COSEWIC Assessment Process, Categories and Guidelines 1
Approved by COSEWIC in November 2015
Overview of the COSEWIC Process
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) exists to provide Canadians and their governments with advice regarding the status of wildlife species that are nationally at risk of extinction or extirpation.
The COSEWIC process is divided into three sequential steps, each of which has a tangible outcome. These are detailed below.
List of Tables
Identifying Candidate Wildlife Species
Canada supports a great diversity of species. The first step in COSEWIC's task is to choose, from among the thousands of wildlife species, which ones may be most at risk of extinction or extirpation nationally, and are therefore candidates for more detailed assessment through the preparation of a COSEWIC status report.
Candidate wildlife species are wildlife species not yet assessed by COSEWIC that have been identified by the SSCs (Species Specialist Subcommittees) or by the ATK Subcommittee (Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee) as candidates for detailed status assessment based on information suggesting a potential to be at risk. Candidates may also include wildlife species previously assessed as Not at Risk or Data Deficient where new information suggests they currently may be at risk.
Each SSC annually prepares and maintains a SSC candidate list of wildlife species that it considers at risk of extinction or extirpation nationally. Wildlife species are selected using: the ‘May Be At Risk’ list in the Monitoring the General Status of Wild Species in Canada Program, as well as information drawn from other multi-jurisdictional monitoring, jurisdictional and international assessment processes (e.g. IUCN and ABI), published ranking systems in the scientific literature, and the expert knowledge of SSC, ATK SC, and COSEWIC members.
Eligibility of Candidate Wildlife Species
Each candidate wildlife species is evaluated for eligibility for COSEWIC assessment. To be eligible, wildlife species must meet certain criteria regarding taxonomic validity, native origin, regularity of occurrence and dependence on Canadian habitat (Table 1). In cases where separate designation below the species level is desirable, justification must be provided according to COSEWIC's Guidelines for Recognizing Designatable Units.
The initial assessment of a candidate wildlife species’ eligibility for COSEWIC assessment is completed by the SSC Co-chairs, in consultation with their SSC members. Eligibility is ultimately reviewed and confirmed by COSEWIC as the first step in status determination.
Assessing the Relative Priority of Candidate Wildlife Species
COSEWIC attempts to give priority attention to wildlife species at greatest risk of extinction or extirpation across their ranges in Canada. Eligible candidate wildlife species are prioritized and placed on the SSC candidate lists using a "coarse filter" system. This system blends levels of apparent risk with considerations of taxonomic distinctness, global distribution and proportion of range within Canada to group wildlife species into categories of similar priority. Each SSC will assign their candidate wildlife species into one of three priority groups. Group 1 wildlife species have highest priority for COSEWIC assessment. Wildlife species suspected to be extirpated from Canada would also be included in this group. Group 2 and 3 wildlife species have medium and lower priority for COSEWIC assessment respectively. Wildlife species not in need of assessment are excluded. Priority groups within the SSC candidate lists will be revised and updated on an ongoing basis by the SSC.
Specifics of how wildlife species are assigned to the three priority groups (i.e., which criteria have the strongest influence) will vary with individual SSCs, reflecting the differences in life histories, and information available. Only biological factors are used to prioritize the wildlife species; logistical problems, including anticipated availability of report writers, and of adequate detailed knowledge, are not considered at this level.
High priority species from the SSC candidate lists are reviewed and ranked by COSEWIC, and result in the COSEWIC Candidate List. COSEWIC bases its ranking on prioritization data submitted by each SSC (Prioritization Criteria developed by COSEWIC for ranking wildlife species). The COSEWIC Candidate List identifies the highest priority candidate wildlife species for status report production and includes wildlife species not yet assessed by COSEWIC and those in the Not at Risk or Data Deficient categories, where new information suggests they may be at risk of extinction or extirpation from Canada.
Commissioning or Receiving New Status Reports and Updates to Status Reports
By establishing the COSEWIC Candidate List, COSEWIC has identified wildlife species for which status reports are desirable. In addition, COSEWIC tracks the status of wildlife species previously designated as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern by preparing updated status reports.
COSEWIC wildlife species status reports summarize the information that is the basis for status determinations. Each report is an up-to-date compilation and analysis of all relevant, available, and credible biological information concerning a wildlife species and its status in Canada. For effective assessment, this information must include distribution, extent of occurrence, area of occupancy, abundance (including population estimates or number of occurrences, where available), population and habitat trends, and factors or threats limiting the wildlife species. For more details about the contents and structure of a status report, see Instructions for the Preparation of COSEWIC Status Reports.
