Extinction isn't exclusive to species on remote tropical islands, or in the lush rainforests of South America. You might be surprised to learn that we’ve lost species in our own country. While the rates and causes of extinction in developed countries differ from those in developing countries, nations like Canada certainly aren't immune to species loss. Species that have gone extinct in Canada largely fell victim to a time when land was being conquered for human settlement, natural resources were being overharvested, and few – if any – conservation laws existed.
Species Loss 101
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the scientific body responsible for assessing and designating which wildlife species are in some danger of disappearing from Canada. COSEWIC was created in 1977 to fulfill the need for a “single, official, scientifically sound, national classification of wildlife species at risk.” Functioning under tight rules and operating procedures, COSEWIC’s sole purpose is to assess the biological realities of a species; it is not tasked with considering social or economic impacts.
Learning about the status of wildlife is all in the lingo:
- Extirpated refers to a wildlife species that no longer exists in the wild in a particular area but does exist elsewhere in the wild.
- Extinction occurs when a wildlife species no longer exists anywhere in the wild.
- Endemism refers to a species that exists only in a certain locality or region.
Ghosts of Wildlife Passed
Canada’s list of extirpated species is 23 strong and includes a variety of species from entirely different habitats that have disappeared from Canada for different reasons. Most of these species were extirpated from Canada during the early 1900s. For example, Atlantic salmon were once abundant in more than 40 tributaries in Lake Ontario but disappeared more than 100 years ago. A variety of factors since the 1800s, ranging from historical overfishing to habitat destruction caused by settlement, agriculture and damming of the river for mills, were especially detrimental to salmon. These factors also played a role in the extirpation of the paddlefish, the last of which was seen in the Great Lakes more than 70 years ago. Other species that have been extirpated based largely on historical habitat changes or activities are the grizzly bear population of the Prairies, the greater sage-grouse from B.C., timber rattlesnakes from Ontario and even the Atlantic population of grey whale. While the loss of these species or populations from Canada is a loss for all Canadians, the species fortunately do exist elsewhere.
However, not all species are so lucky. Thirteen unfortunate species are on Canada’s extinct list. Most people know that the passenger pigeon, which occupied a range from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, went extinct in 1914. But did you know that Canada also lost a subspecies of woodland caribou from the Queen Charlotte Islands in the 1930s for unknown reasons? A small, endemic fish called the Benthic Hadley Lake Stickleback became extinct in the late 1980s and early 1990s following an unauthorized introduction of catfish to its lake habitat. And if you think that national parks are the ultimate safeguard against extinction, think again – the Banff Longnose dace, a tiny slow growing fish measuring only 0.54 millimeter long, endemic to a single marsh in Banff National Park in Alberta, could not compete with the introduction of tropical fish. Experts estimate that the introduction may be due to a leak from a chlorinated swimming pool trickled into the marsh or a beaver dam that restricted the fish’s movements. The Banff Longnose dace was assessed as extinct by COSEWIC in May of 2000.
However, we no longer have an excuse. Canada has lost 36 species, but a staggering 562 more have been identified as being at some risk of extinction, and many more are in line to be assessed. From the Prairies to the Boreal to the ice floes of the North, species at risk are in need of proper management, habitat conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. From owls to oysters to plants, from whales to snakes to butterflies, from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic oceans, it is clear we need to do a better job at protecting the species that share our space.
So many people are doing extraordinary things for our imperiled species — taking action in their communities, using their consumer voice, doing research, creating habitat and demanding action from decision makers. To help species at risk, remember that individual actions count. Many reptiles are at risk because they get killed on roads — so, slow down and be extra vigilant. Recreational activity can endanger plant species, so stay on the path. The monarch butterfly is threatened by North Americans’ increased use of herbicides (which kill its primary host plant, milkweed), but you can make a difference by providing plants in your chemical-free garden that the monarch and other pollinators use. Woodland caribou decline has been influenced by climate change, so replace all your old fashioned incandescent bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent lights. Urbanization is clearly a problem for species at risk, so get involved in municipal issues.
While individual actions can do a lot for Canada’s endangered species, CWF recognizes that achieving meaningful changes to the way we manage and use our vast landscape requires a collective effort. As Canada’s largest and oldest conservation organization, not only do we have an array of programs that focus on and fund species at risk and habitat efforts, but we can also complement Canadians’ conservation actions by calling on governments to address specific threats to species at risk and, where applicable, to reevaluate legislation and policies in consideration of wildlife and overall sustainable development. We routinely remind governments, industry and all Canadians that our wildlife is our heritage and what is good for its habitat is also good for us.
CWF envisions a future where species loss will be a thing of the past; we don’t want Canadian species to go extinct. Let’s leave extinction to the dodo bird and dinosaurs and work to keep our country’s iconic species alive.