Wildlife Conservation and Management

 The first European explorers and settlers in North America found wildlife in abundance. This wealth was recognized as having immediate commercial value, with FISHERIES and the FUR TRADE being the first widespread exploitive activities.

Gannet, Northern
The most noteworthy feature of Ile Bonaventure is a migratory bird population of gannets, believed to be the largest colony of this species in the world (Corel Professional Photos). Sound of the gannet (press the Sound button) courtesy Monty Brigham, Bird Sounds of Canada.
Caribou Migration Through Water
Factors governing timing, routes taken and reasons for migratory movements are among the great mysteries of science (Corel Professional Photos).
Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Canada geese at the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary, near Morrisburg, Ontario (photo by Malak, Ottawa).

Wildlife Conservation and Management

  Wildlife comprises those forms of animal life that are not domesticated. Individual members of wild species held tame in captivity are still considered "wildlife" as they are not genetically different from those remaining in a wild state. Wildlife conservation and management is the conservation, use and management of wild-animal populations and of the land necessary to support them to ensure that productivity and ecological balance are maintained in perpetuity, while social benefits are realized. Human activity has become one of the most significant influences on the abundance and well-being of wildlife.

History of Wildlife Conservation and Management

 The first European explorers and settlers in North America found wildlife in abundance. This wealth was recognized as having immediate commercial value, with FISHERIES and the FUR TRADE being the first widespread exploitive activities. As further exploration revealed the vast, sparsely populated expanse of land, it was believed that natural resources were unlimited; hence, there was no apparent need to practise CONSERVATION.

 Wildlife, fish and timber were free for the taking for personal use, or could be converted into a monetary return. The practical result of this attitude became apparent in the latter half of the 19th century. WAPITI once roamed to their eastern limit in Ontario. Land development and uncontrolled harvest had extirpated them in that area by 1850. The GREAT AUK disappeared in the early 1800s and the wild turkey by 1902 (seeGAME BIRDS), but only with the extinction of the once abundant PASSENGER PIGEON was there sufficient concern to cause the passage of wildlife conservation laws. While concern and consequently protective legislation developed in eastern Canada, western and northern Canada were still held to be boundless frontiers. Wapiti rapidly diminished on the prairie; by 1890 only scattered, remnant populations remained throughout their former western range. In the 1820s BISON teemed in millions, defying counting, across the North American plains. Their numbers remained significant into the late 1870s but, by 1885, they were almost gone.

The people of Canada, however, still believed in the myth of unlimited land and wildlife. Government and citizens were preoccupied with economic prosperity, transcontinental railways and Confederation.

Wildlife enthusiasts of the 1880s solemnly predicted the extinction of most large North American MAMMALS, but the next 2 decades marked a significant turning point in wildlife history in Canada. Following Confederation and the CONSTITUTION ACT, 1867, a move was made to develop wildlife conservation and protection areas. The first national park in Canada, BANFF NATIONAL PARK (established in 1885), was not created to protect wildlife, although this became one of its significant functions. The concept led to the creation of Bison Recovery Park at Wainwright, Alta, and WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK, Alta and NWT.

The first BIRD SANCTUARY in North America (and perhaps the Western Hemisphere) was created at Last Mountain Lake (Sask) in 1887; however, the declaration establishing it remained essentially unrecognized until after passage of the Canada Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1917.

Land and population protection through park and sanctuary creation became a common solution, although not always without heated argument and dispute. Sanctuaries have been created by federal and provincial governments in key locations throughout the country. Some notable coastal island sanctuaries for seabirds have been declared on Bird Rocks (part of the ÎLES DE LA MADELEINE), PERCÉ ROCK and ÎLE BONAVENTURE in the Gulf of St Lawrence, while many inland sanctuaries have also been recognized. These areas were to protect against overharvesting but they have come to reflect protection of original habitats as well.

  Between 1900 and 1960 considerable success was achieved in wildlife conservation. The banning of commercial killing of wildlife over vast areas, combined with favourable climatic trends, has allowed for dramatic recovery. Bison were returned from the brink of extinction. The WHOOPING CRANE population was protected from hunting, and its nesting and wintering areas have been safeguarded. Whitetailed DEER now flourish in regrowth forests and in fringe agricultural areas. Wapiti, aided by transplanted populations, have regained strength in the mountain regions and in the localized areas of the prairie that are associated with parks. SEA OTTERS have responded to protection from commercial overharvest. BEAVER have returned from dangerously low levels to become a problem species, causing damage where populations are not controlled. Through protection, northern tundra MUSKOXEN have shown a dramatic recovery, as have prairie grassland PRONGHORN.

