Searching for the contorted-pod evening-primrose, I crawled along a sandbar at Witty’s Lagoon, careful not to accidentally crush this wee yellow flower with red stems. I was hunting for it as part of my mission to see some of Canada’s critically imperilled species, and when I finally located one, poking out of the sand, it was easy to understand how beachgoers could unknowingly trample it out of existence.
I was there on an early morning in May, and as I strolled along the water’s edge, I almost missed another, rather larger at-risk species: a northern elephant seal hauled out on the beach. With her mottled fur, she blended in with sun-bleached logs washed up on the sand, and it was only a lazy movement of her flipper that gave her location away.
The sole breeding colony of northern elephant seals in Canada is a few kilometres away at Race Rocks, just off the coast of Greater Victoria. That local population is red-listed by the province as it is at risk of extirpation, although globally the species has come back from the brink of extinction – a rare recovery story.
The region of Southern Vancouver Island, where I live, supports more biological diversity than anywhere else in British Columbia – a province that in turn has the highest biodiversity in the country – but it also has the greatest number of species that could disappear forever. The average 10-kilometre-square piece of land in Victoria is home to at least one dozen plant and animal species at risk, including some that live nowhere else in the world.
Despite this, land for development is at a premium and nature is disappearing as the region expands. Even those temperate rainforests, sandy beaches, and flowering meadows that have been protected, are being loved to death by visitors. The consequences are potentially dire: When we wipe out a species, whether plant or animal, it is not only the loss of something unique – the biodiversity that humans depend on to survive is eroded.
In all, Canada is home to at least 1,496 globally threatened species, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.
The federal government has been promising action on biodiversity since the 1990s, although progress could be described, generously, as incremental. This year Canada launched consultations to help develop its 2030 National Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to meet international commitments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by the end of this decade.
“The global biodiversity crisis is gaining global recognition on par with climate change as an all-encompassing environmental issue with serious consequences for all humanity,” the consultation paper notes.
I was on that sandbar in May because I wanted to see some of these at-risk species before they’re gone – or, more hopefully, to learn about how we might stop that from happening.
What I found was a much-needed tonic for ecological anxiety. I’m often writing about the battles over fossil fuel development and old-growth logging, about the growing impact of extreme heat, wildfires, and floods. During my springtime quest, I was reminded that there are many people working to prevent the loss of species that are little-known, and sometimes literally underfoot.
I wasn’t alone at Witty’s Lagoon looking for the evening-primrose. I was following volunteers with the Metchosin Biodiversity Project, who have devoted countless hours to restoring the very particular habitat for this flower.
Part of the reason the flower is listed as critically imperilled is that the coastal sand dunes remaining around Victoria and the Gulf Islands that meet its requirements are increasingly rare: sandy, open habitat at low elevation, where the climate is moist in the winter and spring, and very dry by midsummer. The evening-primrose is an annual, and each plant only produces a small number of seeds each year. Those seeds must hit bare soil in order to sprout.
The volunteers headed right past the seal, on their way to a spot in the sand dunes that they’d cleared of Scotch broom, a destructive shrub, a year ago. Considered an invasive species in British Columbia, Scotch broom is a garden plant introduced from Europe that aggressively invades sunny spots where the land has been disturbed by activity – including anything from industrial logging to foot traffic. It crowds out native plants, and is notoriously difficult to get rid of.
“Scotch broom is one of the villains in this story,” explained Andy MacKinnon, a retired professional biologist who leads the volunteer restoration project. He joked about the “charismatic” appeal of the local evening-primrose, knowing how hard it is to protect something that isn’t showy, cute, or majestic.
But it isn’t just this obscure flower he and others are working to save – they are fighting for the coastal sand dune ecosystem that is disappearing not just here, but along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico.
Witty’s Lagoon is one of Greater Victoria’s regional parks that needs to balance public access to nature with the need to protect nature for the future. The park attracted more than 100,000 visitors in 2022. Conservationists have proposed to have the small section of sand dune where the evening-primrose grows designated as one of Canada’s key biodiversity areas. That would provide some additional protection, similar to the nearby Trial Islands, which hosts almost the entire population of a small annual herb, Victoria’s owl-clover, that remains on the planet.
