News on the biodiversity front is mostly discouraging. So, when good news appears, we want to savour it and feel confident that it’s real. Unfortunately, under the Government of Ontario’s bungling of species protection, recovery and reporting to the public, even good news is suspect.
Despite the cheery tone of some captive-wildlife photo ops on “Endangered Species Day”, Ontario doesn’t have much to celebrate when it comes to species at risk. And now the normal metrics of success – the improvement in a species rarity status – can’t be trusted.
In a normally-functioning jurisdiction, the “downlisting” of an endangered species – wherein its status is changed to a lower-risk category – is a reason to celebrate. It’s usually a sign that regulatory measures like endangered species legislation and ensuing habitat protection and restoration are working to facilitate recovery. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary drivers of species’ decline.
The downlisting of American ginseng is one such example.
This rare forest plant, listed as endangered federally and provincially for over 20 years, has been declining steadily for decades, even in protected areas. Its decline has been ongoing for centuries, as it was harvested and shipped back to Europe by Jesuits for its medicinal properties while European settlers cleared the shady deciduous forests that it grows in. Since then, the threats to its survival have only increased. Poaching, habitat loss, invasive species, climate change, and over-browsing by deer have left Canada’s wild ginseng populations a fraction of what they likely once were. Biologists have tracked this decline since it was first declared as endangered.
Environmental organizations and former government biologists with expertise in the species authored formal submissions to the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), arguing that ginseng should remain endangered, as it was “facing imminent extinction or extirpation”. Despite this, COSSARO choose to downlist ginseng’s status to threatened, or “likely to become endangered if steps are not taken to address factors threatening to lead to its extinction or extirpation”.
When it was first conceived, COSSARO was modelled on the federal listing body, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Like its federal counterpart, it was intended to be composed of independent experts. In the optimistic days of the early 2000s, conservationists hoped that the new provincial committee even improved upon the federal model by reducing the potential for listing delays, as its recommendations result in automatic regulation under the provincial Endangered Species Act.
COSSARO is now composed largely of consultants. In the case of ginseng, the committee used poor evidence to decide that the species was doing well enough elsewhere to warrant downlisting. Yet according to their own report, the species is doing just as badly in Quebec, which used to be its other Canadian stronghold. To the south in New York state the data is equivocal that it is still in decline.
Through their downlisting of a clearly endangered species, Ontario is showing that using the best available science in species at risk decision-making is no longer a requirement.
The science-based reasons to downlist a species at risk are in fact well defined, and need no tampering around the edges. A species should be downlisted when the threats to its populations have been reduced, when its populations have increased, or when new populations have been found. Downlisting signals success and is something a jurisdiction should be proud of, rather than something that signals disregard for basic conservation science.
Corina Brdar has spent her career working in and for nature in Ontario and across Canada. She provides leadership for Ontario Nature’s conservation policy initiatives as the Conservation Policy and Planning Manager. Her other vocation is sharing the practice of nature journaling with others.
Rachel Plotkin is in her seventeenth year at the David Suzuki Foundation, where she works to protect wildlife and support Indigenous land governance.
Ontario Nature is a charity that has been protecting wild species and wild spaces through education, conservation and public engagement since 1931. We are there when nature needs us most.