Legislative Jurisdiction over Wildlife

Canada's Constitution assigns legislative responsibilities to the provinces and the federal government. The provincial list is considered to be exhaustive and so if a matter is not on that list, it will fall to the federal government. The federal "residual" power is the right to govern for "peace, order, and good government." Although the Constitution Act (1867) did not specifically mention wildlife, wildlife generally is considered to be part of the land, and accordingly falls within legislative authority over "property." Subject to the exceptions mentioned below, the Constitution gives provinces the right to manage wildlife on provincial land. By the federal government's residual power, and other areas falling under federal jurisdiction, the federal government has the right to manage wildlife on federal land, and to manage wildlife in other respects, such as interjurisdictional wildlife (ie, wildlife whose habitat extends between provinces and territories or internationally, such as some WOLVES or GRIZZLY BEARS). The exceptions concern fisheries, migratory birds and wildlife management laws that negatively impact Aboriginal rights and interests.

The Constitution expressly gives the federal government the right to legislate to manage fisheries, wherever they occur in Canada. Case law, however, has preserved the right of provinces to make game laws, such as setting fishing limits. Federal legislative authority over migratory birds is grounded in the 1916 Migratory Birds Convention between Canada and the United States. The Migratory Birds Convention and the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act (amended in 1994) primarily protect species by imposing closed seasons and prohibiting harming or taking nests or eggs without lawful authority.

The CONSTITUTION ACT (1982) "recognizes and affirms" existing Aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. Existing Aboriginal and treaty rights may concern rights to hunt or fish and to otherwise use wildlife resources. Several cases confirm that neither the provinces nor the federal government may adversely impact such rights through wildlife management legislation unless specific and acceptable consultation and, where appropriate, accommodation has occurred. In many cases Aboriginal and treaty rights have been found to prevail over wildlife legislative provisions that interfere with them.

Wildlife Conservation and Management through Wildlife Laws

Wildlife conservation and management in Canada is a reflection of legislation that can be divided into 2 groups: one concerning fisheries and marine mammals and one dealing with other forms of wildlife. The Fisheries Act of Canada provides that all fisheries and marine mammals in Canadian waters are the responsibility of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The DFO actively protects and manages marine mammals (seals, whales, walrus, etc) and offshore fisheries. Marine fish and mammal populations are viewed primarily as a commercial resource. Legal harvesting seasons and quotas on lobster, salmon and other species reflect the continued monitoring of populations and harvest. Harvest management, together with pollution-control laws, is designed to maintain healthy, viable populations. The industry depends on the sustained yield of a quality product.

Provincial and territorial governments have active responsibility for inland freshwater fishes, subject to federal laws. Fishes are largely managed as a recreation resource for SPORTFISHING but also have significant commercial value. The Great Lakes and the larger lakes of the northern and prairie regions support sizable industries, including the export trade. Fishes and fisheries research is conducted by both levels of government, often in concert with various universities.

Birds, land mammals, AMPHIBIANS, REPTILES, etc, make up the second major group. Migratory bird conservation is managed in an unusual manner, being conducted co-operatively by federal and provincial governments under the authority of the Canada Migratory Birds Convention Act. This law also ensures international co-ordination. Other land-related wildlife is conserved and managed primarily by provincial laws when wildlife is on provincial land, and by the federal Wildlife Act when wildlife is on federal land.

Wildlife Protection through Species at Risk Legislation

Scientists estimate that Earth's plants and animals go extinct at a rate of about 100 species a day. To help address this troubling reality, a significant legislative development since the late 1970s is protecting, in contrast to conserving and managing, wildlife in Canada, through species at risk legislation. The purposes of species at risk legislation are to secure and promote the protection and survival of threatened and endangered species in Canada. Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador have stand-alone species at risk legislation. The balance of the provinces and territories have wildlife conservation and management legislation or policies that contain provisions relating to species at risk. The federal Species at Risk Act (2002) applies to species at risk under federal jurisdiction and may be extended to those under provincial jurisdiction in limited circumstances. Assessment of species typically involves the COMMITTEE ON THE STATUS OF ENDANGERED WILDLIFE IN CANADA (COSEWIC), which encourages and commissions studies on rare and ENDANGERED ANIMALS or on species of unknown status.

