by Dan Kraus, Director of National Conservation
We live on a planet that is becoming a lonelier place.
Since the first global list of 516 endangered species was released almost 60 years ago, the number of species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has grown to over 40,000. Canada has not been immune to the great global exodus of wild things. From cod to caribou, wildlife that was common just a few generations ago have rapidly declined. The number of species listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act stands at almost 700, nearly double the number from when the Act was first introduced in 2002. Despite decades of global and national commitments to stop the loss of wildlife and strong public support for wildlife conservation, we’re moving in the wrong direction.
Today debates around ecological preservation and economic progress remain, sadly, flashpoints of conflict: northern spotted owl vs. forestry jobs, greater sage-grouse vs. energy projects, western chorus frog vs. roads. Often endangered species are still positioned as the problem. Legislation intended to protect them is rebranded as red tape. Environmental assessments are declared a barrier in our pathway towards progress. As a result, endangered species laws are often eroded, never fully enforced or, as with six of Canada’s provinces and territories, simply never enacted.
These debates about endangered species laws and environmental assessments are not simple clashes between ecology and economy. They are opportunities to confront something deeper in ourselves. They are a reminder that how we treat nature says a lot about our society and what we want the future world to be.
Endangered species like Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander and Prairie Lupine that live in just a few isolated pockets of habitat need to be conserved and restored if the diversity of wildlife in Canada is to be passed on to future generations. Other endangered species, such as Monarch butterflies and Lark Buntings, are not yet rare but are rapidly declining.
Many species with declining populations are suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts as we continue to whittle away and degrade their habitats. Stopping their decline will require a change in how we use natural resources, build infrastructure, and even think about nature. Facing this need for new approaches head-on will be a challenge but provides an opening for developing creative solutions and new ways of knowing.
I’m often asked why it’s important to save endangered wildlife. Who cares if the Pale Yellow Dune Moth or Blue Ash disappears? I once provided a long list of answers. Endangered species have scientific interest and an intrinsic right to exist. These species might harbor medicines or provide other services to people. Their habitats hold back flood water, store carbon and clean our air. They are useful sentinels of environmental health.
But I’ve recently changed my answer: Protecting endangered species is important to me because I simply don’t want to be part of the generation that is responsible for the largest loss of life on Earth in 66 million years, back when an asteroid collided with our planet and blocked out the sun. Unlike the past generations that slaughtered bison or cut the last great pine forests, and who could legitimately claim ignorance about the limits of nature, we don’t have this out. Never has there been such awareness of our fate and our choices.
We still have a chance to change course, especially in Canada thanks to our large remaining wild areas. But we need to act without further delay and find a better way forward – for our own health and the health of the planet.
The work WCS Canada is doing across Canada is focused on sparking that change in course. We are working with partners, from First Nations to naturalists, on implementing new conservation approaches, such as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas. From peatlands to mountains tops, we are showing how when we protect habitat for endangered species, we help to protect the foundation of our economy and society.
If we want to protect, recover and sustain the wild places that support life, we have to start now.