Canada’s great plains once literally teemed with millions of Plains Bison (Bison bison bison). Similarly, Canada’s Atlantic region once had huge populations of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) – so massive they were thought to be inexhaustible. These species, so fundamental to ecosystem processes and, quite literally, the development of our country during and post-European contact, now exist in numbers that are mere fragments of their former glory. While hopes still linger for a meaningful recovery of Atlantic cod, the Plains Bison will never recover to historical sizes owing to profound changes to their habitat.
At the recent COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) species assessment meeting in Ottawa (November 28 – December 2), the Barren-ground Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) was assessed as Threatened and the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) was assessed as Endangered owing, in large part, to the massive declines that have been recorded in the population sizes in both species over the past 10 years. While it has been known for millennia that Barren-ground Caribou undergo natural fluctuations in population size, the recent declines are so severe (up to 80% in some herds) that it is very unclear if they can rebound given human-induced changes to their landscape.
The trends for these iconic Canadian species is sadly reminiscent of the demise of the Plains Bison and Atlantic cod, but we hope that, ultimately, history will not repeat itself in terms of the Barren-ground Caribou and Monarch butterfly, but the immediate outlook is grave.
A total of 40 wildlife species were assessed at the COSEWIC meeting: from lichens and mosses to British Columbia’s interior Fraser River Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch, Threatened) to birds, plants, and turtles; the vast majority (30) were assessed as being at some level of risk of extinction (Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern). For more information on the results of the assessment meeting see COSEWIC’s press release.