Species at Risk Act annual report for 2017: chapter 2

2. Assessment of species at risk

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) defines a process for conducting assessments of the status of individual wildlife species. The Act separates the 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 made up of wildlife experts from government, academia, Indigenous organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. It assesses the status of wildlife species in Canada that it considers to be at risk and identifies existing and potential threats to the species.

The federal government provides financial support to COSEWIC. 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 Indigenous traditional knowledge. COSEWIC prioritizes species for assessment, by using the general status ranks that are outlined in the report called Wild Species – The General Status of Species in Canada, which is published every five years by ECCC and the National General Status Working Group. COSEWIC provides assessments and supporting evidence annually to the Minister of the Environment.

COSEWIC assesses wildlife species into six categories

  1. Extinct: wildlife species no longer exists anywhere in the world.
  2. Extirpated: wildlife species no longer exists in the wild in Canada but exists elsewhere in the world.
  3. Endangered:  wildlife species faces imminent extirpation or extinction.
  4. Threatened: wildlife species is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction.
  5. Special concern: wildlife species may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.
  6. Not at risk: the wildlife species has no immediate risk or COSEWIC may not have sufficient information to classify the species.

Further details on risk categories and more information on COSEWIC can be found online.

ECCC, PCA, and DFO give input towards the assessment process. Input is provided by staff experts who are members of COSEWIC, as well as 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 2017, ECCC continued to contribute data that is used to assess species at risk, and guide recovery efforts. For example:

  • In the Yukon, ECCC biologists established annual roadside surveys of bumble bees to monitor populations of Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee, Western Bumble Bee, and Yellow-banded Bumble Bee.
  • In British Columbia, occupancy surveys for the vascular plant Grand Coulee Owl-clover have increased what is known about this species’ distribution and population size, as well as the threats that it faces.
  • In southern Ontario, biologists carried out surveys for grassland and open-habitat birds to provide better information on their distribution, trends, breeding phenologies and habitat associations. Roadside point counts were conducted and acoustic recorders were used to improve survey coverage for several species, including Grasshopper Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Bobolink, and Eastern Meadowlark.

Also in 2017, PCA continued to keep track of the distribution of the species found within the lands and waters it administers. The information contributes to the Wild Species reports, COSEWIC status reports and the development of PCA site-based action plans. PCA also reviewed 78 COSEWIC status reports for both terrestrial and aquatic species that are found in the lands and waters it administers.

DFO submits peer-reviewed data to COSEWIC to support assessments of aquatic species. The peer-review involves government scientists, experts from academia, and other stakeholders. In 2017, DFO hosted a peer-review meeting regarding Lake Utopia Rainbow Smelt, Canary Rockfish and Rougheye Rockfish and provided reports on 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 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.

COSEWIC also established an Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee. In 2017 this committee continued its efforts to produce:

  • ATK Source Reports (which compile potential sources of 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).

There were a number of ATK reports completed in 2017 for wildlife species such as Bowhead Whale, Killer Whale, Abalone and Goose-neck Barnacle, Short-eared Owl, Greater Sage-Grouse, and Western Chorus Frog. The subcommittee produced ATK reports on bees & berries and a Lake Sturgeon gap analysis report. It also compiled a list of potential ecosystem-based ATK projects to be considered for future work. Ongoing work includes the prioritization and selection of wildlife species for which ATK reports will be completed as well as the review of COSEWIC status reports to ensure that available ATK is appropriately and accurately integrated.

2.2 Wildlife species assessments

From 2002 to 2016, COSEWIC assessed and classified more than 900 wildlife species in 14 batches. Batch 15, consisting of 73 wildlife species was completed from November 2016 to April 2017. COSEWIC forwarded these assessments to the Minister of the Environment in October 2017, which included:

  • Six (6) wildlife species examined and found to be data deficient.
  • Eleven (11) wildlife species assessed as not at risk (includes one species previously assessed as Endangered, listed on Schedule 1 of SARA, and another species previously assessed as Special Concern, listed on Schedule 3 of SARA).
  • One (1) wildlife species was assessed as extinct (formerly known under another name and previously assessed as Extirpated, listed on Schedule 1 of SARA).
  • Fifty-five (55) wildlife species were assessed as at risk, of which 21 were confirmed at the classification already attributed to them on Schedule 1 of SARA.
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