One in five assessed native species in Canada face some degree of threat to their continued viability, a multi-jurisdictional report has revealed.

The numbers offer a stark confirmation that continued destruction of habitat, overharvesting, pollution and climate change, among other factors, is taking a toll on Canadian wildlife, just as it is elsewhere around the globe.

And while Ottawa has sought to position Canada as a leader in international negotiations on biodiversity – with a UN conference set to begin next week in Montreal – the data underscores the significant work that remains to be done to stabilize and improve the status of thousands species across the country that are currently in decline and, ultimately, at risk of extinction.

“Extinction is a very chilling word,” said Terry Duguid, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change at a news briefing after the report’s release Tuesday. “Once something is gone it is gone forever. So the clock is ticking and we will need to once again redouble our efforts.”

The Wild Species 2020 report, also referred to as the general status report, is a latest in a series of assessments conducted every five years since 2000 and produced jointly by the federal, provincial and territorial governments. It incorporates the work of hundreds of scientist, but – at its title suggests – is coming out a full two years since data on the species were gathered. According to officials, the intervening time has been taken up with a review process involving all members of the working group behind the report.

The result is the most comprehensive instalment in the series so far, covering 50,534 species out of the nearly 80,000 that are estimated to be present somewhere in the country. In comparison, the 2015 report included less that 30,000 species.

However, the report also illustrates the knowledge gaps that persist in understanding how wild plants and animals, from lichens and wildflowers to sponges and mammals, are faring in Canada.

Of all the species listed in the report, only 24,483 – about half – have been tracked with enough detail to determine what level of risk they face. Of those, 19,600 species are deemed secure or appear secure based on the current state of knowledge about them. Another 4,883 Canadian species are ranked as vulnerable, imperiled or critically imperiled. The remainder, some 135 species, are considered extirpated or possible extirpated from Canada.

A telling detail in all the numbers is that about 500 more species may be at risk compared to those identified in the 2015 report.

“This report is tough reading even for people working at the front lines of conservation,” said Gauri Sreenivasan, director of policy and campaigns for environmental organization Nature Canada, at the news briefing. “We are losing nature faster than we can recover it.”

The report illustrates the broader dilemma facing representative from all nations that are signatories to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, including Canada, as they gather in Montreal next week. The purpose of the meeting is to agree to a framework for global conservation efforts including targets for setting aside land and territorial waters for the protection of nature. Protected areas are regarded as a key instrument for maintaining wild species populations and preventing habitat from being razed.

Canada has already committed to protecting 30 per cent of its land and water by 2030, more than doubling the amount currently designated. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s push to develop protected land in the province’s Greenbelt, a network of natural spaces that includes some of the most sensitive and species rich areas in Canada – offers a glimpse of the competing forces between jurisdictions that could push the country further from its target.

Canada has had a Species at Risk Act since 2003, but the law is applicable to federal lands. While the law includes a provision for enforcing species protection elsewhere through emergency orders, Ottawa has been loathe to deploy the measure on provincial or private land.

“The Species at Risk Act has not been used consistently to enforce protections where they do exist,” Ms. Sreenivasan said.

Species are recommended for listing under the Act by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, an independent body of experts that meets twice per year to review detailed assessments.

Arne Moores, a professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University and communications representative for the committee, said the latest Wild Species report would serve to help the committee prioritize which species to assess.

Members are in Ottawa this week for the first in-person meeting of COSEWIC since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite virtual meetings, the back log in outstanding assessments has grown, committee chair David Lee said, in part because species must also be reassessed at regular intervals.

Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia, said that the Wild Species report provides welcome data but also a clear indication that existing protection mechanisms are only offering “life support” to threatened species rather than recovery in an ecologically meaningful way.

“We are at a turning point where we can either make that better, or we can continue with the status quo and the proportion of troubled species will get worse through time,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2022