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COSEWIC: assessing Canadian species at risk

December 3, 2010

From 2001 to 2009 I had the honour to sit on COSEWIC–the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada–as the bird co-chair.  COSEWIC has about 40 members; half of them nominated by jurisdictions (provinces, territories, the federal government) and half representing species groups (e.g. mammals, birds, fish, vascular plants).  There are also two members representing the aborginal traditional knowledge committee.  COSEWIC has a mandate to assess the status of Canadian wildlife species and advise the federal government as to which should be listed under the Species at Risk Act.

White-headed Woodpecker: Endangered

At my first COSEWIC meeting I was impressed by a number of things.  First, the amount of knowledge and commitment in the room was truly amazing.  Secondly, all the members voted and discussed all the species on the agenda, so there was a consistency in the approach across a wide variety of animals and plants.  Thirdly, a two-thirds majority was needed to pass a motion on status, so something approaching consensus had to be achieved for each species.  Sometimes this took an hour or more of spirited discussion, but in almost all cases everyone felt that the right decision had been made.  I was also heartened to see that jurisdictional representatives (as they are directed to do) had “left their jurisdictional hats at the door”, engaging in discussions and presumably voting based on  their own knowledge and expert opinion, not that of their employers.

Western Screech-Owl, interior subspecies:  Endangered

COSEWIC meetings were a lot of work–I had to get 5 or 10 bird status reports ready for the committee, then read the 30 to 60 status reports from other species groups so that I could engage properly in the discussions or voting.  But I thoroughly enjoyed the sessions and learned a great deal about mosses, whales, mussels, and the country that I live in.  I still sit on the COSEWIC bird subcommittee, so help out in the preparation and editing of the bird status reports.  And I look forward to getting news from the spring and fall species assessment meetings to see which species are in trouble, and occasionally, which species are in better shape than they were a decade ago.

Sage Thrasher: Endangered

COSEWIC reports promptly on its findings, both to the public and to the federal government.  The government must decide whether to accept COSEWIC’s recommendations on species status, or whether to leave a species off the Species At Risk Act because of socioeconomic reasons.  This relationship creates some tension between COSEWIC and the government, but at least the decisions by both parties are open to public scrutiny.

I’ve summarized below the bird results from the latest COSEWIC species assessment meeting held in late November.  If you’d like the full report from that meeting, click here.  COSEWIC has now assessed a total of 631 Canadian taxa at some level of risk, as well as 171 taxa that were deemed not at risk and 49 species for which there simply wasn’t enough information for assessment.  For a full listing of all these assessments, click here.

Barn Owl:   The Barn Owl occurs in two widely separated populations in Canada, a western population in southwestern British Columbia, and an eastern population in extreme southern Ontario.  The western population was reassessed as Threatened, up from its former status as Special Concern, because of loss of habitat through urbanization and intensification of agriculture.  The eastern population, which consists of only 5 or 10 pairs at most, remains as Endangered.

White-headed Woodpecker:  This woodpecker, one of Canada’s most-wanted species by birders, was reassessed as Endangered.  The main concern for this species in Canada is its small range and population (restricted largely to the south Okanagan valley with only a few reports each year) and habitat degradation through past logging activity, high forest fire threat and loss of mature ponderosa pines to pine beetles.

Sage Thrasher:  The Sage Thrasher is found in the south Okanagan valley in British Columbia and in extreme southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.  Both populations are small and are faced with habitat loss.

Cerulean Warbler:  This warbler is found in areas of undisturbed hardwood forests in southern Ontario and Quebec; fewer than 1000 breed in the country.  Cerulean Warbler populations are declining rapidly across their range and the situation seems to be worsening; it was uplisted from Special Concern to Endangered.


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