Contracts for status reports and update status reports are opened for a competitive bid on the COSEWIC web site. Applicants (bidders) will be expected to submit a work plan and budget, a statement of qualifications, and a statement indicating willingness to cede intellectual property and moral rights to the Crown on behalf of COSEWIC. The call for bids is posted for at least three weeks. After the deadline for bid submissions has passed, the applicants are evaluated by the relevant SSCs according to a specified protocol, and a winning bid is chosen. The SSC Co-chairs commence to negotiate with the successful applicant, resolving further details of the work plan, costs, possible travel plans, and timelines in consultation with the Secretariat.
In some situations where it is suspected that the status of a wildlife species has not changed since last assessment, COSEWIC may decide to prepare a short status appraisal summary, which outlines relevant best available information pertaining to status. Status appraisal summaries will generally be prepared by a member (or members) of the relevant SSC. This summary, along with the existing status report, is sent for review, and the assessment is conducted in a specific way to expedite the process. In these cases, a fully updated status report is not required. More details on the status appraisal process are provided on the Wildlife Species Assessment web page.
The information below on status report preparation and wildlife species status assessment pertains to assessments based on new or fully updated status reports only.
Status Report Review and Approval Process
Once a Draft status report is received by the Secretariat and the relevant SSC Co-chair from a report writer and approved by the relevant SSC Co-chair(s), it is distributed by the Secretariat to all the SSC members, and any external experts recommended by the SSC for peer review. It is also distributed to the chair(s) of the recovery team (if the wildlife species is already assessed by COSEWIC and has a recovery team in place), to the jurisdiction(s), to any relevant WMBs, and to the ATK Subcommittee. Comments and suggestions are sent to the relevant SSC Co-chair and forwarded to the writer with instructions from the Co-chair for those changes that must be incorporated into the report.
The result is the Provisional Status Report. The involvement of commissioned report writers nominally ends here. If however, the SSC feels that additional changes are required, it may make any modifications needed to produce the Interim Report. Ideally, the Provisional and Interim Reports are identical.
In some cases, it may be advantageous to have the report writer’s involvement extend past the end of the six-month interim review period so that the report writer can undertake revisions resulting from the review, at the direction of the Co-chairs.
The Interim status report is forwarded by the relevant SSC Co-chair to the Secretariat which distributes it to the range jurisdiction(s), the relevant WMBs, the ATK SC, to the SSC members, the chair(s) of the recovery team (if the wildlife species is already assessed by COSEWIC and has a recovery team in place) and if required, any external experts (inside or outside government agencies) for final review normally at least six months before a Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting.
All COSEWIC members will receive Interim Status Reports at least two months prior to the COSEWIC Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting at which they will be discussed. At this stage, the reports include the recommendations of status from the SSC. Once 2 month-interim reports have been sent to COSEWIC members, they cannot be withdrawn or assessment deferred without the approval of COSEWIC. Any change made to a 2-month interim report after it has been sent to COSEWIC members which is likely to influence the application of the quantitative criteria must be brought to the attention of the COSEWIC members before or at the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting at which the species is being assessed.
New information, knowledge or data that are significant to the designation of the wildlife species should be presented to the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting in written form and COSEWIC may then defer consideration of the wildlife species until a subsequent meeting, or proceed with the assessment (and the member will ensure that the SSC Co-chair is given the information to incorporate into the report).
The SSC Co-chair ensures that the final status designation and any revisions suggested and approved by COSEWIC at the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting are incorporated into the Interim Status Report. The SSC Co-chair provides the Secretariat with a high quality, clean final copy of the report for publication. The Secretariat translates the report, adding a summary of the COSEWIC assessment, and arranges it for publication. The resulting COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report is then posted on the SARA public registry as a downloadable (PDF and html) document soon after the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting.
For each wildlife species considered at a Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting, COSEWIC considers each of five items sequentially to determine a Canadian status designation:
Each of these steps is outlined below.
1. Is there sufficient information presented in the report to determine wildlife species eligibility?
The SSC Co-chair introduces the wildlife species highlighting features such as taxonomy and occurrence in Canada relevant to eligibility for COSEWIC assessment. If it is apparent that there is insufficient information to determine eligibility for assessment, either the report will be rejected because available information is not included in the report, or a finding of Data Deficient will be considered because the relevant information is included in the report.
