Dra­matic de­cline in wildlife: Re­port

WWF-Canada study finds pop­u­la­tions among species on the de­cline have dropped by 83 per cent on av­er­age


A new re­port from WWF-Canada paints a dire pic­ture of Canada’s wildlife, find­ing that fully half of the species mon­i­tored have de­clined since 1970.

Among the species that are on the de­cline, pop­u­la­tions have dropped by a whop­ping 83 per cent on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the liv­ing planet in­dex, a mea­sure of bio­di­ver­sity based on pop­u­la­tion trends.

“The sheer mag­ni­tude of it is re­ally very, very sober­ing,” said David Miller, pres­i­dent and CEO of WWF-Canada.

The study in­cludes iconic species like the wood­land cari­bou, which has been los­ing habi­tat to log­ging, min­ing, and oil and gas de­vel­op­ment, as well as lesser-known species like the pip­ing plover, a small shore­bird that’s drop­ping in num­bers due to de­vel­op­ment and beach use.

Al­to­gether, the re­port in­cludes 3,689 pop­u­la­tions of 903 ver­te­brate species in Canada that have been mon­i­tored be­tween 1970 and 2014. Re­searchers com­piled ex­ist­ing data from gov­ern­ment data­bases, aca­demic analy­ses and com­mu­nity-based mon­i­tor­ing ini­tia­tives. It’s the first re­port of its kind in a decade.

“Pretty much in ev­ery re­gion, there’s some group of species that is de­clin­ing,” said James Snider, vi­cepres­i­dent of science, re­search and in­no­va­tion for WWF-Canada.

The ma­jor threats to bio­di­ver­sity, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, are habi­tat loss, cli­mate change, pol­lu­tion, un­sus­tain­able har­vest­ing and in­va­sive species.

It’s not all bad news, how­ever. Though the re­port finds that 451 mon­i­tored species are on the de­cline, an­other 407 have in­creased in abun­dance since 1970. Some of those are an­i­mals that have adapted well to liv­ing along­side hu­mans. Oth­ers have been tar­geted by spe­cific con­ser­va­tion ef­forts. Birds of prey, for in­stance, have been on the up­swing since the ban­ning of DDT, a pes­ti­cide that was found to thin their eggshells.

The re­port also takes aim at Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA), en­acted in 2002. The re­sults show at-risk species may have ac­tu­ally de­clined faster since SARA came into force, though it may take decades be­fore some species show the ben­e­fits of the act.

Miller said part of the prob­lem is the time it takes to of­fi­cially list species at risk and then take steps to pro­tect them. The St. Lawrence bel­uga, for ex­am­ple, was listed as threat­ened in 2005, but a re­cov­ery strat­egy wasn’t pub­lished un­til 2012. The whale was up­graded to en­dan­gered in 2017.

“There needs to be a sense of ur­gency,” Miller said.

Still, some sci­en­tists ar­gue that the liv­ing planet in­dex should be taken with a grain of salt. Stephen Buck­land, a sta­tis­tics pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of St. An­drews in the U.K., said such bio­di­ver­sity in­di­ca­tors can be mis­lead­ing.

For one thing, there’s of­ten more re­search avail­able on at-risk species than on healthy ones, which could mean the liv­ing planet in­dex in­cludes a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of data from pop­u­la­tions in de­cline. That could skew the over­all re­sults, he said. “You’d ex­pect the bi­ases to re­flect more de­cline than there is.”

Buck­land, who pub­lished a pa­per on this is­sue in the jour­nal Bi­o­log­i­cal Con­ser­va­tion in Au­gust, is re­luc­tant to crit­i­cize the liv­ing planet in­dex too harshly, be­cause it’s un­doubt­edly true that many ver­te­brates are dwin­dling in num­bers.

“There’s hard ev­i­dence of de­cline in a num­ber of species for an­thro­pogenic rea­sons, and the ex­tinc­tion rate is a lot greater now,” Buck­land said.

Still, he be­lieves it’s “re­ally pretty im­pos­si­ble to get a scheme that will hold water” for bio­di­ver­sity mon­i­tor­ing on a large scale, and wor­ries that this in­dex, de­spite good in­ten­tions, is “quite badly bi­ased.”

“I’m not sure it does any favours in the long term,” he said.

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