A 1919 illustration of the Limnetic Enos Lake Stickleback, The Canadian Field Naturalist
A 1919 illustration of the Limnetic Enos Lake Stickleback © The Canadian Field Naturalist

What we all lose as more of Canada’s wildlife disappears


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Daniel Kraus
Director of National Conservation

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Biodiversity

Published

2024-01-24

Canada officially has less biodiversity than one year ago.

Without much fanfare, the meter that measures the number of extinct wild species in Canada ticked down. Twice.

You’ve probably never heard of the Enos Lake Stickleback pairs. Over the last few thousand years they evolved in an isolated lake on Vancouver Island north of Nanaimo BC. They were an example of evolution in action and were becoming two different species, each occupying a different part of the lake.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC), the group that assesses extinction risk of Canada’s flora and fauna under the federal Species at Risk Act first designated the Enos Lake Stickleback pairs as threatened in 1988 and then endangered in 2002, warning of their increasing extinction risk. The tiny fishes were nationally endemic to Canada and occurred nowhere else on the planet. Their loss is not just a loss for Canada, but another chip that’s fallen from our planet’s collection of wild things.

Last year the number of species assessed as at risk by COSEWIC grew to 875. Last year, there were 869. Ten years ago, that number was 676. Since Canada’s Species at Risk Act was enacted over two decades ago, we’ve seen an annual increase of at-risk species of about 4%. We also know that the actual number of species in need of conservation action is much higher and one in five Canadian species is at some level of risk. While past threats to animals such as Humpback Whale, Plains Bison, and Trumpeter Swan was over-hunting, today wildlife are faced by a myriad of threats including habitat loss, invasive species, and increasingly, climate change.

Figure 1. Number of Wildlife Species assessed as at risk or extinct, by year., WCS Canada
Figure 1. Number of Wildlife Species assessed as at risk or extinct, by year. © WCS Canada

Other species now assessed as at risk by COSEWIC in 2023 include four plants that are very rare in Canada. Ontario’s Cleland’s Evening-primrose, a prairie wildflower not seen since 2001, and California Sword Fern, with a Canadian population in BC that is down to 48 individuals. Plants and animals with small populations and few locations are vulnerable to extinction because one disturbance, either natural or from people, can quickly wipe them out.

But extinction is more than about rarity. Identifying species that are rapidly declining is critical to getting ahead of their extinction. As we’ve witnessed through the extinction of species like the Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, and Rocky Mountain Grasshopper, human activities can make even once abundant wildlife disappear. Species that were once secure but are now disappearing were also assessed as at risk of extinction in 2023. These include the Mudpuppy (a completely aquatic salamander) and Horned Grebe (a diving bird that is closely related to flamingos). The last year also saw more bats added to Canada’s list of at-risk species. Eastern Red Bat, Hoary Bat, and Silver-haired Bat were all assessed as endangered because of rapid declines resulting from habitat loss and poorly sited wind turbines.

Tracking risk to species is not just about who’s been added to the list, but also how their status changes. In some ways this measure is more critical because it tracks extinction probability when we have full knowledge of risk. In 2023, two species that COSEWIC has previously assessed increased in extinction risk. The extinction risk of the Gulf of St. Lawrence Aster was nudged upward from special concern to endangered because of the increasing threat that rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges will wash it away along with its coastal habitat. Just as extinction of Enos Lake Sticklebacks showcases our willingness to be passive witnesses to extinction, the ‘uplisting’ of these species are another small failure of both Canada’s Species at Risk Act and our collective ability to act.

It’s too late to save the Enos Lake Stickleback, but there are hundreds of other species that this generation can stop from going extinct. Knowing which species need our attention is critical. Species assessed by COSEWIC and those protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act are a good start but will always be incomplete. Across Canada, Key Biodiversity Areas are being identified and mapped for all globally and nationally threatened species that have small ranges or populations. For species such as the California Sword Fern, local ecosystem-based efforts to protect and steward habitats can quickly halt and reverse the threats and prevent extinctions. For wide-raging species that are declining, such as bats, caribou, monarch, actions will require rethinking how we manage lands and water.

I don’t want my children to inherit a planet that only knows extinction. On a planet that only bleeds wildlife, we are also losing clean water, climate security, and our ancient connections to life around us. Recovering wildlife is more than just biodiversity. It’s building a secure foundation for our society and economy and rebuilding our relationship with nature. There is a world waiting for us where nature and people thrive.

Figure 2. Number of Wildlife Species assessed as at risk or extinct, by province and territory., WCS Canada
Figure 2. Number of Wildlife Species assessed as at risk or extinct, by province and territory. © WCS Canada
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