• Greater sage grouse

    The endangered greater sage grouse is threatened by human activity near its mating grounds, which lie in the heart of oil country. The bird was used as an example in a national survey measuring Canadians' attitudes about saving endangered species. (Photo: Snowmanradio/Wikimedia Commons)

A majority of Canadians support limiting human activity to conserve endangered species, but worry about what that could mean for their jobs and property rights, a national survey has found. 

The survey, developed by a team of conservation biologists supported by the national Liber Ero fellowship program and published in the open-access journal Facets, was designed to investigate how far Canadians think government regulation should go — and what they're personally willing to give up — to conserve species, which are increasingly threatened by anthropogenic habitat loss, pollution and noise.

"We know that we're going to have to limit some human activities to save species from going extinct. But we wanted to know, are Canadians on board with this?" says lead researcher J.L. McCune, a postdoctoral fellow with the Geomatics and Landscape Ecology Research Laboratory at Carleton University. 

"The majority will always say 'Yes, of course [wildlife] is important,' but we wanted to dig a little deeper and say, 'Okay, but what compromises and concessions are we willing to make?'" 

The online survey, which was administered by Ipsos and completed by 1,000 Canadians, asked respondents about their support for conserving species in general, but then also probed the extent of that support through various scenarios involving a conflict between an endangered species and a human activity. McCune and her team deliberately chose species that people were unlikely to feel a strong attachment or revulsion to: the Jefferson salamander, the red mulberry tree, and the greater sage grouse. 

For each scenario, survey respondents were presented with one of two viewpoints — one focused on conservation through regulation and one emphasizing landowner rights or economic impacts — and asked to what extent they agreed with that viewpoint. 

Strong support for conservation — but what about jobs?

In general, 89 per cent of respondents said they believe saving endangered species is important, while 80 per cent agreed with the need to limit industrial activity in some places to protect vulnerable species. A smaller majority, 63 per cent, agreed that private property rights should be limited when it comes to saving species. 

Those respondents shown the pro-conservation viewpoint to the specific scenarios tended to remain in agreement with it. But, when presented with a "utilitarian" viewpoint focused on jobs and property rights, respondents were more likely to shift away from a pro-conservation stance, even if they had agreed with the general conservation statements. 

"With the utilitarian versions of the questions, we had a lot of people showing up in the middle, neither strongly agreeing nor disagreeing," says McCune. "I think what that says is people's opinions are not set in stone. When you introduce a new idea, it makes them think a little deeper about what this would actually mean in terms of human activity: What would be the consequences for a landowner who chopped down a red mulberry tree? How many jobs might be lost if we restrict industrial activity in a certain area?" 

The survey also asked who Canadians thought should be responsible for preventing the extinction of endangered species. Most (60 per cent) said the federal government, but McCune, whose past research has involved talking to landowners in southern Ontario about their role in conservation of forest habitat, believes that should take the form of increased financial support for projects that encourage voluntary stewardship. 

"What I hear from landowners is, 'We want to protect endangered species, but we don’t want people telling us what to do.' They’d rather have access to people who can help them do things to protect species on their property," explains McCune. 

"To me that says we need to do a better job encouraging collaboration between agencies and biologists who work on these species and know what they need, and landowners who may be interacting with these species on a daily basis."