Among Canada’s thousands of endangered species, there are 113 plants and animals that are right on the edge of extinction in Canada, according to a list compiled by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada.
Dan Kraus, the society’s director of national conservation, said those numbers are likely higher, because there is still much we haven’t evaluated, and there are significant time lags between species that are identified by the independent Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and any listing by the Species at Risk registry.
The Species At Risk Act, which is supposed to provide legal protection to prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct, “is already maxed out in terms of species assessment and creating recovery strategies,” Mr. Kraus said.
The solution, he argues, is to shift to conservation rooted in the ecosystem, protecting key biodiversity areas. “There’s places like Garry oak ecosystems where you live, where we can protect a whole bunch of species that are on the list of endangered species – or could be on the list of endangered species – by better looking after their habitat,” he told me.
The Metchosin Biodiversity Project is a great example of this. “This entire dune area here used to be 100-per-cent covered with Scotch broom, taller than me, until volunteer crews removed it,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “We’re trying to re-establish an ideal habitat.”
The team moved along the cleared site on hands and knees, marking each flowering plant with a small surveyor’s flag. Last year, there were fewer than 400 evening-primroses found in this location. This year’s count exceeded 3,200.
Another stop I made as I explored the areas around my community was Uplands Park in Oak Bay. Just 17 kilometres from Witty’s Lagoon, this 30-hectare park is a surprisingly natural landscape in the middle of Greater Victoria’s most prestigious – and most manicured – neighbourhood. And it boasts one of the greatest concentrations of rare plant species in all of Canada.
The park absorbs an average of 70,000 visitors each year, including busloads of tourists, dog walkers, bird watchers and astronomers. (The section along the waterfront, known as Cattle Point, is an Urban Star Park, designated by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as a prime access point to view dark, starry skies.) It’s especially popular in the spring, when its endangered Garry oak meadows – a unique habitat for Canada that is globally rare – turns purple with tall stalks of Camas lily.
Legions of volunteers here have contributed to the restoration and protection of the park’s sensitive habitats, including one of the country’s largest and most intact fragments of Garry oak woodlands. The efforts have been led for the past three decades by Margaret Lidkea, an educator who left teaching in the classroom to teach conservation to children outdoors. She’s president of the non-profit Friends of Uplands Park Society, which organizes regular work parties to clear invasive species. In one recently-cleared spot, Ms. Lidkea invited kids to replant native species. The result of their efforts is random clusters of plants – as chaotic as nature should be. “This is a dream, to work with kids in a park,” she said.
The park’s popularity soared at the start of the pandemic, when residents were encouraged to explore nature as a safe activity. And the tension between preservation and public access grew.
The new crowds of visitors had no idea that the park was more than just fields of grass they could run in, says Ms. Lidkea. “They were bringing in picnic tables, they would have parties, they would bring their dogs in,” she explained. “One dog and one owner destroyed a meadow of wild flowers that I started in 1993.”
The park’s central meadow is anchored by a massive Garry oak with thick, gnarled branches – a postcard-worthy scene that makes a gorgeous backdrop for a picnic. But stray off the path, and you could be treading on something precious, like the yellow-flowering water-plantain buttercup that is easily mistaken for a common weed, but is in fact an endangered species. There are only two places left in Canada where it is found, and Uplands Park is one of them.
“What makes it a home for a lot of rare plants is this vernal pool you see in front of us,” said biologist Wylie Thomas, who joined Ms. Lidkea to provide a guided tour of the park. Mr. Thomas is a nature restoration specialist who created the Uplands Park and Cattle Point management plan for Oak Bay council, and he knows where the rare gems are hidden.
“This whole area fills up almost like a wetland in the winter, but in the summer it turns into a desert. It provides habitats for some of our rarest species. At last count, we had 16 species at risk – threatened, endangered or imperilled – in this meadow.”
In the cold seasons, after all the picnics are over, trekking visitors cause some of the worst damage. In 2018, the parks department was persuaded to close the central meadow to foot traffic in the winter – and that had a measurable benefit in reducing damage. They have done it every year since, but that has forced other adjustments. The closure pushed traffic into the adjacent meadow, where other at-risk species grow.
