December 10, 2007

COSEWIC cites habitat loss, expanding roads, illegal hunting as leading threats to species

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) marked its 30th year of work, assessing the conservation status of 15 species at its most recent meeting in Ottawa late last month. Noteworthy in this latest round of evaluations were the reasons for declining populations of at-risk species which included habitat loss and/or fragmentation, the encroachment of roads or other industrial developments into previous wilderness areas, and illegal hunting.

A species of wood turtles known as the stomping turtle was assessed as Threatened due partly to the loss of habitat and increased road mortality. These turtles, which are found along forested creeks and rivers from the Atlantic provinces west to Ontario, stomp their feet to attract earthworms. Because of their attractive appearance and tameness, these turtles are the focus of illegal harvesting.

Collectors represent a threat to the eastern hognosed snake as well; this reptile was also assessed as Threatened. These snakes wander widely and are commonly killed on roads and are fast disappearing from southern Ontario. The non-venomous species has a tendency to inflate its neck to a cobra-like hood, hiss, strike, and eventually feign death.

A Threatened designation was assigned to the olive-sided flycatcher. This bird species, found across Canada, has been experiencing a long-term decline in numbers. As with some other recently assessed birds that feed on flying insects and winter in South America, COSEWIC says the cause of the decline is unclear.

The Committee further noted that only about 100 of Canada's only freshwater seal, the Lac des Loups Marins, still live in a small series of lakes in northern Quebec. A landlocked subspecies of the harbour seal, this seal is considered Endangered.

Listed as Endangered as well were three perennial plants, all being affected by habitat loss and the spread of invasive aliens. They include the wood poppy (restricted to three small, highly fragmented populations in southwestern Ontario), and the golden paintbrush and yellow montane violet, both found on southern Vancouver Island and adjacent islands.

The Committee's listing of the dusky dune moth and pale yellow dune moth, as Endangered and of Special Concern, respectively, reflects continuing impacts on prairie sand dune ecosystems. The dusky dune moth is associated with disappearing active dunes, while the pale yellow species lives in sparsely vegetated semi-stabilized dunes. These moths are among numerous other dune-dwelling plants and animals at risk of extinction. COSEWIC notes that a working group is collaborating with researchers to report on continuing changes to prairie dune ecosystems.

On a more positive note, the Committee upgraded the status of the canary rockfish from Endangered to Threatened, noting that improvements to management of the fishery resource since 1995 have increased abundance and reduced risks to the viability of this species.

COSEWIC defines its categories for species at risk as follows: Extinct (no longer exists); Extirpated (no longer existing in the wild in Canada, but occurring elsewhere); Endangered (facing imminent extirpation or extinction); Threatened (likely to become Endangered if limiting factors are not reversed); Special Concern (may become Threatened or Endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and recognized threats); Not at Risk (not facing extinction under current circumstances). A Data Deficient category applies when there is not enough information to determine a species' eligibility for assessment or to permit an assessment of a species' risk of extinction.

There are now 556 species in various COSEWIC risk categories, including 225 Endangered, 141 Threatened, 155 Special Concern, and 22 Extirpated Species (i.e. no longer found in the wild in Canada). In addition, 13 are Extinct and 43 are Data Deficient.

Assessment summaries are currently available to the public on the COSEWIC Web site,, and will be submitted to the Federal Minister of Environment in August 2008 for listing consideration under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

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