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Despite all that undeveloped habitat, Canadian wildlife is in sharp decline

Species adaptable to living just about anywhere are doing fine, including pestiferous deer and geese.

About 90 percent of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border.
REUTERS/Bob Strong

It’s with great sympathy and zero schadenfreude that I call attention this morning to Canadian research suggesting that half of that country’s wildlife species have gone into decline since 1970, with population losses averaging an astonishing 83 percent.

How that compares with losses in, say, the United States is difficult to say. But the sheer scale of loss may surprise readers who assume that Canada would be immune to such trouble because of a) progressive environmental stewardship and/or b) the vast reaches of still-undeveloped land in a country where about 90 percent of the population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border.

Not so much, as it turns out. Some broad-brush findings of the Living Planet Report Canada:

  • Some of the largest average losses were among birds: 69 percent for grassland birds, 51 percent for aerial insectivores (farmers and gardeners take note), 43 percent for shorebirds. Some waterfowl and raptors gained population, however, increasing by 54 and 88 percent respectively.
  • Mammalian losses came in second overall, with declines averaging 43 percent; as on this side of the border.
  • Reptiles and amphibians were down 34 percent, on average, while fish populations dropped 20 percent.

Of course, to say that half the species are faltering is to acknowledge that the other half are doing OK. Fine, but they seem mostly to be of the sort that live happily in man-remade habitat (two unsurprising and pestiferous examples: whitetail deer and Canada goose).

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The analysis is the work of WWF Canada, an advocacy group to be sure but one with considerable credibility on such matters; it uses a peer-reviewed tool developed by the London Zoological Society and called the Living Planet Index.

In a two-year effort, WWF Canada drew on more than 400 data sources on 3,689 vertebrate populations in 903 species that were monitored between 1970 and 2014 (invertebrates were excluded because there’s so little historical data on all but a few of them).

Possible understatements

The monitored species included 106 mammals, 386 birds, 385 fish, and 46 amphibians and reptiles. And while the work clearly is sweeping, there were significant data gaps — particularly in the Arctic regions, and in freshwater environments — that probably contribute to understatement of the situation for species there.

Maybe some saltwater environments, too, where the report finds a drop for Atlantic fish populations of 38 percent and for Pacific species of all types averaging 14 percent.

Julie Baum, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria, told Emily Chung of the CBC that her own data on saltwater species show even larger declines than WWF reports, in part because averaging across species can hide the biggest plunges.

The main drivers of Canada’s declines will be familiar to Americans, and result directly from human activity: habitat loss as land is converted for agriculture, cleared for timber or converted to residential/commercial/industrial use; chemical pollution and introduction of invasive species; overfishing and, of course climate change.

Like the United States, Canada extends legal protections to endangered animals and their homelands — but it got a later start, adopting its federal Species at Risk Act in 2002. Unhappily, the figures compiled by WWF show that species designated for protection are still declining, sometimes even faster than those that haven’t been.

One would think that’s probably in part because their numbers were already falling sharply before SARA act took effect, and it takes time to reverse such steep declines.

Also, it takes time to put a protection program into place, even for iconic creatures — more than a dozen years for the beluga whale, for example, which was known to be in decline before SARA was enacted, but got no help from its provisions until two years ago. The orcas of Canada’s Pacific Northwest are still waiting.

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Still the data gathered by WWF Canada indicate that rate of decline for protected species appears to be increasing despite SARA: from 1.7 percent per year before enactment to 2.7 percent afterward.

So all it all it’s hard to argue with the observation of WWF Canada’s president, David Miller, that “the Species at Risk Act does not seem to have made any difference.”

Examples of declining icons

Here are excerpts, lightly compressed, from the report’s outlook for some especially troubled and also iconic species it spotlights:

Woodland caribou: Biologists consider the caribou to be a “canary in the coal mine,” whose shrinking herds are an indicator of the overall health of the boreal ecosystem. Logging, mining and gas development have cleared large areas of intact forest or fragmented it through the construction of roads, seismic lines and hydro corridors, restricting the movement of caribou, and making them easier prey for wolves.

