014 — and for most, the decline was steep.
"The results of our study indicate that wildlife loss is a Canadian problem and that collectively we need to do more to prevent the loss of wildlife in Canada," says James Snider, Vice-President of Science, Research and Innovation for WWF-Canada.
Habitat fragmentation, pollution, climate change impacts and invasive species were common factors driving the decline of species across regions and ecosystems. The problem, Snider notes, is that these stressors rarely occur in isolation; for example, climate change can accelerate the spread of invasive species by creating favourable living conditions in areas that were once inhospitable.
"There are usually two or more stressors for any given at-risk species, which means our job for recovery and conservation of species in Canada is even more challenging."
The study zeroed in on 64 species that have been protected under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) since it was enacted in 2002 and found their numbers actually continued to decline, calling into question the effectiveness of the legislation. Currently, species are assessed by an independent advisory board known as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), but receive no formal protection under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) until the federal cabinet acts on COSEWIC's advice. And even once a species is listed, a recovery plan is rarely developed in the timeframe specified in the act. The St. Lawrence beluga whale population was SARA-listed as Threatened in 2005, but it took more than a decade for the whales' summer breeding grounds to receive full legal protection.
Snider says that while efforts should be made to speed up the process of implementing SARA protections, more should be done to prevent species from becoming imperilled in the first place. That will require ongoing research to understand how species are responding to threats like climate change, particularly in underreported areas such as the Arctic.
"We need to build a nationwide monitoring program to really, truly understand these patterns of wildlife change," Snider says. "That extends beyond government — there are roles individuals and industry can play in preventing species from becoming at-risk."