Recovery of plants, animals possible

I lost my Cracker Jack wildlife cards sometime in the 1980s, but the images printed on the cards are still vivid in my mind.

The small cards came wrapped in clear plastic and featured a holographic image of a wildlife species in danger.

I can still see the pencil marks in the top drawer of my old desk where I marked lines to keep them organized. There was a special area in my drawer reserved for the handful of species that lived in my country and were at risk of extinction.

I started collecting my Cracker Jack wildlife cards around the time when Canada started to systematically identify the wildlife species that were most at risk. Formed in 1977, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has provided science-based assessments of wildlife that is most at risk of being lost from Canada.

That list of wildlife in danger has almost doubled since I started working at the Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2002.

Today, COSEWIC has assessed 748 species as at risk in Canada.

Part of this steep increase has resulted from more species being assessed. COSEWIC meets twice a year to assess species based on factors such as range size, number of individuals, population trends and projected changes in habitat.

Species are then categorized as extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, special concern, data deficient or not at risk.

Species assessed by COSEWIC then go through a second assessment by Environment Canada to identify how they will be listed under the federal Species at Risk Act. Once listed under SARA, there are efforts to develop a plan to recover or manage the species.

The increase in the number of assessments and better tools to identify species that could be endangered definitely account for many “new” species at risk. There are many species that were common 40 years ago that have genuinely declined.

Birds that were once common, including barn swallow, Sprague’s pipit and eastern whip-poor-will, have declined by more than 70 percent since I was kid in the 1970s. Nine caribou populations are now at risk.

The rapid, steady growth in the number of at-risk species worries me. The challenge is going to be: how do we recover all of those species and keep the list from growing?

Most species at risk are restricted to specific habitats in specific geographies. If we focus our conservation efforts on these “hot spots,” we simultaneously protect the habitat of many rare species.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has been protecting species-at-risk hot spots for many years. This work is supported in part by Environment Canada through the Natural Areas Conservation Program.

We do know how to recover endangered species, even when it’s complicated.

My old Cracker Jack wildlife cards included osprey. Their numbers had dwindled because persistent pesticides such as DDT made the shells of their eggs so thin and fragile they often broke when the parents sat on the nest.

While never officially listed in Canada, their numbers had plummeted by the 1970s and they were rare. Today, I’ve stopped pointing out osprey nests in the light towers at baseball diamonds to my son.

The opportunity to recover Canada’s at-risk wildlife can inspire us to see the world that could be. Places and habitats that have almost been lost can be restored.

Species that were at the edge of extinction can be gently pulled back. Recovery of our most endangered plants and animals is possible, but we need to do more.

Dan Kraus is a Weston conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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