Ottawa is adding 11 new names to Canada's list of species at risk, marking its first moves to address a growing backlog of recommendations for listing that has ballooned to several dozen species over the past five years.
The newly added species were named alongside several others that are already on the the list and slated for reclassification under the Species at Risk Act.
All 11 were assessed and recommended for protection – in some cases years ago – by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an independent body that passes its recommendations on to the federal government via the environment minister. According to the provisions of the act, such recommendations are to be addressed within a nine-month time frame once delivered to cabinet. But under the previous Conservative government, the system stalled and nearly all recommendations made by the committee after 2010 languished on the minster's desk for years.
A case in point is the collared pika, the only mammal among the eight newly added species. A mountain dweller in the Canadian northwest and Alaska, the pika was assessed in 2011 and found to be at risk due to habitat loss caused by climate change. A distant cousin to rabbits and hares, it survives in winter by living off of "hay piles" of vegetation that it has gathered in sheltered spaces formed by rocks and boulders, insulated by a blanket of protective snow cover.
Milder winters have brought more rain and less snow to the mountains and changed vegetation patterns, putting serious pressure on the species, said David Hik, a biologist at the University of Alberta who specializes in northern ecology and who wrote the assessment.
"With the warming trends that we're observing, some pika populations are going to be out of luck," he said.
Because it lives in such remote areas, the collared pika is not a well-studied species. Listing under the act will almost certainly improve that.
Another newly added species is the evocatively named crumpled tarpaper lichen, which was first described in 2009, and is found in only a few locations of old-growth forest in British Columbia and nowhere outside Canada.
Although they are not as well known as some of the more iconic creatures listed under the act – including polar bears and whales – biologists note that rare plants and lichens are just deserving of protection in part because their connection to other species and their potential value to science and medicine are not known.
"We don't really understand the roles of most species in the natural world," said Jeannette Whitton, an associate professor of botany at the University of British Columbia and a former member of the committee.
The nine other additions to the list include: Baird's sparrow (bird), buff-breasted sandpiper (bird), horned grebe-western population (bird), dune tachinid fly, magnum mantleslug (slug), peacock vinyl lichen, olive clubtail (dragonfly), Okanagan efferia (fly) and batwing vinyl lichen.
Zoologist and committee chairman Eric Taylor, also at UBC, said the proposed new listings were just the latest sign that a moribund federal process for protecting vulnerable wildlife was slowly creaking back into action.
"It's one of a number of positive signs having to do with species at risk initiated by the current government," Dr. Taylor said.
He noted that in recent months, Environment Canada had also moved to fill a large number of vacancies on the committee that the previous government had created by not renewing members, such as Dr. Whitton, or by rejecting other applicants without explanation.
Among those previously rejected and now on the committee for the first time is Arne Mooers, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University who has spoken out about weaknesses in the current law, including the fact that timelines can be manipulated by the government. He said that he found the committee to be surprisingly cautious in its determination of which species should be declared at risk.
"Of course, it is almost always better to be sure than to cry wolf, but it does mean the already long list is shorter than it might otherwise be," he said.
Pete Ewins, lead specialist in species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund Canada, said the new listings were welcome, but that Ottawa needs to accelerate efforts to protect more than 100 species that have been recommended for listing and are still awaiting a decision. He added that a more efficient approach would be to adopt an ecosystem-wide strategy so that groups of species can be listed together, along with a joint plan for conservation and recovery.
"Lots of things are possible with a willing government that's prepared to lead and resource this," he said.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Ottawa is adding 8 new names to Canada's list. In fact there are 11 and the list includes: Baird's sparrow (bird), buff-breasted sandpiper (bird), and horned grebe-western population (bird). This version has been corrected.