International Wildlife Protection, Conservation and Management

International conventions (such as treaties) and international institutions also work to protect, conserve or manage wildlife domestically in Canada. In addition to the Migratory Birds Convention, already discussed, the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (1973), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES (1973), the Ramsar Convention (to protect wetlands and associated habitat; Canada signed on in 1981), the Agreement on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd (1987) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) are among the conventions that impose obligations on Canada relating to wildlife protection and management. International institutions - such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a US, Canada and Mexico framework aimed at protecting and increasing waterfowl habitat; and Yellowstone to Yukon, a US and Canada initiative that seeks to ensure that wildlife and habitat continue to function in a biologically-integrated web in this region - also significantly contribute to wildlife protection, conservation and management in Canada.

Nongovernmental Conservation Organizations and Private Stewardship

Nongovernmental conservation organizations and individuals play an increasingly active role in wildlife management and general wildlife education. Public and nonprofit organizations such as the CANADIAN WILDLIFE FEDERATION, NATURE CANADA, DUCKS UNLIMITED (Canada), WORLD WILDLIFE FUND CANADA and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, at the national level, and their provincially-based affiliates, have played a significant role in concert with government conservation agencies (eg, the CANADIAN WILDLIFE SERVICE of Environment Canada).

Population surveys are conducted regularly on a wide variety of wildlife to allow management agencies to monitor population trends and distribution. Surveys may be conducted on the ground or from aircraft, often with the aid of photographic techniques. The harvest of wildlife is monitored and recorded for comparison with other population information, in an effort to ensure the maintenance of optimal populations. Less visible wildlife forms have defied accurate monitoring techniques. Sample counts, conducted mainly by volunteer conservation organizations, provide some insight into the well-being of these species. Stewardship tools, such as conservation easements, enable private landowners to protect wildlife and other BIODIVERSITY values on privately-owned land.


Recovery of wildlife, primarily from 1920 to 1970, reflected societal concern that demanded active management programs. However, populations have returned only to those areas that remain suitable for their production. Habitats suitable for population production have been the key ingredients of conservation programs. Populations will not return where land has been modified from its natural state through agriculture or through industrial and urban development.

While many forms of wildlife are more abundant now than they were in 1870, a number of species have continued to decline to threatened levels or are in danger of extinction. Wetland drainage permanently removes the habitat required by many species. POLLUTION of rivers and estuaries renders them unfit for wildlife survival. ACID RAIN from industrial effluent stacks, automobiles and urban areas continues to sterilize vast tracts of the land and waterways of eastern Canada. Marine birds and mammals increasingly face the threat of offshore oil spills and general pollution of the oceans. The direct threat of uncontrolled harvest, so devastating in the 19th century, has been replaced by the indirect, insidious but permanent threats of environmental degradation that were characteristic of the 20th century. If society wishes to maintain wildlife in its variety and abundance in the 21st century, a place for wildlife must be maintained in land-use planning, ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT and legal obligation.

The uses and value of wildlife to society are varied. Wildlife is one part of the equation which, together with vegetation and the nonliving ENVIRONMENT, constitutes the "balance of nature," ie, the set of complex natural processes on which human survival depends. A country fit for wildlife is a country fit for people. Wildlife is a direct source of food and other products for many Canadians. While this value is most apparent in northern regions, it is also significant in southern Canada. Coastal and inland commercial fishing, based on naturally-reproducing populations, is a significant industry. The wild FUR INDUSTRY provides a direct source of income for thousands, representing the highest continuing economic return of any resource in mid-northern regions. These harvest uses not only give direct economic return but, provided their management is biologically sound, also keep populations in balance with their food supply, preventing overpopulation and dramatic losses from starvation and disease.

Wildlife is a basic component of outdoor recreation and part of the national heritage of all Canadians. Wildlife reflects the condition of the environment and constitutes a "barometer" for measuring environmental change. Throughout Canada, wildlife is the legal property of all Canadians. Its ownership is entrusted in law to the stewardship of the various governments. Sound protection, conservation and management of all wildlife are thus the rightful concern and responsibility of all Canadians.


Further Reading

  • J. Alexander Burnett, A Passion for Wildlife: The History of the Canadian Wildlife Service (2003); Canadian Institute of Resources Law, Canada Wildlife Law Occasional Paper Series (2006); Janet Foster, Working for Wildlife: The Beginning of Preservation in Canada (1978, revised 1998); Tina M. Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada's Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (2006).

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