The boreal populations of woodland caribou were listed as Threatened under SARA in 2003. The extensive consultation process for the recovery strategy was unprecedented for a species at risk in Canada., and took nearly a decade to complete. The recovery strategy was released in 2012, years past the SARA deadline. During this time, development activities continued to damage key woodland caribou habitat. Action plans are expected from most provinces and territories, and are due by the end of 2017

Little brown bat:  The little brown bat was once commonly seen swooping for insects from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador. Scientists say Canada’s bat populations have been suffering for years from habitat destruction, as colonies are eradicated from old buildings (because of fear of rabies); their large overwintering sites (often mines or caverns) are disturbed; and roosting and hunting sites in mature forests are diminished.

The fungal disease white-nose syndrome arrived in Eastern Canada in 2010. Within three years of discovery, white-nose syndrome had wiped out 94 per cent of hibernating little brown bats in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. Some ecologists consider this the most rapid decline of mammals ever documented. The westward sweep of the disease is expected to infect the entire range in Canada by 2028.

Swift fox:  This delicate, cat-size fox was once at home in grasslands throughout Canada’s southern prairies, of which 80 per cent has now been converted for intensive agricultural use. Along with losing habitat, swift foxes were also caught in traps and died by poisoning as land-owners sought to exterminate other wildlife. The last sighting of a wild swift fox in Canada was in 1938.

In 1973, swift foxes were brought from the U.S. for a captive breeding program, and the painstaking effort of reintroducing swift fox into the wild began 10 years later. The process was complex and costly, and many of the released foxes died. Yet, after being declared extirpated from Canada in 1978, the swift fox population had grown to 647 by 2009 and its status moved from Endangered to Threatened under SARA in 2012. However, the current population of swift fox only occupies 3 per cent of its former range.

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St. Lawrence beluga: Chalk white, with a bulbous “melon” on its forehead, the playful beluga of the St. Lawrence estuary is the most southerly whale of its kind. Because it was a prime source of oil, whalers and hunters harvested it in huge numbers. In the 1920s, when cod stocks suddenly declined, fishermen blamed the St. Lawrence belugas. In 1928, the Quebec government handed out rifles and offered a $15 bounty for each beluga killed. Soon after, Quebec authorized aerial bombing of beluga for a few years.

By the late 1970s, the population of St. Lawrence belugas had dropped to a tenth of its historical estimated population size; a hunting ban was implemented in 1979. Though the St. Lawrence beluga was SARA-listed as Threatened in 2005, a recovery strategy — including a plan to protect vital summer habitat — was repeatedly delayed past the 2007 deadline. Legal protection of the area was delayed until 2016. The St. Lawrence beluga was uplisted to Endangered in 2017.

A safe, disturbance-free habitat is essential to the whales, which continue to suffer from contaminants in the food chain, prey-fish availability, entanglement in fishing gear, the effects of climate change, shipping activity and disease. Belugas, their prey and their habitat all have elevated levels of contaminants — highlighting the impact of toxic chemical bioaccumulation in the St. Lawrence River on wildlife.

Lake sturgeon: Graceful and shark-like, with a body covered in large bony plates, the country’s largest freshwater fish appears to belong to another age. Close ancestors to sturgeon were swimming the world’s waters before birds flew or modern mammals even existed. They swam through the extinction of the dinosaurs and, for 200 million years, have overcome every threat — until now. After decades of historical commercial overfishing, as well as dam building (especially for large-scale hydro projects) on rivers in which lake sturgeon breed, lake sturgeon — one of five sturgeon species found in Canadian waters — have declined. In some parts of their range, sturgeon have disappeared.  

Eight populations were assessed as at risk in 2007, including Endangered populations in Nelson River and Western Hudson Bay. The recommendation for listing these populations was put to consultation, which extended until 2012. As of summer 2017, a listing decision had not been made, and lake sturgeon were without SARA protections. A recent study suggests their economic value for commercial harvesting may be delaying a SARA decision.

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The full report and other materials from the project can be found on the Living Planet Report Canada’s home page.