Living Planet Report Canada
The overarching purpose of the 2017 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report Canada is to monitor trends in Canadian wildlife, in order to enhance the conservation of biodiversity. It’s estimated that Canada is home to 80,000 known species (a figure which doesn’t even include bacteria or viruses). Yet, human industrial activity is negatively impacting these species. Accurate data on how wildlife populations are changing is crucial to understanding the ‘big picture’ of biodiversity in Canada and forms the basis for future action plans to protect vulnerable species. A Living Planet Index (LPI), the tool utilized in this WWF report, is one method of compiling data to inform an evidence-based approach to conservation.
An LPI shows how wildlife abundance (for however many different species are included in the index) has changed over a given period of time. Any sources of data included in the LPI calculations must meet several criteria to ensure that the results are accurate. By ensuring their sources measure populations in the same location, with the same method over time, and for at least two years, the results are more certain. In this way, data sets obtained from a range of sources (including academic papers, government monitoring programs, and citizen science) can be compared with each other to track changes in species abundance over time.
The 2017 WWF LPI assessed 903 species of vertebrate animals in Canada between the years of 1970-2014. There was insufficient data on non-vertebrate species, and as such, they weren’t included in the LPI. Overall, the abundance of all monitored species decreased by 8% during this period of time. Interestingly, half of the observed species increased in population size while the other half exhibited a decline in numbers. There are various reasons why a particular species may have grown in population, including its adaptability to changing environments and targeted conservation efforts/programs. It’s also important to consider that if a species wasn’t doing well in the year 1970, mild increases in its population size may not be enough to indicate that the species is now at a healthy level. That said, from the perspective of prioritizing future conservation efforts, the bulk of the LPI report focuses on Canadian species that are in decline. Among all species in decline there was average decrease in population size of 83% over the observed time period, with an annual rate of decline of 4%. Many factors contributed to these results, including habitat loss, climate change, pollution, unsustainable harvesting, invasive species, and cumulative and cascading effects (i.e. when a species faces multiple and often interacting threats).
Throughout the WWF report, results from the LPI are further examined according to different ways of categorizing species. First, the realm, or general habitat, of species is considered. Vertebrates living in and around freshwater environments showed, on average, a fairly stable population trend, but this observation requires some more interpretation. For example, it appears that large increases in freshwater bird species appeared to ‘balance out’ declines in other freshwater species (such as lake whitefish in Lake Ontario). Looking at the marine realm, there was an average decline in species abundance of 9% and, as with freshwater species, birds tended to fare better than fish. Terrestrial species also dropped by 9% overall, with the largest decline occurring in the early 1970’s followed by relative stability for the remainder of the observed time period.
Next, the report assesses LPI results according to the major groups of species. Mammal populations decreased, on average, by 43%. Bats and caribou (both woodland and barren-ground) exhibited particularly high declines, while many species of Canadian whales did in fact increase in numbers, attributed to a 1972 ban on commercial whaling. Birds showcased an interesting range of outcomes: Overall, bird populations rose by 7% but displayed lots of variance among sub-categories. Grassland birds decreased by an immense 69%, with shorebirds and aerial insectivores (including swifts and swallows) also experiencing a decline, while raptors and waterfowl displayed strong increases in population size. Fish declined by 20% on average (mostly due to losses of Atlantic marine fish), and over the same period of time amphibians and reptiles collectively dropped by 34%.
Since Canada is such a huge country comprised of diverse landscapes, the WWF report also considers vertebrate population trends across five distinct geographic regions. In British Columbia (the Pacific region), observed species decreased by an average of 14% between 1970-2014, with climate change, pollution, and other factors negatively impacting Pacific freshwater systems. Grassland birds are an iconic species of the Prairie region’s native grasslands and have experienced a 55% decline in population, largely due to the loss of their habitat as grasslands are converted to agricultural fields. In the southern part of Central Canada, dense urban settlements along shores of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River negatively impact the habitats of amphibians and reptiles and contributed to a 16% decline in these species. As previously indicated, marine fish in the Atlantic region have faced decreasing population sizes since 1970, calculated by the LPI as 38% on average and attributed to overexploitation and climate change. WWF was unable to present conclusive data from the Canadian Arctic as many important wildlife trends were ‘masked’ by a disproportionate number of observations on birds. However, it’s important to consider the accelerating and dramatic effects of climate change and industrial developments on the Arctic landscape and all who live in this unique environment (including, of course, many human communities).
The Living Planet Report Canada concludes with five recommendations to help prevent wildlife loss. First, in order to establish baselines and identify areas for improvement we must “collect and share data on ecosystem health and species habitat”, with a heightened need for increased monitoring in freshwater ecosystems and Arctic regions. Second, more of this research needs to focus on the “impacts of, and response to, climate change”. Third, we need to “enhance SARA [Species at Risk Act] implementation and shift toward ecosystem-based action plans”. SARA is the “primary legal mechanism for protection of imperiled species” at the federal level in Canada. LPI calculations demonstrated that since 2002 (the creation of SARA), species deemed to be at-risk have continued to decline (on average) despite SARA’s protective measures. Fourth, it’s important to “expand Canada’s network of protected areas”. Fifth, Canadians should “make a commitment to nature”, as public will can help encourage the implementation of solutions to wildlife loss.
Find the full report here.
1. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada. Living Planet Report Canada: A National Look at Wildlife Loss. WWF Canada, 2017. Available from http://assets.wwf.ca/downloads/WEB_WWF_REPORT_v3.pdf?_ga=2.244931717.1651533513.1579480678-618776352.1579480678