By Connie Bryson
Different endangered species appear on different endangered species lists. You'll find the American white pelican, for example, on Alberta's list, but not on the national list from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
"Lists are simply a way of organizing things," says Steve Brechtel, senior non-game biologist with Alberta Environmental Protection. "They are constructed differently depending on the context. Geography, politics, culturethey all play a role."
The American white pelican used to be on the COSEWIC list but populations have recently come back in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Alberta still has only six to nine colonies, so pelicans will stay on Alberta's list until there's a local recovery.
"No matter how these lists are constructed, there's a biological reality to all of them," says Brechtel. "These animals and plants are in trouble. Range is shrinking, populations are declining, habitat is being lostthe major causes of species loss.
"The most important thing about lists is that the species on them need action. And 99 per cent of the time, the reason is something we've done. So we have to do something to get them off the list. An endangered species list is an identification of need, a call to action."
In Alberta, an endangered species list appears in the provincial Wildlife Act. For these 12 species, disturbing a nest or den is illegal and there are substantial penalties for killing or trafficking: fines of up to $100,000 or six months in jail.
The act is not as strong on habitat protection, however, the main reason why many species are in peril.
The Wildlife Act covers only 12 species, all non-fish vertebrates. But the list of species in trouble in Alberta is longer than that. The restamphibians, reptiles, birds and mammalsare found on the "red list" of The Status of Alberta Wildlife.
The Status of Alberta Wildlife is more than an endangered species list. It organizes all Alberta wildlife into five categories:
BLUE -These species are also at risk-18 of them-but the threats they face are less immediate. Species that are generally suspected of being vulnerable, but for which information is too limited to clearly define their status, have also been placed in this category.
YELLOW -These are sensitive species that are not at risk. They may require special management to address concerns related to low natural populations, limited provincial distribution or particular biological features (e.g., colonial nesting, narrow habitat requirements). They include the common loon, plains garter snake and moose.
GREEN -These species are not at risk. Their populations are healthy and their key habitats are generally secure. This category also includes nonresident migrants and species whose occurrence in Alberta is accidental or peripheral to their normal distribution. Examples of green species are the ruffed grouse and black bear.
STATUS UNDETERMINED -This category lists species not considered at risk, but for which insufficient information is currently available to determine an accurate status.
"The status document will always need updating because we are always gathering information,É says Brechtel. Environmental Protection will produce a new Status in 1996. Despite the gaps, Brechtel says The Status of Alberta Wildlife is a very powerful piece of information. "It informs government, other decisions makers, industry and individuals."
But The Status of Alberta Wildlife does not include plants or insects.
"It's a no man's land for plants," says Joyce Gould, a biologist with Alberta Environmental Protection. "No provincial agency has a mandate for plant protection. Some plants get protection by default through natural areas and ecological preserves, but it's not comprehensive."
There are, however, some encouraging signs for plants and insects. The Alberta Native Plant Council is developing a list of rare vascular plants of Alberta. And a new joint initiative between Alberta Environmental Protection and Parks Canada is aimed at developing a database of selected species of vascular plants, mosses, invertebrates and vertebrates.
The project is modelled on the databases maintained by the Conservation Data Centres in the U.S. The first part of the project is focused on species in the Rocky Mountains and foothills, and the Elk Island area.
"The uses for the database go beyond government to industry and members of the public," says Gould. "It will be vital for managing land, siting facilities, selecting protected areas and monitoring populations. The key is having good information."
COSEWIC makes the list of endangered species for all of Canada. It is a volunteer committee of representatives from the provincial, territorial and federal governments and three national conservation organizations.
COSEWIC's mandate includes all native fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and vascular plants. It does not include invertebrate animals and non-vascular plants, such as mosses and lichens.
COSEWIC updates its list annually and uses the following risk categories:
EXTIRPATED-A species no longer existing in the wild in Canada but occurring elsewhere.
ENDANGERED-A species threatened with imminent extinction or extirpation throughout all or a significant portion of its Canadian range.
THREATENED-A species likely to become endangered in Canada if the factors affecting its vulnerability are not reversed.
VULNERABLE-A species particularly at risk because of low or declining numbers, small range or for some other reason, but not a threatened species.
There's no legislative backing to the COSEWIC list.
"I've heard people say that if there isn't a law behind an endangered species list, it means nothing," says COSEWIC chairman Chris Shank. "I don't believe that laws are the answer to everything. There are some very real benefits to being on the COSEWIC list-public awareness is raised, endangered species recovery funding is more easily available and recovery plans are put in place."
The committee for the Recovery of Nationally Endangered Wildlife (RENEW), whose membership is similar to COSEWIC, approves recovery plans.
Only terrestrial vertebrates have recovery plans now, mainly because these animals fall clearly within the mandate of provincial wildlife directors. Fish and marine mammals, because they fall under federal jurisdiction, make for more of a bureaucratic challenge.
"However we are looking at ways to make recovery plans deal with more than individual species on an ecosystem basis," says Shank. "This approach makes sense because endangered species are concentrated in certain areas, in particular the southern Okanagan, the prairies,and the Carolinian area in southwestern Ontario.
"This approach is very different from dealing with separate species. It's more idiosyncratic and more difficult to make rules and bureaucratic procedures for. But that's also a strength, the ecosystem approach tends to be more grassroots and more powerful."
COSEWIC's role and the entire national listing process may change soon because federal endangered species legislation is now in the works.
In the meantime, there are still huge gaps in knowledge about many species. And resources-people and money-are already stretched to the limit. It seems one key to success in the management of endangered species will be finding innovative ways to do things.
Individual Albertans can play a key role in helping endangered species. For example, many landowners in southern Alberta have joined Operation Burrowing Owl and have voluntarily agreed not to cultivate or spray near a burrowing owl nest site for five years. Already 20,000 hectares have been protected in this way.
Other Albertans record bird sitings on checklists available from birding groups. Alberta Environmental Protection runs an amphibian monitoring program that uses information from individuals. Joining a naturalist group can open doors to other opportunities.
"The bottom line is that we must live more gently on the earth," says Steve Brechtel. "We've got to make space for others.
"People sometimes think my work on endangered species must be depressing, but it's not. There is a commonly held belief that the maintenance of species is a good thing. Once you tell people what they need to do to make room for other species, almost everyone will do it. That's good news."
Connie Bryson is a freelance writer who lives in Edmonton.
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