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Obscure and unloved: Federal government spurns a chance to help boost three endangered species

Aug 07. 12

The Wild Side: As the human footprint expands across Canada, so does the threat to the country’s wildlife. There are now 650 species officially listed as endangered, threatened, of special concern, or no longer found in the wild in Canada. Government and environmentalists have often tussled over conservation efforts. Starting today, Postmedia News science writer Margaret Munro offers a weekly look at some vulnerable species across the country, beginning with those that are most unloved.

VANCOUVER – In a good year, the tangle of leaves and stems on southern Vancouver Island can grow up to six metres long. It’s been sprouting out of the ground every spring for decades.

The plant, a Coast Manroot that grows from huge, human-sized underground tubers, is one of Canada’s most endangered species. It’s also one of the most obscure and unloved.

Maintenance crews and mowers have been whacking away at the plant near Victoria – one of the 18 known manroots still alive in Canada – and grazing animals have trampled and killed several others.

But the latest insult has come from Ottawa.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has decided the Coast Manroot is not worth listing as an endangered species despite a recommendation by top wildlife advisers to do so.

There are plenty of the plants in the United States, and the federal government says money and resources in Canada are better spent on other species.

“They’ve basically said ‘We can lose this one, it doesn’t matter,’ ” says Matt Fairbarns, a Victoria-based botanist who, like many wildlife experts, is unnerved by the recent decision.

The minister has also decided not to list two extremely rare species in eastern Canada: Laura’s Clubtail, a dragon fly found near two fast-moving sandy streams in southwestern Ontario, and the Four-leaved Milkweed that clings to life near the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

The government “is taking a pragmatic approach so that available resources can be allocated most efficiently and directed to species where we can make the most significant difference,” Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada media officer, said in an email about the decisions, which were made public in July. He would not say how much the government will save by not giving the manroot, dragonfly and milkweed federal protection.

But critics say the government’s decision to abandon species in Canada because they are common in the U.S. is unprecedented. They fear it is a sign of big changes to come in the federal government’s approach to species at risk.

“If applied generally, this approach could lead to dangerous degradation of Canada’s southern ecosystems,” says Susan Pinkus, senior scientist at Ecojustice, a not-for-profit legal foundation.

Of the almost 300 terrestrial species at risk in Canada, wildlife experts say more than 75 per cent are found in the U.S. and extend into this country at the northern end of their geographic range.

Many are in “biodiversity hotspots” in southern B.C., the southern prairies and the Carolinian forest in southern Ontario, where everything from endangered turtles to ancient rodents compete for space with the millions of people also clustered close to the U.S. border. COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, advised the federal environment minister to list the manroot, dragonfly and milkweed as endangered species – and for “good reason,” says Marty Leonard, a biologist at Dalhousie University and COSEWIC chair. The federal body assesses species at risk. COSEWIC’s reports on the three species were forwarded to the minister in 2009 and 2010; the government published in the Canada Gazette on July 4, 2012 its decision not to list the species

Leonard says the committee uses the best information available and internationally accepted criteria for assessing species.

“And at the end of the exercise we recommended these three species should be listed as endangered,” says Leonard, who declined to comment on Kent’s decision not to take the scientists’ advice.

Some say the decision is “inconsistent” with the federal Species At Risk Act, known as SARA, which was designed to prevent wildlife from disappearing from Canada. “They have basically subverted the Species at Risk Act,” says Fairbarns.

Decisions about protecting species are meant to be driven by scientific assessment but there has long been concern that being cute and cuddly helps. Looks can even give bugs an edge – judging by the government’s reason for adding Wallis’ Dark Saltflat Tiger Beetle to list of Canada’s endangered species. The flashy metallic insect is rarely seen, and believed to occur in Canada at only one spot in southern B.C. In it’s “rationale” for listing the beetle, published in the Canada Gazette in July, the government describes the insect as a “charismatic predator.” It also notes that tiger beetles are so popular there is now a North American field guide for them – reasoning Pinkus describes as “anthropomorphism in the extreme.”

“They are preferring one species over another because of people’s arbitrary wants or interests,” she says

Fairbarns notes SARA was designed to help preserve the thousands of species that live and interact in Canada’s natural landscapes, regardless of how they look or if they are found elsewhere.“Wildlife, in all its forms, has value in and of itself,” the act states.

