Canadian wildlife experts have designated both the caribou and monarch butterfly as endangered species, adding to a list of species on the brink which already includes the killer whale, the piping plover and the rusty-patched bumble bee, among others.
Meeting last week under the auspices of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) the group produced its semi-annual assessment of the health of wildlife species in the country, with experts agreeing to raise the alert on two prominent migratory species, the iconic caribou and the much-loved monarch butterfly, both of whose migratory routes have been severely impacted by human development and industry.
“Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing Caribou more and more,” says Justina Ray, co-chair of COSEWIC’s Terrestrial Mammals Subcommittee. “These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North.”
COSEWIC focused on two caribou populations in particular. The Barren Ground caribou, which is found mainly in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and makes up about half of all of Canada’s caribou, was designated as Threatened, while the Torngat Mountain caribou, a smaller herd in Northeastern Labrador and Quebec, was determined to be Endangered.
The state of Arctic caribou herds is grim, with some groups having lost up to 98 per cent of their numbers over the last half-century, according to World Wildlife Federation-Canada. “The decline of barren-ground caribou is one of the greatest wildlife conservation concerns in Canada,” says WWF-Canada president and CEO, David Miller. “The caribou grace Canada’s 25-cent coins, but if we don’t act soon, there’s a risk that the only place Canadians will see caribou in abundance is on the quarter.”
WWF-Canada attributes the declines in caribou to warmer temperatures which affect sea ice conditions along caribou migration routes and cause spring rains (which can freeze over and block the caribou’s access to lichen) as well as increased industrial development in the North.
COSEWIC also upgraded the Monarch butterfly’s status to Endangered, with the committee calling for conservation of milkweed (the Monarch caterpillar’s only food source) along the butterfly’s migratory route. The much-loved species travels from Canada, through the U.S. and into Mexico, where conservation of the Monarch’s localized wintering areas are in need of more protection, says COSEWIC, which notes that the Monarch butterfly is the first and only species to have its migration behaviour to be designated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a “threatened process.” Without immediate conservation action, “Monarch migration may disappear and Canada may lose this iconic species,” says Jennifer Heron with COSEWIC.
COSEWIC assessed 40 different wildlife species in various risk categories at its recent meeting, including the Coho Salmon from the Interior Fraser River which improved its status from Endangered to Threatened, the Blanding’s Turtles which were assessed as Endangered in both Nova Scotia and central Canada and the widely distributed Blue Shark which was determined to be Not At Risk in Canada.
Comprised of members from provincial and territorial wildlife agencies, federal entities and various other committees, COSEWIC’s recommendations are submitted to the Federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, which then determines the species to be listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.