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Over 60 wildlife species at risk in Canada’s changing North

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Atlantic Walrus and Eastern Migratory Caribou are at risk of extinction. So concluded the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which met in Whitehorse, April 23-28. The number of Canadian northern wildlife species considered to be at risk now stands at 62.

Canada has already lost one of its three populations of Atlantic Walrus. Once abundant in ocean waters of Atlantic Canada, including the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the animals were hunted to extinction by 1850. The two surviving populations rely on Canadian Arctic marine habitat and have coexisted with Indigenous peoples for millennia. Over the past few decades, the areas inhabited by the few thousand High Arctic walruses and the more numerous Central and Low Arctic population have shrunk and continue to do so. As the climate warms and sea ice recedes, interaction with industry and tourism is increasing. These threats, layered upon ongoing harvesting, led the committee to recommend a status of Special Concern for both populations. According to marine mammal expert and COSEWIC member Hal Whitehead, “The walrus is a most unusual and distinctive mammal of the northern seas. Walruses have been very important to the Inuit, both as food and in their culture, and they remain so today. Walruses are particularly sensitive to disturbance, and certainly deserve special attention.”

Many caribou populations have previously been assessed by COSEWIC, but the committee considered the Eastern Migratory Caribou for the first time. The famous George River herd in Québec and Labrador numbered over 800,000 in 1993, but the numbers have now fallen to an unprecedented low of a few thousand animals. A second major herd is also in serious decline. The committee therefore recommended Endangered status. Graham Forbes, co-chair of COSEWIC’s Terrestrial Mammals Subcommittee, stressed the sensitivity of caribou to human activity, a condition complicated by rapid northern climate change: “Shrubs increasingly cover landscapes that were once dominated by lichen, caribou’s major winter food source, and overharvest continues. We are worried that these factors may make it very hard for herds to recover.”

Harris’s Sparrow © G. Romanchuk (CNW Group/Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada)

Parts of Canada’s North are warming faster than anywhere else in the world, and the number of northern species at risk is rising. Over half of these at-risk species are currently assessed as being of Special Concern, meaning measures to address climate change and good management of hunting, disturbance, and development are needed to prevent their status from deteriorating to Threatened. Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board Chair, Frank Thomas, highlighted the need to coordinate efforts toward this goal: “Local communities, through the work of management boards, play an important role in the conservation of Canada’s northern biodiversity. We all need to work together.”

Eric Taylor, Chair of COSEWIC, echoed Mr. Thomas’ call to action: “Canada’s biodiversity is at risk from coast to coast to coast, and timely action on many fronts is required, from dealing with habitat disturbance and overharvesting to concerted efforts to combat the effects of climate change.”

At the meeting, a number of other wildlife species were found to be at risk. Examples include:

Endangered

  • Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (neither a kangaroo nor a rat), a rare Prairie dune specialist
  • Some populations of Lake Sturgeon, a large, very long-lived species affected by historical overfishing
  • Butternut, a tree in eastern provinces devastated by a fungal disease.

Special Concern

  • Harris’s Sparrow, a northern songbird breeding only in Canada and showing ongoing declines largely due to pressures on their wintering grounds in the US
  • Shortfin Mako, an open-ocean shark found seasonally in Atlantic Canadian waters and showing signs of recovery from overfishing.

Further details on all wildlife species assessed at this meeting can be found on the COSEWIC website at: http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=en&n=EC89538C-1#results

Next meeting

COSEWIC’s next scheduled wildlife species assessment meeting will be held in November 2017.


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