2. Given sufficient information, is the wildlife species eligible for assessment?
Given sufficient information, the SSC Co-chair establishes eligibility for COSEWIC assessment (Table 1). If the proposed designation is for a designatable unit(s) below the species level, a justification for this is presented following the COSEWIC Designatable Units Guidelines.
3. Is the status report adequate and acceptable for assessment purposes?
Once it has been determined that the wildlife species is eligible for assessment, the appropriate SSC Co-chair or presenting alternative COSEWIC member then briefly reviews the status report, summarizes the discussion of the SSC, presents the results of the straw ballots, and then presents the rationale for the status assessment recommended by the SSC. After discussion, Committee members may choose to let the report stand for status assessment or move that it be withdrawn for further work.
In general, assessment of a wildlife species is deferred if the Committee believes that the report has not included significant relevant, currently available knowledge, information or data; or does not present an adequate, clear, or objective analysis of the available information.
4. What status is suggested by application of approved COSEWIC quantitative assessment criteria and guidelines (e.g. rescue effect)?
Once the status report has been accepted, the Committee proceeds to discuss the appropriate status designation. As a first step in this deliberation, information in the status report is used to assess the wildlife species according to the quantitative COSEWIC criteria (Table 2).
Contextual considerations are then reviewed, and if thought to be significant, may be used to modify the initial quantitative assessment. Such considerations include rescue potential from outside of Canada, and other life-history characteristics that may not have been adequately assayed by the quantitative assessment (Tables 3 and 4).
5. Does the suggested status conform to the COSEWIC definition for the proposed status category?
As a final step in the assessment process, the Committee considers all the information, analysis, and discussion presented at the meeting, and evaluates if the status category suggested by the application of the criteria and guidelines is consistent with the definition of the status category used by COSEWIC (Table 5). If there is inconsistency, the status representing the most appropriate definition will take precedence, and any variance between the status definition and the quantitative criteria will be explained.
COSEWIC considers without prejudice all wildlife species as defined by SARA, notwithstanding the extent of their extra-limital range (i.e., the range of the wildlife species outside Canada), subject to the following criteria:
A) Taxonomic validity
COSEWIC would normally only consider species and subspecies or varieties that have been established as valid in published taxonomic works or in peer reviewed communications from taxonomic specialists. COSEWIC would not normally consider other designatable units unless they can be shown to be genetically distinct, separated by a major range disjunction, or biogeographically distinct (refer to Guidelines for Recognizing Designatable Units), Justification for considering designatable units must be provided.
B) Native wildlife species
COSEWIC would normally only consider native wildlife species. A native wildlife species is a wildlife species that occurs in Canada naturally, or that has expanded its range into Canada without direct human intervention from a region where it naturally occurred, has produced viable populations, and has persisted in Canada for at least 50 years.
As stated in the Species at Risk Act, a wildlife species is, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, presumed to have been present in Canada for at least 50 years and therefore eligible for assessment.
C) Regularity of occurrence
COSEWIC would normally only consider wildlife species which occur or formerly have occurred regularly in Canada, including regular or seasonal migrants but excluding vagrants.
D) Special cases
Notwithstanding the above guidelines, a taxon may be considered eligible if there are clear conservation reasons for consideration (for example high risk of extinction). In particular, a wildlife species which does not meet the eligibility criteria but which is at risk in its primary range outside of Canada could be considered for designation.
Reasons for considering a special case must be presented and supporting information must be provided; this should normally be reviewed and agreed to by COSEWIC before a status report is prepared.
COSEWIC’s revised criteria to guide the status assessment of wildlife species. These were in use by COSEWIC by November 2001, and are based on the revised IUCN Red List categories (IUCN 2001). Some minor changes to definitions were made in 2011 and 2014 to make COSEWIC criteria more consistent with IUCN criteria. An earlier version of the quantitative criteria was used by COSEWIC from October 1999 to May 2001 (http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct0/original_criteria_e.cfm) For definitions of terms, see COSEWIC’s Glossary of Definitions and Abbreviations. This table is a short-hand reminder, for more fulsome guidance on applying these criteria see the latest IUCN Redlist guidelines.
COSEWIC’s approach to assigning status is, first, to examine the Canadian status of a wildlife species or other Designatable Unit below the species level in isolation and then, if deemed appropriate, to consider the potential for “rescue” from extra-regional subpopulations (e.g., from across an international boundary or from another Designatable Unit within Canada). The rescue effect is the immigration of gametes or individuals that have a high probability of reproducing successfully, such that extirpation or decline of a wildlife species, or some other Designatable Unit, can be mitigated. If the potential for rescue is high, the risk of extirpation may be reduced, and the status may be downgraded. COSEWIC addresses this by applying the following guidelines developed by IUCN for this purpose (Gardenfors et al. 1999).