“It’s like protecting nice cathedrals in Canada, even if though there are nice cathedrals all around the world,” says Fairbarns, who is one of the few people in Canada who would know a manroot if they tripped over one.

Manroot grows in B.C.’s endangered Garry oak ecosystem of meadows and woodlands found on southeast Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands. Less than five per cent of the original Garry oak habitat remains, most of it having been paved over, developed or ploughed into farmland. Several species – the fragrant popcornflower, the island large marble butterfly – have already disappeared and another 100 species of plants, animals, reptiles and insects in the Garry oak ecosystem have been declared “at risk.”

The manroot seemed a logical addition to the list.

It is so rare that Fairbarns and his colleagues, who wrote the COSEWIC status report on the manroot, found only 18 plants growing at three different spots. They had been growing at a fourth location but those manroots are long gone, likely “destroyed by trampling of gazing animals,” the team reports.

Records of the manroot near Victoria date back to 1898, raising the possibility that the plant beside one weedy roadside is more than 100 years old.

The greenery dies back in the fall and in the spring new shoots sprout from the root – large tan tubers that can weigh more than 100 kilograms. The tuber’s swollen lobes and arm-like extensions inspired its common names - Manroot and “Old-man-in-the-ground.”

Its bitter inedible fruit are the size of apples and covered in soft green spines. Aboriginal people used the manroot for medicinal purposes and the plant has long intrigued scientists: famed British naturalist Charles Darwin collected and germinated a few seeds in the 1870s. “It’s a very cool plant,” says Fairbarns. “If you went for a walk in the woods it’s the sort of thing you’d absolutely point out to your kids or friends and say ‘Look at the huge vine clamouring all over the pace with its bizarre fruit.’” The coast manroot, like thousands of species in southern Canada, also exists in the U.S. It is commonly found as far south as central California.

Or, as the government put it in its decision not to list the plant as an endangered species: “The Coast Manroot was never common in British Columbia since it is at the northern edge of its range.”

“Given its extremely small range in Canada, and in light of the limited contribution that recovery efforts in Canada would make to its conservation, it is not being added to the list so that available resources can be allocated more efficiently to species for which Canada can make a more significant difference,” the government says. It gives the same rationale for not listing Laura’s Clubtail and the Four-leaved Milkweed

Asked how much the government is saving by not listing manroot and the other two species, Johnson sidestepped: “We are taking active steps to ensure that we are spending resources diligently and responsibly, and ensuring that recovery efforts are focused on species that have a greater chance of recovery in Canada.”

Pinkus doubts it would have cost the government much to protect the three species. “I can’t imagine it would have been very expensive,” says Pinkus, noting that federal recovery strategies can sometime be 10 to 20 pages long, and in the past have often been written by academics volunteering their time. Environment Canada’s Johnson says “protecting species at risk is a shared responsibility by all Canadians and the government is committed to continuing to work with Canadians in implementing SARA.” He also said the three species have some protection in the provinces where they are found.

Listing manroot, dragonfly and milkweed as federally endangered species would have required the government to produce recovery strategies for the three species. Endangered-species status can also help qualify for funding – both government and private – to help pay for clearing invasive weeds or posting signs to protect at-risk species. Listing as an endangered species under SARA can also provide for federal oversight, if provinces fail to protect at-risk species.

“The problem is if you don’t list it, you can loose it,” says Pinkus. “This apparent abdication of federal responsibility for the survival of the three species is extremely concerning,” says Pinkus, who fears the government may be planning take the same approach with hundreds of other species at risk of “winking out” across the country.

While small isolated northern populations may seem unimportant, wildlife experts say populations at the northern edge of their range can be genetically distinct because they are isolated, which may be a big advantage as the climate changes and southern populations start to die off. They can also be important for reintroduction programs; a short-haired bee from Sweden was recently used to repopulate Britain with the long-lost pollinator.

If the government intends to stop protecting so-called “peripheral” species at the northern end of their range, Fairbarns says it should be addressed in an open, transparent way. Pinkus agrees. “If we must made these make these terribly difficult risky decisions to write off certain species or deprioritize certain species, surely we should be making it in an open, rational way,” she says

“We are playing with the future of Canada’s environment here, little piece by little piece,” says Pinkusnt here, little piece by little piece,” says Pinkus.

Margaret Munro -- Vancouver Sun

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