Species at Risk Act annual report for 2016: chapter 2

2 Assessment of species at risk

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The Species at Risk Act (SARA) establishes a process for conducting scientific assessments of the status of individual wildlife species. The act separates the scientific assessment process from the listing decision, ensuring that scientists provide independent assessments and that decisions affecting Canadians are made by elected officials who are accountable for those decisions.

2.1 COSEWIC assessments

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the committee of experts that assesses the status of wildlife species in Canada that it considers to be at risk and identifies existing and potential threats to the species. It includes members from government, academia, Aboriginal organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. The federal government provides financial support to COSEWIC.

In keeping with section 20 of SARA, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) provides COSEWIC with professional, technical, secretarial, clerical and other assistance via the COSEWIC Secretariat, which is housed within ECCC.

COSEWIC assesses the status of a wildlife species using the best available information on the biological status of a species, including scientific knowledge, community knowledge and Aboriginal traditional knowledge. To help prioritize species for assessments, COSEWIC uses the general status ranks outlined in a report called Wild Species – The General Status of Species in Canada, which is published about every five years by the National General Status Working Group. COSEWIC provides assessments and supporting evidence annually to the Minister of the Environment.

COSEWIC can assess wildlife species as extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, of special concern or not at risk:

  • an extinct wildlife species no longer exists anywhere in the world
  • an extirpated wildlife species no longer exists in the wild in Canada but exists elsewhere in the world
  • an endangered wildlife species faces imminent extirpation or extinction
  • a threatened wildlife species is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction
  • a wildlife species of special concern may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats
  • a wildlife species may also be assessed as ‘not at risk’ or COSEWIC may not have sufficient information to classify the species

The Act establishes Schedule 1 as the official list of wildlife species at risk, which triggers the provisions under the Act. All of the species that COSEWIC assessed as being at risk prior to October 1999 (when it adopted new criteria) were included at proclamation on SARA’s Schedules 2 (endangered and threatened) and Schedule 3 (special concern). These species are being reassessed by COSEWIC using current criteria as part of the process to determine if they should be added to Schedule 1. All Schedule 2 species have since been reassessed by COSEWIC. For Schedule 3, seven species remained to be reassessed at the end of 2016.  

Further details on risk categories and more information are available on the COSEWIC web section.

ECCC, Parks Canada Agency (PCA), and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) provide input to the assessment process via staff experts who are members of COSEWIC and through the population surveys that they conduct on some species of interest to COSEWIC. They are also regularly involved in the peer review of COSEWIC status reports.

In 2016, through a variety of collaborative wildlife monitoring and research programs across Canada, ECCC continued to contribute data that is used to assess species at risk, and guide recovery efforts. For example, information from the Breeding Bird Survey and Grassland Bird Monitoring Program was used to support the assessment of McCown’s Longspur. Other work carried out in southern Manitoba to develop a survey protocol to assess site occupancy of Prairie Skink will be used to identify critical habitat and to inform future COSEWIC assessments.

Also in 2016, PCA continued to keep track of the distribution of the species found within the lands and waters it administers. This helps determine if the species is regularly occurring, if it is breeding or just a transient, and if it is currently present at the heritage place such as a national park, national historic site, historic canal or national marine conservation area. The information contributes to the Wild Species reports, COSEWIC status reports and the development of PCA site-based action plans. PCA also reviewed 53 COSEWIC status reports for both terrestrial and aquatic species that are found in the lands and waters it administers.

The data that DFO submits to COSEWIC to support assessments of aquatic species is vetted through a peer-review process. The process involves government scientists, experts from academia, and other stakeholders, as appropriate. In 2016, DFO hosted a peer-review meeting regarding Roughhead Grenadier, and provided published information for many other aquatic species to COSEWIC. The Department also reviewed 37 COSEWIC status reports for aquatic wildlife species before they were finalized.

2.1.1 COSEWIC subcommittees

COSEWIC’s Species Specialists Subcommittees (SSCs) provide species expertise to COSEWIC. Each SSC is led by two co-chairs, and members are recognized Canadian experts in the taxonomic group in question, able to demonstrate high standards of education, experience and expertise, with a demonstrated knowledge of wildlife conservation. Members are drawn from universities, provincial wildlife agencies, museums, Conservation Data Centres, and other sources of expertise on Canadian species. SSC members support the co-chairs in developing candidate lists of species to be considered for assessment, commissioning status reports for priority species, reviewing reports for scientific accuracy and completeness, and proposing to COSEWIC a status for each species. Currently, COSEWIC has 10 SSCs: Amphibians and Reptiles, Arthropods, Birds, Freshwater Fishes, Marine Fishes, Marine Mammals, Molluscs, Mosses and Lichens, Terrestrial Mammals and Vascular Plants.

SARA also requires that COSEWIC establish and support a subcommittee on Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge. In 2016, the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) Subcommittee continued its efforts to produce: ATK Source Reports (which compile potential sources of documented ATK); ATK assessment reports (which summarize the relevant content of documented ATK sources); and ATK Gathering Reports (which compile non-publicly available documented and non-documented ATK that is shared directly from Indigenous communities). While no ATK reports were completed in 2016, the ATK Subcommittee worked to prioritize and select species for which ATK reports will be completed and to support COSEWIC assessments. Also, the ATK Subcommittee was invited to meet with local Okanagan Chinook Knowledge Holders and community representatives in Osoyoos, British Columbia. The gathering provided an opportunity for the Subcommittee to thank and acknowledge their contribution to the Okanagan Chinook ATK Gathering Report produced in 2015.

2.2 Wildlife species assessments since 2002

COSEWIC finalized the following wildlife species assessments, grouped in batches, between 2002 and 2016:

  • Batch 1: 115 wildlife species in May 2002, November 2002 and May 2003
  • Batch 2: 59 wildlife species in November 2003 and May 2004
  • Batch 3: 73 wildlife species in November 2004 and May 2005
  • Batch 4: 68 wildlife species in April 2006
  • Batch 5: 64 wildlife species in November 2006 and April 2007
  • Batch 6: 46 wildlife species in November 2007 and April 2008
  • Batch 7: 48 wildlife species in November 2008 and April 2009
  • Batch 8: 79 wildlife species in November 2009 and April 2010
  • Batch 9: 92 wildlife species in November 2010 and May 2011
  • Batch 10: 64 wildlife species in November 2011 and May 2012
  • Batch 11: 73 wildlife species in November 2012 and May 2013
  • Batch 12: 56 wildlife species in November 2013 and May 2014
  • Batch 13: 56 wildlife species in November 2014 and May 2015
  • Batch 14: 45 wildlife species in November 2015 and April 2016

Details on Batches 1 through 14 can be found in Table 2 (see section 3.4), and in previous SARA annual reports online.

Batch 14

At its November 2015 and April 2016 meetings, COSEWIC finalized assessments and classification reviews of 45 wildlife species:

  • seven (7) wildlife species were assessed as not at risk
  • thirty-eight (38) wildlife species were assessed as at risk, of which 8 were confirmed at the classification already attributed to them on Schedule 1 of SARA

COSEWIC forwarded these assessments to the Minister of the Environment in fall 2016.

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