Protecting species-at-risk in Canada

COSEWIC and the first ten years of SARA

Eric Taylor is a Professor of Zoology at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. His research examines the origins and persistence of biodiversity, principally in fishes, using molecular approaches. Professor Taylor is the Chair of COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, where he has also been one of the co-chairs of the freshwater fishes specialist subcommittee since 2008. Here he describes the process by which species at risk are assessed and considered for legal listing in Canada, and reflects on the role of science and society in this process.

After almost ten years of work, Canada joined the ranks of countries with federal endangered species legislation when the Species at Risk Act (SARA) achieved royal assent in 2002 (other countries with federal endangered species legislation include Australia and the USA).

At its core, SARA consists of three basic elements:

  1. Conservation assessment of ‘Wildlife Species’ (a definition which allows for separate conservation of groups of populations within species),
  2. Legal listing (or not) of assessed Wildlife Species, and
  3. Protection of listed species and actions to facilitate their recovery.

Quantitative, science-based decision making is a foundational aspect of the assessment and listing steps and yet this does not guarantee that a species becomes part of the legal list.

1. Assessment

The assessment of Canadian Wildlife Species occurs under the purview of The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSEWIC was established in 1977 and therefore predates SARA. The SARA, however, has given COSEWIC a legal status.

The committee consists of about 45 members representing federal and provincial jurisdictions (eg, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Province of British Columbia), non-governmental science members, Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge members, and two members from each of ten taxonomically-based species specialist subcommittees (eg, Freshwater Fishes, Marine Fishes, Terrestrial Mammals, etc).

Key aspects of COSEWIC’s operations are:

  1. It is supported by a Secretariat from the federal Ministry of Environment (MoE). The MoE also provides a Public Registry of all assessments and government responses (see http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/).
  2. COSEWIC is an advisory committee independent of any government or non-governmental organization. Members come from government, academia, NGOs, and private consultancies, but make decisions independent of these affiliations.
  3. Specialist subcommittees rank species in terms of risk of extinction. These subcommittees commission status reports and receive unsolicited reports from the public. For those species most at risk, assessments are aided by (but not restricted to) IUCN guidelines and quantitative criteria using the modified status categories Extinct, Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened, Special Concern, Data Deficient, and Not at Risk.
  4. Species assessments are based on a two-thirds majority vote of COSEWIC members.
  5. Assessments are based on the best scientific, Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge, and Community Knowledge available at the time of assessment. Economic or social consequences of potential species legal listings based on COSEWIC assessments are not considered in the assessments themselves.
  6. Assessments occur twice yearly at species-assessment meetings which are open to the public and after extensive, multiple rounds of peer review of assessment reports.
  7. COSEWIC reports the results of each species-assessment meeting in news releases, and to the Minister of the Environment and members of the Canadian Endangered Species Council (a group of federal and provincial/territorial Ministers of the Environment).
  8. Re-assessments occur at least every ten years (or earlier if new information comes to light).
  9. Ranking to assessment: From ranking of Wildlife Species to actual assessment takes about 2 years.
  10. Species assessed: To date, COSEWIC has held 52 species assessment meetings and assessed 708 species as Extinct or at some level of risk (15 Extinct, 22 Extirpated, 306 Endangered, 165 Threatened, and 200 Special Concern).

2. Legal listing

Notwithstanding COSEWIC’s assessments, subsequent protection under SARA will not occur unless a species is included in the ‘List of Wildlife Species at Risk’ in Schedule 1 to the Act – a decision that is made by the federal Minister of the Environment. Following receipt of the annual report by COSEWIC on the assessment of species, SARA requires:

  1. Minister response: That the Minister of the Environment provide a ‘response statement’ within 90 days stating how the Minister ‘intends to respond’ to the assessments.
  2. The response is either that the Minister intends to forward the COSEWIC recommended status to the Governor-in-council (a subcommittee of federal cabinet ministers) for listing consideration or enter into an extended consultation period, including with those who may be negatively affected by a federal listing.
  3. After receipt of status assessments by the Governor-in-council, it has nine months to consider the proposed listing and either: (a) accept the COSEWIC assessment and add the species to the legal list, (b) reject the proposed listing for socio-economic reasons (eg, undue hardship would accrue to those affected by legal protection measures, often based on a consultation process), or (c) referral back to COSEWIC for further consideration owing to issues raised during the public-consultation phase of legal listing.
  4. Time limit on initial referral: Notwithstanding the nine month period in which Governor-in-council must decide on a listing recommendation, there is no legal time limit for the Minister’s initial referral of the species assessments. Consequently, there can be very long delays between the time COSEWIC sends its recommendations to the Minister and when the Minister refers these recommendations to the Governor-in-council (which can incorporate a protracted public consultation period).
  5. Species listed: As of 2013, more than 85% of the species that COSEWIC has recommended for listing have received legal listing, but some taxonomic groups are much more likely to be added to the legal list than others. For instance, almost 80% of the 63 marine fishes assessed at some level of risk have not been added to the legal list. Such non-listings are due to the above mentioned delays or involve species of commercial value such that listing would incur socio-economic costs that are deemed to be too high.

