Rigid adherence to procedural standards makes the committee effective but cumbersome, a proverbial large ship in a tight waterway steered carefully, to the benefit of species at risk, but slowly, with the opposite effect. Nevertheless, COSEWIC assessments move at lightning speed compared to the subsequent formal listing process, where the entire vessel can run aground — as Laurentian’s Jacqueline Litzgus, whose turtle subjects are among the world’s most at-risk group, knows all too well after a 12-year stint on the committee. “COSEWIC is doing all the things it needs to,” she says. “All these busy scientists gather at an amazing consensus-based roundtable, and reports are written by the most knowledgeable experts to get the best results. But then… sometimes nothing.”
As of April 2019, the committee had assessed 799 species, finding 356 endangered, 189 threatened, 232 of special concern and 22 extirpated. Only 580 of these, however, are actually listed, the seven-step process from COSEWIC designation to a ministerial order a bottleneck of capacity issues, socioeconomic pressure and political interference (some pending listing decisions date back 15 years). “The challenge is to get everyone else in the chain of protection to keep up with COSEWIC,” notes Reynolds, “because it’s ultimately cheaper and faster to assess the status of a species than to bring it back from the brink of extinction.”
The bureaucratic snaggle, in part, lies in the incrementalism of one-species-at-a-time recovery strategies and action plans. To cut the Gordian knot, a new kid appeared on the block in 2018 — a pan-Canadian approach to transforming species at risk conservation in Canada. According to its guiding architect Kaaren Lewis, the executive lead for the species at risk program and species transformation for Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Nature Conservation Agenda, the framework will “help shift conservation implementation from the current species-by-species approach to more multi-species and ecosystem-based initiatives. Working with provinces, territories, Indigenous groups and other partners on shared priority species, priority places and priority threats, we’re hoping to see better conservation outcomes for species at risk, increased co-benefits for biodiversity and ecosystems, and improved return on investment.”
To help that along, the pan-Canadian plan comes with $155 million through the species-at-risk stream of the federal Canada Nature Fund to encourage more collaboration and partnerships. “Federal funding helps bring others to the table,” notes Lewis.
“It’s an almost revolutionary departure from business as usual, which makes it both interesting and worth supporting,” says Mooers. “Done right, it could really help with situations where you need buy-in from everyone to prioritize certain species, while recognizing that you can’t do everything equally well everywhere you try.”
Collaborative landscape-level approaches could certainly help in B.C., which lacks dedicated endangered species legislation to support its country-leading 1,807 species of animals and plants at risk of extinction and range of environmental issues: the systematic under-reporting of deep-sea fish trawled from provincial waters because of intimidation and harassment of government observers; the diseases, parasites and waste of non-native Atlantic salmon reared in crowded, open-ocean fish farming pens affecting wild Pacific salmon already hurt by overfishing and degradation of spawning habitat; the wine-soaked Okanagan desert, where virtually everything is endangered; the perennial crashes of woodland and mountain caribou; and poster boy for B.C.’s failure to protect old-growth forests, the spotted owl debacle.
A species listed as endangered since 2003, the spotted owl is now functionally extinct in the province. Not only is a plan for spotted owl recovery 14 years overdue, but the B.C. government approved 312 new clearcuts in the dwindling, highly fragmented old-growth habitat required to reintroduce owls from a captive-breeding program it has funded for years. “It’s disappointing,” wildlife biologist Jared Hobbs told The Narwhal in May. “It’s counterintuitive to the government’s other purported mandate, which is to conserve species at risk and to recover spotted owls.”
As a one-time scientific advisor to the spotted owl recovery team, Hobbs may have been the last person to see this species in the wild in Canada. The current dysfunctional pas de deux results from B.C.’s continued promise to do something — more or less buying time — with the feds avoiding the alternative of forcing the province to protect economically valuable forest habitat using the federal Species at Risk Act.
Not that good things aren’t happening, too — they are, daily, right across the country. Like a successful $825,000 collaboration between universities, butterfly breeders and conservation groups to reintroduce the endangered mottled dusky-wing butterfly to its preferred oak savannah habitats in southwestern Ontario. Or the new Mark Bass Nature Reserve, comprising wetlands important to flood mitigation and at-risk Blanding’s turtles, that adds to a patchwork of set-asides in Ontario’s Prince Edward County totalling 1,000 hectares. There are successful reintroductions to the wild of kit foxes, black-footed ferrets, Vancouver Island marmots, whooping cranes and leopard frogs to shout about. And there’s the delisting of Pacific humpback whales and peregrine falcons — some of the earliest species officially identified as endangered in Canada.
Yet for every wound to nature for which we stanch the bleeding, a new cut — or three — appears. The reality on the ground is even more brutal. “Why isn’t species-at-risk legislation ever mobilized to actually stop something? Why does the economy always trump everything else?” wonders Laurentian’s Litzgus, while sharing stories of graduate students working on highway and energy project construction sites reduced to tears by the destruction of habitat containing literally all of Ontario’s most at-risk reptiles. Both practically and philosophically she’s right. The need to “balance the economy and the environment” we so often hear from politicians is a distracting abstraction, a zero-sum game in which an environmental “win” is really only a reduced degree of loss. With renewed government resolve, serious money and a new conservation framework in hand, things can only improve.