Canada is wasting scarce resources on conserving species that are not threatened elsewhere.
Some Canadian scientists advocate that conservation efforts focus on species unique to this country, while others advocate a more global approach. However, most ignore the fact that the border between the US and Canada breeds endangered species.
Scientists preserve their objectivity by excluding politics from their research. The truth, however, is that conservation science cannot help but be geopolitical. We must consider the global context when designing protections for Canadian threatened species and biodiversity.
It’s time to talk about chats
Take the case of the Yellow-breasted Chat, a charismatic warbler listed as endangered under the federal (Canadian) Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Canadian fragment of the Southern Mountain subspecies survives in a few locations in BC along the Okanagan and Similkameen rivers.
A 2014 federal Action Plan estimated BC’s entire population at 170 breeding pairs. However, according to the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List, the global population is about 17 million in North America.
As a result, Chat’s status is “Least Concern”, the lowest in the IUCN classification.
The Federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) states that the Southern Mountain subspecies “occurs in the extreme north of its range in Canada” as a peripheral to the huge central American population.
In other words, the yellow-breasted chatterbox is listed as endangered in Canada because, in 1846, the British accepted that the border with the US should be at the 49th parallel.
In danger or not?
The question then is: should conservation efforts be dedicated to small Canadian populations of otherwise healthy species?
Elder Richard Armstrong’s traditional story illuminates why Chat, which his people call xʷaʔɬqʷiləm’ (whaa-th-quil lem), is important to Nsyilxcən-speaking cross-border peoples. This story is an example of the cultural values that always shape conservation laws, both in Canada and around the world, and that provide good reasons for legal protection of even precious peripheral populations. The First Nation’s special care for Chat, in turn, makes it more likely that COSEWIC’s listing will help.
But not in all cases. In a soon-to-be-published study on the conservation status of transboundary mammal species in Canada and the US, Cardiff University PhD student Sarah Raymond, Cardiff University School of Biosciences Sarah Perkins, and I found Only six species – including the polar bear, forest bison and two species of right whale – have been listed by COSEWIC and US authorities.
Of the 20 transboundary species listed in only one country, 17 were listed only in Canada. Fourteen of them were, like the chat, “least concern” globally, while only one bat species, Myotis lucifugus, was universally assessed as threatened with extinction.
Other research supports our findings.
A recent study found that 22% of species that straddled the US-Canadian border were only protected on one side – almost always in Canada. The authors, however, take it for granted that peripheral populations deserve to have a high conservation status.
Another study scored 729 species, subspecies and populations listed in COSEWIC to assess the global context of these conservation measures. The study questions the fact that:
“In many cases,…subspecies units (e.g., twelve types of caribou) and peripheral populations of globally secure species are receiving high priority, while endemic and globally threatened species are neglected.”
Sometimes isolated populations, such as fishermen in the Colombian region, are valued because they are genetically distinct, but these should be rare exceptions. Instead, Canada has so many abandoned peripheral populations on the wrong side of the border that Fred Bunnell, a forest ecologist at UBC, called the phenomenon a “jurisdictional rarity.” Bunnell argued that:
“Efforts to conserve species that are locally rare but globally common often ignore the ecologically marginal nature of the habitat and population. They engage in a struggle with nature.”
Overcoming jurisdictional rarity
I live on one of the thin patches of shrub steppe that snakes from the U.S. Columbia Plateau through Osoyoos to Kamloops—an area that seems purposefully built to be a jurisdictional rarity.
Take for example the burrowing owl, a ground-nesting raptor with an angry facial expression.
The bird, although protected in BC since 2004, is virtually absent from the province. Meanwhile, the IUCN distribution map for the Burrowing Owl (Least Concern) extends from Alberta to Argentina.
BC has spent considerable resources on reintroducing the owl to the province. Ecologists could defend its role as a grassland predator, and British Columbians might, if they had a choice, like to see charming bird species thriving in the province. However, this choice, which is possibly “a struggle with nature”, is never presented as a political choice.
Public information about endangered species avoids jurisdictional rarity, leaving decisions to scientists and bureaucrats.
Reframing the conversation
The Ontario Endangered Species Act (OESA) was praised by conservationists because, unlike SARA, it gave scientists the power to impose automatic listing without political interference.
Doug Ford’s government offended the OESA with its More Homes, More Choices Act in 2019, even though it included a sensible requirement that the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) consider jurisdictional rarity.
Scientists opposing Ford’s push for real estate developers want the legislation restored to its former glory, meaning COSSARO would list species “based on their status in Ontario only, as was done previously.” But why?
Overlisting should not be a partisan issue. Scientists may feel protective of the Canadian populations they know and love, but citizens will not want limited resources to be wasted on conserving non-threatened species. Scientific and political processes clogged with peripheral species make it less likely that critically endangered species will be saved.
Read more: Environmental laws in Canada fail to solve the current biodiversity crisis
Some biologists argue that effective conservation requires strict laws that put scientists alone in charge of listing and protection (at least on public lands). I would argue, however, that legitimacy, not coercive power, is the most precious asset in conservation.
Social science research shows that the majority of Canadians, regardless of origin, want species protected, but their support – vital in a vast nation like Canada – is weak. It depends on the belief that listing processes are democratically legitimate and that listed species deserve protection.
Whenever there are good reasons to protect peripheral species, these arguments should be public and open to debate.
My field – environmental humanities – is often better at asking awkward questions than proposing solutions. In this case, however, I have a simple recommendation: new conservation laws, like those BC is considering, should require that peripheral species be identified transparently, using agreed-upon definitions such as “threatened in BC” or “threatened in Canada”. If that happens, I would vote to retain the Okanagan chats anyway.