3. Protection: prohibitions and recovery

If a species is placed on the SARA’s legal list, two key consequences arise. First, certain prohibitions come immediately into effect and, second, recovery initiatives begin.

For species that are listed as Extirpated, Endangered, or Threatened, SARA includes prohibitions against harming, collecting, or trading in the species, and one cannot destroy the species’ residence. These prohibitions, however, apply only to federal lands, aquatic species, or species covered under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. In addition, ‘critical habitats’ (to the extent that they can be identified in subsequent recovery strategy and action plan documents) are also protected under SARA.

Further, species that are assessed as being of Special Concern by COSEWIC (essentially meaning that the species may become threatened in the future if factors thought to be negatively affecting it are not reversed or managed effectively) are not subject to SARA prohibitions and a recovery strategy is not required. Rather, the Act requires a management plan be developed for these species.

Recovery of species at risk is a central aspect of Canada’s SARA. Recovery is a stated objective of the Act (although ‘recovery’ per se is never defined) and the mechanism by which critical habitat is identified. Recovery involves two stages and applies to all species listed under the Act as Endangered, Threatened or Extirpated.

The first stage involves preparation of a recovery strategy (within one year of listing for endangered species and within two years for threatened species) that outlines the overall scientific framework for recovery. The second stage involves preparation of an action plan that outlines the specific measures that may be taken on the ground to implement the recovery strategy.

The construction of recovery strategies and action plans takes many meetings and considerable time. Further, notwithstanding the writing of recovery and action plans, there are no legislative requirements under SARA to actually implement them.

COSEWIC and SARA after 10 Years

A period of 10 years is simply too short to complete a definitive assessment of the species assessment and legal listing processes in Canada. A number of observations, however, can be made about the effectiveness of species at risk assessment and recovery in Canada.

  1. The assessment process (COSEWIC) has provided a detailed accounting system for species-at-risk and the factors involved in such risk in Canada.
  2. The COSEWIC-SARA process has almost surely resulted in much greater public awareness of species-at-risk and engagement in species-at-risk activities in Canada.
  3. There is tremendous inter-taxonomic group variation in the information content available for assessments and in the probability of listing and recovery actions. Many non-listing decisions are made for socio-economic reasons that are not subject to the same level of peer scrutiny as the COSEWIC assessments.
  4. COSEWIC assessments focus on single species and the alternatives of multi-species assessments or ecosystem assessments are only beginning to be explored.
  5. Integration of available Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge is well ensconced within the COSEWIC process, but gathering of new Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge is a daunting logistical and financial challenge.
  6. The listing process contains considerable scope for Ministerial discretion that can extend the deadlines for listing decisions, at least in theory, indefinitely, or override certain SARA prohibitions (eg, ‘allowable-harm’ permits).
  7. Listing decisions involve much more than just the biological rationales for listing.

Ultimately, the question becomes, is Canada’s wildlife better off now after the initiation of SARA and the integration of COSEWIC within the species-at-risk process? The optimist in me says ‘yes’, simply because we do have a set of processes in place, warts and all, that account and suggest ways forward for species-at-risk and public awareness of species-at-risk, and engagement in the processes must surely be greater now than 10 years ago.

The pessimist in me says: ‘not sure’. Accounting is not enough, where is the action for recovery, how has recovery performed, and has the process lessened the probability of species becoming at risk in the first place? These are all critical questions that we simply do not have good answers to yet although efforts to begin an assessment process have begun.

The COSEWIC-SARA process of assessment and listing is a classic case where science-based advisory decisions (i.e., species X is Endangered) butt up against the often counteracting socio-economic implications of protecting at-risk species. This is perhaps inevitable because ultimately it is the politicians that are accountable for species-at-risk listing decisions.

Here, the key is public caring and engagement. A prime limitation of the listing process is not necessarily that in the end ‘politics may rule the day’, but that such decisions often impose little to no political cost to those who make them. This aspect of assessment and listing of species-at-risk of Canada can only be addressed by increased public awareness of the benefits of biodiversity and the potential economic, social and aesthetic costs of its loss.


A big country

Canada is the world’s second largest landmass and borders three oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic). Canada was almost completely covered by ice until about 15,000 years ago. Its massive geography and its recent glacial history has resulted in a rich biodiversity heritage. Canada has about 213 species of freshwater fishes (compared to Australia’s 280), 200 species of terrestrial mammals (Aust: 315), ~65,000 arthropods (Aust: 253,000), and 4,100 vascular plants (Aust: 20,000).

A polar bear and cub. Polar bears were listed as Special Concern under SARA in 2011. (Photo by Gordon Court)

A polar bear and cub. Polar bears were listed as Special Concern under SARA in 2011. (Photo by Gordon Court)


More info: Eric Taylor etaylor@zoology.ubc.ca

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