“The population of one of the plants we were counting had been going up, up, up, and then it all of a sudden plummeted, because it was being totally flattened in the winter,” Mr. Thomas said. “People would step off the trails into the meadows to avoid getting wet.”
With Ms. Lidkea and Mr. Thomas’ guidance, we tracked down ten rare plants in a single morning of rambling, including Victoria’s owl clover, which was listed as extirpated in the park, but has since been found in one small section.
Managing human traffic is challenging but possible, Mr. Thomas said. The larger battle is with invasive species, like Scotch broom and English ivy. For this, hundreds of volunteers regularly turn up with their gardening gloves to help clear the unwanted plants. In 2022, they provided more than $100,000 worth of labour for free, helping make Uplands Park a refuge for native species.
There is a level of vigilance required to protect these last pockets. “We’re going to have to have places like Uplands Park almost like a museum,” Mr. Thomas said, “where we have preserved this piece of biodiversity.”
Mr. Kraus of the Wildlife Conservation Society agrees, adding that Canada as a whole carries a special burden to the planet to protect its at-risk species, because few countries have as much natural habitat left. We are stewards of 28 per cent of the world’s boreal forests, 25 of remaining global temperate rainforests, and 24 per cent of the world’s wetlands.
Some will argue it’s unfair to impose this conservation obligation on a province or nation that has forged an economy dependent on the exploitation of natural resources. Mr. Kraus said there is no real choice. “Ensuring clean water and clean air, and diverse and abundant wildlife, is not really a trade-off because if we lose all of those things, we lose the foundation for economy and society.”
During my local travels, finding endangered plant species – with the assistance of educated guides – didn’t prove that difficult. Plants tend to stay put. Finding rare species that move around is a bigger challenge. I am still hoping to spot a blue-grey taildropper slug, which can take on a hue similar to a Smurf. The chances of finding one are slim – in Canada there have been only one dozen sightings ever recorded on the iNaturalist website, all on southern Vancouver Island.
To see one of the 113 species on the edge of extinction, I made my way to the Comox Valley, a little outside of the boundaries of southern Vancouver Island. I wrote about the Morrison Creek lamprey last fall, when conservationists were trying to raise money to buy a large portion of its critical habitat through the Comox Valley Land Trust. This small, eel-like fish exists nowhere else on earth, and the property was put up for sale, and zoned for industrial development. But it was the wrong time of year, then, to actually see the fish.
This spring, the purchase by the land trust was completed, securing the lamprey’s home. And it was now spawning season, which meant I had a chance to find them.
The Morrison Creek Streamkeepers is a volunteer organization that led the effort to save these wetlands. Jan Gemmell, president of the group, has spent years mapping the land and cataloguing the inhabitants here. We met up to look for the fish in the labyrinth of spring-fed creeks that flow through the 22-hectare property.
“It’s a very unique creature,” she said as we picked our way through the undergrowth of towering Western red cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock, searching for those spots in the creek where the flow is just right for spawning. “When we lose biodiversity, we start losing traits that make species adaptable. As we go through climate change, we need to make sure that genetic stock is there so that species can adapt.”
Securing these wetlands isn’t just a victory for the lamprey, but for the 14 species at risk that live here, she said. “We’re really lucky to have that flagship species here, because there are these other species, salmon and birds, that will still be able to use this area.”
We found lampreys in pairs. They seemed to dance together in the clear water, but they were building redds in the gravel for the females to lay their eggs.
Biologist Tim Ennis, who helped secure the Morrison Creek nature sanctuary, and his two-year-old daughter, stood with us watching the fish. “I’m a big fan of saving nature for its intrinsic value,” Mr. Ennis said. “But there’s also this desire to protect species so that they are there for our children and our grandchildren to be able to appreciate as well – and not just be mythical fairy tale creatures that once lived,” he said.
As we were leaving Morrison Creek, we paused a moment to listen to the chorus of many different birds singing together – an affirmation of diversity. Even on the edges of our urban habitat, there is so much more harmony than I’d ever recognized or appreciated.