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When Does Plant and Animal Species Loss Become a Societal Crisis?

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A mountain woodland caribou bull in the Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness area in northern British Columbia, Canada. John E Marriott / All Canada Photos / Getty Images

It's heartening, in the midst of the human-caused sixth mass extinction, to find good wildlife recovery news. As plant and animal species disappear faster than they have for millions of years, Russia's Siberian, or Amur, tigers are making a comeback. After falling to a low of just a few dozen in the mid-20th century, the tigers now number around 500, with close to 100 cubs — thanks to conservation measures that include habitat restoration and an illegal hunting crackdown.


It shows the value of sound policies and regulations to protect wildlife. But as an article in the journal Marine Policy states, "Evidence of an environmental conservation problem is often not considered sufficient by government to warrant a change in the way human activities are managed until the problem becomes a societal crisis." The article highlights the devastating deaths of North Atlantic right whales because of regulatory foot-dragging. Although the dire situation finally triggered protection measures for whales and their habitat, some worry it's too little, too late.

The authors recommend proactive, precautionary measures to protect at-risk species. These are rare in Canada. Even when species are pushed to the brink, governments continue to stall.

That's true for boreal woodland caribou — 37 of Canada's 51 boreal caribou herds have been deemed unlikely to survive under current forest-management practices. In 2012, after a federal science advisory panel examined how much caribou range must be kept undisturbed for the animals to survive, the federal government gave provinces and territories five years to develop range plans that afforded caribou a minimum 60 percent chance of survival. None did.

Not one province or territory with boreal caribou has implemented the risk-based threshold management approach. Throughout Canada, industrial activities continue to degrade caribou habitat in the absence of sufficient protection regimes. In the past year, two of BC's caribou populations died out.

To mask impacts from the lack of conservation efforts, provinces such as BC and Alberta are using half measures like predator control and permanent penning to keep remaining caribou populations alive.

With governments touting what they'll do in the future while perpetually dragging their feet, the David Suzuki Foundation has had to resort to legal recourse — as it did in 2010 on behalf of the right whale, using scientific evidence to show it needed a broader habitat definition.

The foundation has also worked for 15 years to protect and recover southern resident killer whales, or Salish Sea orcas, near Vancouver. We've gone to court four times to get government to define critical habitat, complete recovery plans and issue an emergency order to protect the whales. We even joined a U.S. case to protect them from underwater noise from naval exercises.

We won all cases except the one to force government to order immediate on-the-water changes to human behavior. That case became moot when federal fisheries and environment ministers recommended emergency protections only to have cabinet turn them down. At least we were able to get a multi-stakeholder advisory process to decide what changes to human activities will be made to help the whales. There's hope, but also concern that time is running out.

Earlier this year, the foundation partnered with two conservation organizations and two First Nations to ensure the federal environment and climate change minister fulfills her legal responsibility to protect five boreal caribou herds in Alberta. There's often room for sustainable economic development and species abundance, but sometimes tough decisions have to be made, and politicians will look to the public to gauge the extent to which we consider wildlife loss a crisis.

Many wildlife populations in Canada are in peril. Is this regarded as a societal crisis? If not — if faced with leaving a vastly diminished world for future generations and losing species like orca and caribou is not seen as an urgent matter — why not? What will it take to make wildlife crises our own? Is there a tipping point at which Canadians will create the political momentum for society to pivot from wildlife decline to supporting much overdue conservation actions? If so, have we not reached it?

With its iconic tigers, Russia has shown what can be accomplished with robust habitat and species conservation measures that prioritize at-risk wildlife. It's a lesson Canada needs to learn.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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