Figure 1. Schematic Guidelines for Applying the Rescue Effect (adapted from Gardenfors et al 1999)
COSEWIC, IUCN and other groups recognize the need for additional assessment tools. Specifically, there is a need to consider life history variation amongst wildlife species and other taxa. COSEWIC has developed the following guideline:
In addition to the quantitative guidelines, COSEWIC will base its assessment on the degree to which various life-history characteristics (e.g., age & size at maturity, dispersal strategy, longevity) affect extinction probability and the likelihood that the wildlife species is vulnerable to the Allee effects of density dependence.
All else being equal:
Extinct (X) - A wildlife species that no longer exists.
Extirpated (XT) - A wildlife species that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but exists elsewhere.
Endangered (E) - A wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction.
Threatened (T) - A wildlife species that is likely to become an endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction.
Special Concern (SC) - A wildlife species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.
Data Deficient (DD) - A category that applies when the available information is insufficient (a) to resolve a wildlife species' eligibility for assessment or (b) to permit an assessment of the wildlife species' risk of extinction.
Not At Risk (NAR) - A wildlife species that has been evaluated and found to be not at risk of extinction given the current circumstances.
Area of Occupancy:The area within 'extent of occurrence' that is occupied by a taxon, excluding cases of vagrancy. The measure reflects the fact that the extent of occurrence may contain unsuitable or unoccupied habitats. In some cases (e.g. irreplaceable colonial nesting sites, crucial feeding sites for migratory taxa) the area of occupancy is the smallest area essential at any stage to the survival of the wildlife species/designatable unit considered (in such cases, this area of occupancy does not need to occur within Canada). The size of the area of occupancy will be a function of the scale at which it is measured, and should be at a scale appropriate to relevant biological aspects of the taxon, the nature of threats and the available data. To avoid inconsistencies and bias in assessments caused by estimating area of occupancy at different scales, it may be necessary to standardize estimates by applying a scale-correction factor. Different types of taxa have different scale-area relationships. (Source: adapted from IUCN 2010)
Continuing Decline:A recent, current or projected future decline (which may be smooth, irregular or sporadic), that is liable to continue unless remedial measures are taken. Fluctuations will not normally count as continuing declines, but an observed decline should not be considered as a fluctuation unless there is evidence for this. (Source: IUCN 2010). Estimated continuing decline (under criterion C1) had quantitative thresholds and requires a quantitative estimate (IUCN 2011).
Demographic Stochasticity: Random variation in demographic variables, such as birth rates and death rates, sex ratio and dispersal, for which some individuals in a population are negatively affected but not others. In small populations, these random events increase the risk of extinction.
Environmental Stochasticity: Random variation in physical environmental variables, such as temperature, water flow, and rainfall, which affect all individuals in a population to a similar degree. In small populations, these random events increase the risk of extinction.
Estimated: Information that is based on calculations that may include statistical assumptions about sampling, or biological assumptions about the relationship between an observed variable (e.g., an index of abundance) to the variable of interest (e.g., number of mature individuals). These assumptions should be stated and justified in the documentation. Estimation may also involve interpolation in time to calculate the variable of interest for a particular step (e.g., a 10-year reduction based on observations or estimations of population size 5 and 15 years). (Source: IUCN 2010)
Extent of Occurrence: The area included in a polygon without concave angles that encompasses the geographic distribution of all known populations of a wildlife species.
Extreme Fluctuation: Changes in distribution or in the total number of mature individuals of a wildlife species that occur rapidly and frequently, and are typically of more than one order of magnitude. (Source: adapted from IUCN 2010)
Generation:Generation length is the average age of parents of a cohort (i.e. newborn individuals in the population). Generation length therefore reflects the turnover rate of breeding individuals in a population. Generation length is greater than the age at first breeding and less than the age of the oldest breeding individual, except in taxa that breed only once. Where generation length varies under threat, the more natural, i.e. pre-disturbance, generation length should be used. (Source: adapted from IUCN 2010). Revised guidance on calculating generation length is available in section 4.4 of IUCN 2011.
