Many animals in Canada face the risk of extinction. The major factors that put Canadian animal species at risk include the conversion of forest and grassland to urban and agricultural uses, commercial timber harvesting, hunting, fishing and the pollution of lakes and rivers (see Water Pollution). As of 2017, a total of 735 species were considered at risk in Canada, including 502 kinds of animals. (Other species at risk include plants; see also Endangered Plants.)
In 2002, the Government of Canada passed the Species at Risk Act, its first endangered species act. Under that legislation, species-at-risk are designated by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSEWIC is funded by Environment Canada, but it otherwise operates independently of the government. COSEWIC commissions studies of native species whose survival in Canada might be at risk, and based on that research it designates them as being in one of several categories of risk: extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, or special concern.
Canadian Case Studies
The sea otter was heavily exploited on the Pacific coast by hunters who sold as many as 1,200 pelts per year during the late 1700s and 1800s. By 1900, sea otters were on the verge of extinction; the last documented sighting in British Columbia was in 1929. An international treaty (1911) gave protection to the endangered sea otters, and by the late 1960s the Alaskan population had grown to about 30,000. Transplants to the west coast of Vancouver Island (1969-72) were successful and the BC population is now several thousand animals. It was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 1996, and in 2007 was further downlisted to special concern.
Many populations of peregrine falcons were decimated by organochlorine chemicals such as DDT and PCBs, which cause various problems, such as reducing calcium in eggshells so that they break under the weight of an incubating parent. Organochlorines and other human-caused influences resulted in the peregrine falcon population plummeting throughout Canada. However, since the manufacturing and use of organochlorines was banned in the 1970s, populations of this species are now increasing. In 2002, the status of the peregrine falcon was changed from threatened to special concern.
The greater prairie-chicken was originally abundant in the prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, but it is now extirpated. The species occupied large blocks of ungrazed or lightly grazed native grasslands. They flourished amid the small-scale farming activities of the early 1900s, but when vast amounts of prairie grassland were converted to cultivated crops , the habitat was no longer suitable and the species disappeared from its Canadian range. Although the greater prairie-chicken is extirpated in Canada it still survives in the U.S., where it is endangered. Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, established in 1981, is large enough to perhaps attempt a re-establishment of this species in Canada.
The leatherback turtle is a large (up to 680 kg) marine reptile that breeds on sandy tropical beaches and migrates to Canadian waters in the summer to feed on jellyfish. There are regular but sparse sightings of this species in the Atlantic Ocean as far north as southern Greenland, and on the West Coast to southern Alaska. The leatherback turtle is endangered in Canada. Although adult turtles are occasionally tangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters, most are killed in tropical waters, where turtle eggs are collected for human consumption by local people, and the adults are sometimes killed for meat. The world population of leatherback turtles is declining and endangered. The conservation of this species requires strict protection in Canada as well as throughout its global range through international co-operation.
The Atlantic whitefish was only “discovered” as a distinct species in 1967. Its global range is limited to the watersheds of the Tusket River and Petite Rivière in southern Nova Scotia. Both populations are endangered. In the Tusket River, a dam built in 1929 blocked the Atlantic whitefish's spawning migration to and from the sea. In the Petite Rivière, introduced fish, such as the smallmouth bass, have affected the Atlantic whitefish population. More recently, acid rain, originating mostly with emissions of gaseous sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen in the US and southern Ontario and Québec, has damaged the freshwater habitat of wild Atlantic salmon in southern Nova Scotia and may be having a similar effect on the Atlantic whitefish.
The shorthead sculpin was discovered in Canadian waters in 1957, in the lower 24 km of the Flathead River drainage of British Columbia, between elevations of 1,000 to 1,400 m. It is most abundant on gravel or stony bottoms that are not heavily sedimented and have summer temperatures between 13° and 17°C. They reach 100 mm in length, may lay up to 690 eggs, probably on undersides of rocks, and feed on insects and small fish. The shorthead sculpin was initially designated as threatened, but in 2013 this was changed to special concern. A proposal to develop surface coal mines in the Flathead Basin for export of coal to Japan, and to redirect the flow of Howell Creek, a Flathead tributary, would threaten the survival of this species in Canada by causing sedimentation, acidification, and changes in the flow and temperature regimes of its river habitat.
While it is obvious that protection from overharvesting is needed to save a species from extinction, it is also true that the natural habitats must be protected. Various organizations work to conserve animal habitats, including federal, provincial/territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments. Any of those governments can proclaim areas of land that they own as being a protected area in which intensive economic uses are not permitted. The most highly protected areas are ecological reserves and wilderness areas, in which only a low intensity of use is permitted, such as hiking and nature study. Parks are also a kind of protected area, although often a great deal of economic activity is permitted, sometimes including major roads and tourism-related developments.
The private sector also has a key role to play in protecting natural habitats. For example, many large forestry companies have set aside parts of their land base to conserve natural habitats. In addition, many individual landowners manage their land to conserve habitats needed by native species. Finally, certain non-governmental organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Ducks Unlimited Canada, are buying private properties that have good natural values and setting them aside as protected. These protected properties support native species, including endangered species.
Research and Management of Endangered Species
Several organizations are engaged in the study and management of rare and endangered species. All levels of government in Canada have some degree of mandate to do this, usually through specialists in their departments of environment or natural resources. The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and provincial and university museums also do this, although their resources are quite limited. The Canadian Wildlife Service has a role in managing and studying Canada's migratory birds, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada in managing and studying fishes and sea mammals. Certain non-governmental organizations, such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Canadian Nature Federation, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Nature Conservancy of Canada and World Wildlife Fund (Canada) also engage in research about endangered wildlife.
Canada is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates trade in rare and endangered species or their by-products. Canada has also ratified the International Convention on Biological Diversity and thereby assumes certain obligations for conserving biological diversity and the sustainability of its components (see Biodiversity). Because these international treaties involve Canada as a whole, all other governments in Canada are also held to their provisions and responsibilities, as are Canadian citizens.
Protecting Endangered Species
The protection of endangered species requires a society-wide effort. It requires the establishment and proper management of a well-designed system of protected areas, public education, conservation-minded research, protective legislation for biodiversity and other measures. Individual Canadians and businesses have come to realize that a balance must be found between economic activity and the needs of the natural world, including our endangered species.