Obscure and unloved: Federal government spurns a chance to help boost three endangered species

August  6, 2012

The Wild Side, Part 1

As the human footprint expands across Canada, so does the threat to the country’s wildlife. There are now 650 species officially listed as endangered, threatened, of special concern, or no longer found in the wild in Canada. Government and environmentalists have often tussled over conservation efforts.  Postmedia News science writer Margaret Munro  looks at some vulnerable species across the country, beginning with those that are most unloved.

Part 1

Senior Staff Scientist at Ecojustice, Susan Pinkus is pictured at Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC (BEN NELMS for Postmedia News)

VANCOUVER – In a good year, the tangle of leaves and stems on southern Vancouver Island can grow up to six metres long. It’s been sprouting out of the ground every spring for decades.

The plant, a Coast Manroot that grows from huge, human-sized underground tubers, is one of Canada’s most endangered species. It’s also one of the most obscure and unloved.

Maintenance crews and mowers have been whacking away at the plant near Victoria – one of the 18 known manroots still alive in Canada – and grazing animals have trampled and killed several others.

But the latest insult has come from Ottawa.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has decided the Coast Manroot is not worth listing as an endangered species despite a recommendation by top wildlife advisers to do so.

There are plenty of the plants in the United States, and the federal government says money and resources in Canada are better spent on other species.

“They’ve basically said ‘We can lose this one, it doesn’t matter,’ ” says Matt Fairbarns, a Victoria-based botanist who, like many wildlife experts, is unnerved by the recent decision.

The minister has also decided not to list two extremely rare species in eastern Canada: Laura’s Clubtail, a dragon fly found near two fast-moving sandy streams in southwestern Ontario, and the Four-leaved Milkweed that clings to life near the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

The government “is taking a pragmatic approach so that available resources can be allocated most efficiently and directed to species where we can make the most significant difference,” Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada media officer, said in an email about the decisions, which were made public in July. He would not say how much the government will save by not giving the manroot, dragonfly and milkweed federal protection.

But critics say the government’s decision to abandon species in Canada because they are common in the U.S. is unprecedented. They fear it is a sign of big changes to come in the federal government’s approach to species at risk.

“If applied generally, this approach could lead to dangerous degradation of Canada’s southern ecosystems,” says Susan Pinkus, senior scientist at Ecojustice, a not-for-profit legal foundation.

Of the almost 300 terrestrial species at risk in Canada, wildlife experts say more than 75 per cent are found in the U.S. and extend into this country at the northern end of their geographic range.

Many are in “biodiversity hotspots” in southern B.C., the southern prairies and the Carolinian forest in southern Ontario, where everything from endangered turtles to ancient rodents compete for space with the millions of people also clustered close to the U.S. border.

Leonard says the committee uses the best information available and internationally accepted criteria for assessing species.

“And at the end of the exercise we recommended these three species should be listed as endangered,” says Leonard, who declined to comment on Kent’s decision not to take the scientists’ advice.

Some say the decision is “inconsistent” with the federal Species At Risk Act, known as SARA, which was designed to prevent wildlife from disappearing from Canada. “They have basically subverted the Species at Risk Act,” says Fairbarns.

Decisions about protecting species are meant to be driven by scientific assessment but there has long been concern that being cute and cuddly helps. Looks can even give bugs an edge – judging by the government’s reason for adding Wallis’ Dark Saltflat Tiger Beetle to list of Canada’s endangered species. The flashy metallic insect is rarely seen, and believed to occur in Canada at only one spot in southern B.C.

Fairbarns notes SARA was designed to help preserve the thousands of species that live and interact in Canada’s natural landscapes, regardless of how they look or if they are found elsewhere.”Wildlife, in all its forms, has value in and of itself,” the act states.

“It’s like protecting nice cathedrals in Canada, even if though there are nice cathedrals all around the world,” says Fairbarns, who is one of the few people in Canada who would know a manroot if they tripped over one.

It is so rare that Fairbarns and his colleagues, who wrote the COSEWIC status report on the manroot, found only 18 plants growing at three different spots. They had been growing at a fourth location but those manroots are long gone, likely “destroyed by trampling of gazing animals,” the team reports.

Fruit on one of Canada’s last few remaining coast manroots. Photo by Matt Fairbarns

Records of the manroot near Victoria date back to 1898, raising the possibility that the plant beside one weedy roadside is more than 100 years old.

“It’s a very cool plant,” says Fairbarns. “If you went for a walk in the woods it’s the sort of thing you’d absolutely point out to your kids or friends and say ‘Look at the huge vine clamouring all over the pace with its bizarre fruit’.”

Asked how much the government is saving by not listing manroot and the other two species, Johnson sidestepped: “We are taking active steps to ensure that we are spending resources diligently and responsibly, and ensuring that recovery efforts are focused on species that have a greater chance of recovery in Canada.”

Pinkus doubts it would have cost the government much to protect the three species. “I can’t imagine it would have been very expensive,” says Pinkus, noting that federal recovery strategies can sometime be 10 to 20 pages long, and in the past have often been written by academics volunteering their time.

Listing manroot, dragonfly and milkweed as federally endangered species would have required the government to produce recovery strategies for the three species. Endangered-species status can also help qualify for funding – both government and private – to help pay for clearing invasive weeds or posting signs to protect at-risk species. Listing as an endangered species under SARA can also provide for federal oversight, if provinces fail to protect at-risk species.

“The problem is if you don’t list it, you can loose it,” says Pinkus.

While small isolated northern populations may seem unimportant, wildlife experts say populations at the northern edge of their range can be genetically distinct because they are isolated, which may be a big advantage as the climate changes and southern populations start to die off. They can also be important for reintroduction programs; a short-haired bee from Sweden was recently used to repopulate Britain with the long-lost pollinator.

If the government intends to stop protecting so-called “peripheral” species at the northern end of their range, Fairbarns says it should be addressed in an open, transparent way.

“We are playing with the future of Canada’s environment here, little piece by little piece,” says Pinkus.

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