Inferred: Information that is based on indirect evidence, on variables that are indirectly related to the variable of interest, but in the same general type of units (e.g., number of individuals or area or number of subpopulations). Inferred values rely on more assumptions than estimated values. Inference may also involve extrapolating an observed or estimated quantity from known subpopulations to calculate the same quantity for other subpopulations. Whether there are enough data to make such an inference will depend on how large the known subpopulations are as a proportion of the whole populations, and the applicability of the threats and trends observed in the known subpopulations to the rest of the taxon. The method of extrapolating to unknown subpopulations depends on the criteria and on the type of data available for the known subpopulations. (Source: IUCN 2010)
Location:The term ‘location’ defines a geographically or ecologically distinct area in which a single threatening event can rapidly affect all individuals of the taxon present. The size of the location depends on the area covered by the threatening event and may include part of one or many subpopulations. Where a taxon is affected by more than one threatening event, location should be defined by considering the most serious plausible threat. Where the most serious plausible threat does not affect all of the taxon’s distribution, other threats can be used to define and count locations in those areas not affected by the most serious plausible threat. (Source: IUCN 2010, 2011). In the absence of any plausible threat for the taxon, the term “location” cannot be used and the subcriteria that refer to the number of locations will not be met. (Source: IUCN 2010, 2011).
Mature Individuals (Number of): The number of mature individuals is the number of individuals known, estimated or inferred to be capable of reproduction. When estimating this quantity, the following points should be borne in mind:
Observed: Information that is directly based on well-documented observations of all known individuals in the population. (Source: IUCN 2010)
Population:The term “population” is used in a specific sense in the Red List Criteria that is different to its common biological usage. Population is here defined as the total number of individuals of the taxon. For functional reasons, primarily owing to differences between life forms, population size is measured as numbers of mature individuals only. In the case of taxa obligately dependent on other taxa for all or part of their life cycles, biologically appropriate values for the host taxon should be used. (Source: IUCN 2001). The interpretation of this definition depends critically on an understanding of the definition of “mature individuals”. For application of Criteria A, C, and D, the word population usually applies to the “Canadian population”. See also “Subpopulation”.
Projected: Same as “estimated”, but the variable of interest is extrapolated in time towards the future. Projected variables require a discussion of the method of extrapolation (e.g., justification of the statistical assumptions or the population model used) as well as the extrapolation of current or potential threats into the future, including their rates of change. (Source: IUCN 2010)
Quantitative Analysis: An estimate of the extinction probability of a taxon based on known life history, habitat requirements, threats and any specified management options. Population viability analysis (PVA) is one such technique. Quantitative analyses should make full use of all relevant available data. If there is limited information, available data can be used to provide an estimate of extinction risk (for instance, estimating the impact of stochastic events on habitat). In presenting quantitative analyses, the assumptions, the data used and the uncertainty in the data or quantitative model must be documented. (Source: adapted from IUCN 2010)
Reduction: A reduction is a decline in the number of mature individuals of at least the amount (%) stated under COSEWIC criterion A over the time period (years) specified, although the decline need not be continuing. A reduction should not be interpreted as part of a fluctuation unless there is reasonable evidence for this. The downward phase of a fluctuation will not normally count as a reduction. (Source: adapted from IUCN 2010)
Rescue Effect: Immigration of gametes or individuals that have a high probability of reproducing successfully, such that extirpation or decline of a wildlife species can be mitigated. If the potential for rescue is high, the risk of extirpation may be reduced.
Severely Fragmented: A taxon can be considered to be severely fragmented if most (>50%) of its total area of occupancy is in habitat patches that are (1) smaller than would be required to support a viable population, and (2) separated from other habitat patches by a large distance. Fragmentation must be assessed at a scale that is appropriate to biological isolation in the taxon under consideration. (Source: IUCN 2010). For complete guidance it is strongly suggested that IUCN 2010 is read.
Subpopulation: As used in Criteria B and C, Subpopulations are defined as geographically or otherwise distinct groups in the population between which there is little demographic or genetic exchange (typically one successful migrant individual or gamete per year or less). Subpopulation size is measured as numbers of mature individuals only. (Source: IUCN 2001).
Suspected: Information that is based on circumstantial evidence, or on variables in different types of units. For example, evidence of qualitative habitat loss can be used to infer that there is a qualitative (continuing) decline, whereas evidence of the amount of habitat loss can be used to suspect a population reduction at a particular rate. In general, a suspected population reduction can be based on any factor related to population abundance or distribution, including the effects of (or dependence on) other taxa, so long as the relevance of these factors can be reasonably supported. (Source: IUCN 2010)
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1 This process is used for new assessments or reassessments based on an updated status reports. The status appraisal assessment process for use with existing status reports appended with appraisal summaries is detailed in Procedures for Reviews of Classification Using Status Appraisal Summaries.