Living on the edge

With more than 950 species at risk, how do Canadians choose which to save?

By Jennifer Halsall and Caitlin Leishman

Grouse and salmon and wolves – oh my!

From polar bears to caribou, it seems Canada has no shortage of conservation stories. But with more than 950 species currently listed under the Species at Risk Act, how do we choose which ones to save? As it turns out, when one species goes extinct while another survives, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Photo credit: Emily Leishman

Polar bears are one example of a Canadian flagship species. [Photo © Emily Leishman]

Conservation organizations have long relied on so-called “flagship species” – the big players like pandas, elephants, and tigers – to attract donors. Though great for fundraising, the model has resulted in a strong bias toward mammals.

It’s not just a problem for not-for-profits. Even at the legislative level, conservation efforts are still largely up to our individual tastes and preferences. The federal Committee for the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) incorporates a blend of internal science and public recommendations to determine which species to list under the Species at Risk Act. According to Jeremy Kerr, a university research chair in macroecolocy and conservation at the University of Ottawa, the need for citizen recommendations makes for a biased system.

“In principle, COSEWIC can evaluate any species,” he says. “So this is intended to be neutral with respect to taxonomic identity, but it’s got to receive the request, and people are just generally more concerned and knowledgeable about declines in things they can observe.”

Furry favouritism
In research, the bias toward furry and feathered targets can be pervasive. “If you have something that’s an iconic charismatic species and you gather data for it, and you find out that it’s threatened and the biases become self-fulfilling,” says Joe Bennett, a biology professor and specialist in conservation prioritization at Carleton University. “Meanwhile, things that they haven’t been gathering data on are just as threatened.”


Even in governmental practice, species favouritism can play a big role in determining which animals are branded conservation priorities. In British Columbia, the provincial government has employed sharpshooters in helicopters to kill more than 200 grey wolves – a species that has been the focus of decades of conservation work in Canada and the United States. The BC government is justifying the hunt as a measure to protect diminishing mountain caribou populations.

So what’s to be done, when individual tastes dictate conservation priorities?

Triage: The problem or the solution?


Many species, particularly invertebrates, are victims of a research bias. Few scientists have studied them, so little is known of their populations or threats facing them. [Photo © Jen Halsall]

Internationally, a controversial approach called triage is gaining ground as a solution to this species-based favouritism. It’s an approach that looks at funding like a pie, giving slices to the conservation priorities most likely to succeed –regardless of how cute and cuddly the rejects may be.

Dr. Murray Rudd, an associate professor of environmental science at Emroy University, worked with the Canadian government in the early 2000s to restore Nova Scotia’s Atlantic precarious salmon populations. Though well-intentioned, Rudd says the costly project ultimately took money away from overall conservation.

“(The) problem was lots of money being spent, and it did not seem to be the case that those funds were doing anything to benefit other species.” – Murray Rudd

What do scientists think?
In 2011, Rudd conducted a survey of more than 580 conservationists worldwide in 2011. The findings, published in the journal Conservation Biology in a report titled “Scientists’ Opinions on the Global Status and Management of Biological Diversity,” showed that 54 per cent of conservationists surveyed said scientists need to set criteria for triage.

Hugh Possingham, an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and director of two national research centres, is one advocate. He helped create the implement a process similar to triage – called Project Prioritization Protocols – in Australia and New Zealand. He says it all boils down to cost-effectiveness, a necessary consideration for cash-strapped conservationists. “It’s how you shop every day,” he says. “If you bought 10 kilograms of rice for $20 you would be happier than buying five kilograms for $15 – assuming you like rice. It’s a mathematical fact.”


Though triage may save money, it’s been slow to catch on. Possingham attributes this to “squeamish” conservationists and a reluctance to outwardly prioritize species. However, he’s adamant the arguments don’t hold up, “because it’s just prioritization, and they’re already doing it now.”

But to Kerr, triage sets a perilous precedent for future conservation.

“Triage is an extremely dangerous concept in species at risk conversations.” – Jeremy Kerr

He believes that triage introduces a problematic economic side to the issue. “As soon as you open the door to triage, you’re putting a hard price on conservation. And that means the new norm will instantly become ‘should we bother, because it’s going to economically inconvenient to protect this species.”

Canadian Conservation Lags Behind
Kerr says Canada’s outdated conservation framework makes triage an especially unappealing option. “We haven’t even adopted best practices in conservation science in Canada,” he says. “We’re probably 30 years behind what some of our closest neighbours do in terms of prioritizing areas for conservation. We’ve never even tried conservation planning here, and it was developed in Australia in the early 1980s.”

Hope for the future
Bennett says triage’s methodology could be adapted to select the most efficient conservation strategies for every species – dividing the pie so everyone gets a small, highly effective slice.  “I think however, the nuance is that I think we could do better than triage,” he contends.

In the meantime, he says there’s no need to turn away from flagship species, as long as they share the wealth. “Something we can do is use these biases and use people’s’ discretionary money to help save other things,” he says. “So if you can imagine you have a fuzzy species like a panda or a koala. It lives somewhere where it shares habitat and threats with other species. If we can get people to buy in because they care about the koala, we want to make sure it helps the koala and other things.”

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