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Half of all Canadian species are in sharp decline

The Weather Network logo The Weather Network 2017-09-15

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Video provided by CBC News

Though much of Canada's vast territory may be empty of people, it has always teemed with all manner of wildlife. But a startling new study suggests the country's abundant fauna are in increasing trouble.

Fully half of Canada's vertebrate species are in decline, according to WWF-Canada's just-released Living Planet Report -- and of those species, the average decline has been an astounding 83 per cent compared to 1970 numbers.

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"The loss of wildlife is not just a problem elsewhere. It's a problem in Canada. We can't take our natural areas and our wonderful wildlife populations for granted," WWF-Canada President and CEO David Miller told The Weather Network. "The good news is, there are some examples of turning things around, but it means all of us, as individuals or in our workplaces, or collectively through our governments need to act now, because there's real urgency."

WWF-Canada's report is based on the study of some 3,689 population trends spread out over 903 vertebrate species in Canada. Of those, some 451 species saw declines from 1970 to 2014, 407 increased, and 45 were stable.

But the species that increased weren't enough to offset the decline in those that saw their abundance fall. WWF-Canada estimates Canada's overall species abundance has fallen by around eight per cent since 1970.

Eight per cent doesn't sound like much, but that's only an average of all species. When you drill down into individual species that have declined, and look at particular regions, the declines have been stark.

Mammals, for example, have fallen by 43 per cent on average, and within that average are standouts like the barren ground caribou in Canada's north, where some sub-populations have seen declines of more than 90 per cent. Nationwide, declining fish species fell by 20 per cent, but in Atlantic Canada, the decline was 38 per cent. On the Prairies, bird populations have declined by more than half since 1970.

"It's when we take a deeper look at species and groups of species in specific regions where some of these key trends are most apparent," James Snider, WWF-Canada's VP of science, research, and innovation, told The Weather Network.

Canada does have a mechanism for identifying at-risk species in need of protection: The Species At Risk Act (SARA), enacted in 2002. The first step to getting on that list is assessment by the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada, but WWF-Canada says a third of vertebrates identified as being at-risk by the committee have yet to receive protection under SARA.

And most surprisingly, many species that are now included in SARA seem to have declined at a faster rate compared to before they were listed. WWF-Canada says that can be because it can take awhile for species to receive protections under SARA, and Snider says it wouldn't be possible to compare how they would be doing if they'd received no protections at all.

"It's very possible these species could be doing worse if the Act wasn't there," Snider says. "But, that said, the results of our study ... [do not] indicate that the Act itself has been reducing the decline of these at risk species in Canada."

Protect whole ecosystems, not just individual species: WWF-Canada

Rather than scrapping the Species At Risk Act, WWF-Canada wants the government to change its approach: Instead of protecting one species at a time, focus on protecting the ecosystem that supports them, and be quicker on the draw doing so.

Miller points to the southern resident killer whale population off of British Columbia, which is believed to number fewer than 90. Though marine noise and other human development are factors in the decline, Miller says restoring the species wouldn't be possible without addressing the decline in chinook salmon, orcas' main diet, and that wouldn't be possible without looking at things like habitat loss, pollution and overexploitation. 

Southern resident killer whale leaping out of the water, Haro Strait, B.C. Image credit: Natalie Bowes/WWF-Canada

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"The only way you can do that is by looking at the whole ecosystem," Miller says. "It's quite clear that's where we need to go, and that's a role for the federal government to change and adapt its approach."

When it comes to balancing protection with economic development, Miller points to sustainable forest harvesting designations in past decades, and WWF-Canada is working with fish processors in Newfoundland on new standards as cod stocks show signs of recovery after the fishery's collapse in the early 1990s.

"We know what happens if we don't do that, we've seen … serious economic problems," he says. "So we believe it's possible by involving the community from the beginning, and involving industry, government, and having a strong not-for-profit voice that is there speaking on behalf of ecological issues to find ways to insure that humans can work while we protect nature. Sometimes it requires hard work, and there's lots of examples in this country. We should be building on those positive examples."

WWF-Canada says one of the big pressures behind the species decline since 1970 has been climate change, where the rate of warming has been nearly twice the global average, with catastrophic impacts on the Arctic. The organization wants Ottawa to step up research into climate change's impact on wildlife.

"Because there's cumulative impacts on wildlife and of course on humans as well, it's critically important to understand climate change is affecting those impacts and how animals are behaving, whether they're adapting, moving, what the challenges are," Miller says.

Miller: Everyone needs to get involved

Among WWF-Canada's recommendations is a call for all Canadians, from government down to citizens, to get invested in conservation efforts.

The organization plans a national summit in 2018 that will bring together government, researchers, industry players and other groups to hammer out a way forward on conservation. But Miller says individual Canadians can buy in as well, from speaking up on relevant policy issues, to citizen science that helps identify local issues, particularly in parts of Canada where researchers don't have enough data.

Miller says most Canadians are environmentally conscious, and it wouldn't take much to spark interest.

"We know there's a thirst. People WANT to know what they can do, and from that perspective, the good news is there's a lot people can do," Miller says.

You can read WWF-Canada's Living Planet Report here.

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