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'Very sobering': Canada’s wildlife continues to decline, WWF report says

Half of monitored species are declining despite conservation efforts, according to WWF Canada report.

An endangered Southern Resident killer whale breaches in the Haro Straight.

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Natalie Bowes/WWF Canada / WWF Canada

An endangered Southern Resident killer whale breaches in the Haro Straight.

Two million caribou used to cover the Arctic plains in Canada. Now, some herds have shrunk more than 90 per cent.

B.C. rivers used to teem with Chinook salmon, but now stocks have been cut in half and the orcas that rely on them for food are on the brink of extinction.

Bobolink birds used to thrive in Canada’s grasslands, but now, farm machinery kills more than 650,000 a year.

These are just three examples of wildlife struggling to survive in Canada despite being protected under federal legislation. They’re clear signs Canadians need to act before it’s too late to save animals from sliding into extinction, according to World Wildlife Fund Canada.

The non-profit released a comprehensive report Thursday that details the state of wildlife across the country in an index that includes data on more than 900 species.

The report paints an alarming picture, said David Miller, president and CEO of WWF Canada.  

“The magnitude of the collective threat to wildlife hasn’t been looked at in this way and to this depth for a very long time — perhaps not ever. So the magnitude of this is new and very sobering.”

WWF’s Living Planet Index focuses on vertebrate species —animals with a backbone — and found that half of monitored species are in decline. In fact, the populations of those species are dropping by an average of four per cent per year. 

That rate could mean extinction for low reproductive species already on the brink, like the St. Lawrence belugas and Southern Resident killer whales.

Other issues, such as the dramatic plight of the endangered North Atlantic right whales, which saw 15 members of its species die just this summer, are so recent that they are not included in this report.

But that example fits a troubling trend that shows even species deemed “at-risk” are in decline, said James Snider, vice president of science, research and innovation at WWF Canada and lead author of the report.

“Perhaps of most concern in our study is those species that are listed federally have in fact declined by 63 per cent since 1970 and most recently, the rate of decline for these species doesn’t seem to be improving. 

"It may even be increasing after 2002,” said Snider.

Creating protected areas for species as soon as they are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act is one of the most effective things policymakers can do, he explained. But the current process can take years and precarious populations can’t afford that, said Snider.

“Canada has made a commitment in terms of meeting a set standard for protected areas and we are ranked last among the G7 countries.”

The report recommends a $200-million federal-spending boost over four years for the species at risk program in order to protect entire ecosystems in a timely manner.
Species at risk are threatened by a combination of factors ranging from over-harvesting to habitat change to pollution. 

Conservation efforts so far have failed to pull most of those species from their fall toward extinction, according to the report.

That means prevention is likely the best way to save the rest of Canada’s wildlife, said Snider.

“Ideally we’d be preventing species from reaching that point in the first place. The kind of recovery it takes to take them back from the brink is really challenging.”

WWF-Canada is convening a National Summit to Reverse the Decline of Wildlife in early 2018.

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