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One-fifth of known Canadian species face some risk of extinction

Canada is home to about 80,000 species (not including viruses or bacteria).
A stock image of a California condor.

At least one-fifth of all wild species assessed across Canada are at some risk of extinction, according to a new report offering the most complete snapshot of wildlife ever conducted in the country.

Released once every five years, the sweeping Wild Species 2020 report involved hundreds of scientists working tirelessly across every province and territory. 

“If we don’t know what we have in Canada, it’s impossible to protect them,” said Rémi Hébert, the scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada who coordinated the report. 

Hundreds of experts pored over old museum collections and assessed the health of habitats across wide swaths of the country. Among the species added this year were fungi, but only with the help of amateur mushroom clubs across Canada. 

In the end, the report found the country is home to about 80,000 species (not including viruses or bacteria), roughly 10,000 more than were thought to exist five years earlier. Of those, just over 50,000 species were passed through a ranking calculator that assesses 10 factors, like population size and range.

“The fact that we’ve included 50,000 species in that report, it’s amazing. To my knowledge, there’s no other country that’s done that in the world,” said Hébert.

Since 2015, scientists have assessed the health of 20,000 more species.

But while 80 per cent of species appear to be healthy, one in five are under some level of threat. Of those, 2,118 species are considered either “imperilled” or “critically imperilled.”

Gone forever?

In perhaps the grimmest tally of the report, 40 species are presumed to have been completely wiped off the Canadian map. Scientists think another 95 may also have been completely killed off. 

Over 100 species that have either gone extinct or are vulnerable to extinction do not occur anywhere else in the world, the report notes.

“There are at least seven species that only occurred in Canada and nowhere else in the world. We think those species are extinct from Earth,” said Hébert.

Other species may have cousins living in pockets thousands of kilometres away, but here in Canada they have been added to the “presumed extirpated” list for the first time in the latest report.

That includes the California condor, one of the largest flying birds in the world. At up to three metres wing tip to wing tip, they can glide long distances. 

“In recent centuries, this large vulture was found by early explorers and settlers from British Columbia in Canada to Baja California in Mexico,” notes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

“As people settled the West, they often shot, poisoned, captured, and disturbed the condors, collected their eggs, and reduced their food supply of antelope, elk, and other large wild animals.”

In the last five years, scientists decided they had enough data — the report points to lead contamination — to list the species extirpated from Canada alongside the black-footed ferret, the great auk and the passenger pigeon.

In another case, experts uncovered three specimens of fly now presumed extirpated from Canada. One of them had previously been deposited in a museum collection, but hadn’t been seen in 60 years, Hébert said.

“It’s not super high-profile species. But they are ecologically important,” he said.

Habitat loss the biggest threat

The loss and fragmentation of habitat was found to be the biggest threat facing species across Canada. 

Throughout human history, the demise of innumerable creatures has often been linked to destructive farming practices that alter or wipe out ecosystems.

Today in Canada, habitat destruction is largely driven by changing land uses, including the intensification of residential, commercial and industrial construction, according to Gauri Sreenivasan, Nature Canada’s director of policy and campaigns.

“Some of this is globally driven. But much is what we control right here in Canada,” she said at a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday. 

Or as Sandra Schwartz, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, put it: “Global wildlife populations have plummeted by nearly 70 per cent in the last 50 years, and the report also shows that in Canada, we're not immune to the global crises of species collapse.” 

The Canadian federal government has committed to protecting 30 per cent of its land and ocean by 2030 — the minimum scientists say is needed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. But that’s just a mid-point on the path to ensuring the survival of tens of thousands of species within Canada’s borders. 

“What's ultimately needed to conserve biodiversity is to protect at least half of the Earth's land and ocean ecosystems,” Schwartz said. 

On the brink of a global plan? 

The report comes just a week before representatives from nearly 200 countries will gather in Montreal to establish a new global framework that would protect habitats and ecosystems around the world. 

The UN Biodiversity Conference will be the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) designed to set global targets and streamline plans to protect nature. 

Originally slated to be held in Kunming, China, the conference was moved to Montreal due to the host nation’s “zero-COVID” policy. While China will maintain its presidency, Canada has made its own calls to the world to follow its national biodiversity targets and put Indigenous guardians at the core of conservation planning.

Emily Giles, senior manager of science, knowledge and innovation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, described the opportunity as historic and on par with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

“We're hopeful and optimistic COP15 will be to biodiversity what Paris was to climate,” she said. “A moment in history when a global crisis was recognized, and the world vowed to act.”

Terry Duguid, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that Canada still has a lot of work to do to figure out how it will meet its own 2030 targets. 

“We have to accelerate our pace as well, and we have to lead by example…” he said.  “And we will.” 

Some province's have been less willing to act, Duguid said. A 2021 CPAW’s annual report card on provincial and federal action to meet Canada’s biodiversity goals found all the provinces from B.C. to Ontario scored no higher than a 'C.'

Canadian cities, meanwhile, have stepped up to help create new green spaces, such as parks, according to Duguid.

“We wish we were getting this kind of cooperation from provinces,” he said.

A long way to go

Since scientists first counted 1,600 species over 20 years ago, the General Status of Species in Canada has massively expanded, now capturing almost two-thirds of the life thought to exist in the country. 

To save the 30,000 species that have not been ranked, Hébert says the first thing Canada can do is know they are there. 

“We're playing catch up,” Sreenivasan said. “Biodiversity hasn't been valued, the roles that nature plays in sustaining all life hasn't been valued.”

The race to document all living species in Canada before they disappear is getting harder. Those yet to be properly documented include species at the bottom of the sea, lakes and in arctic ecosystems. But they also include smaller forms of life often hidden from human sight.

“What we’re missing? All the worms,” said Hébert. 

“They have great ecological importance, but we just don’t know what we have in Canada.” 

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