Answers to some frequently asked questions about COSEWIC and its assessment process.
Assessing wildlife species-practice
Assessing wildlife species-theory
COSEWIC in a broader context
Assessing wildlife species-practice
1. What is the purpose of COSEWIC?
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) was established by the Species at Risk Act (SARA) as the authority for assessing the conservation status of wildlife species that may be at risk of extinction in Canada. This is important because the first and fundamental step in wildlife protection is determining which wildlife species are at risk. COSEWIC uses the best available scientific, community and Aboriginal knowledge to evaluate risk of extinction.
2. How long has COSEWIC been active?
Although it was legally established by SARA in 2003, COSEWIC has been operating since 1977 and made its first assessments in 1978.
3. Who are the members of COSEWIC?
Members of COSEWIC are academics, independent specialists, Aboriginal knowledge-holders, government biologists, museum staff or independent biologists. Members have considerable experience with wildlife and biological science including Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge, ecology, genetics, wildlife and fisheries management, systematics and/or risk assessment, coupled with years of field experience.
The 31 voting members of COSEWIC include a Co-chair from each of the 10 Species Specialist Subcommittees and a Co-chair from the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee, one member from each of the 13 provincial and territorial governments, one member from each of four Federal agencies (Canadian Wildlife Service, Parks Canada Agency, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Canadian Museum of Nature), and three non-government science members. All members must demonstrate that they possess the required expertise to serve on the Committee. Once appointed they act as independent experts and not as representatives of any government or organization.
4. How are the members of COSEWIC selected?
Government members are recommended by their agencies and are appointed by the Federal Minister of Environment. Non-government science members and Species Specialist Subcommittee Co-chairs are selected and recommended by COSEWIC following a call for expressions of interest by COSEWIC. Members are appointed by the Minister, typically for a four-year term.
5. When does COSEWIC make its decisions?
COSEWIC meets at least once a year, usually in April or May, to consider new and updated reports and to make its status determinations. If required, the committee holds a second meeting in the autumn, usually in November.
6. Does COSEWIC look at all Canadian wildlife species?
COSEWIC only examines the conservation status of wildlife species living in Canada that it suspects may be at risk. Its Species Specialist Subcommittees encompass the following taxonomic groups:
COSEWIC does not regularly consider other organisms (e.g.starfish, algae or corals, etc.) but can consider wildlife species in these or other groups if a suitable status report is received from a third party or if there is sufficient concern for COSEWIC to commission a report. Additionally, if sufficient information is available, COSEWIC may form an ad hoc Subcommittee for wildlife species not normally included within the expertise of one of its Species Specialist Subcommittees.
7. What evidence does COSEWIC use?
COSEWIC uses the best available information, including scientific and Aboriginal or community knowledge, on a wildlife species' biology, population status, range, and threats. In addition to scientific papers and government reports, COSEWIC may draw on information from graduate student research, or may use a review from Aboriginal knowledge holders (with permission) to help make a decision about a wildlife species' status. For some wildlife species, long-term observations are contributed by hundreds or thousands of people (such as bird atlas information). All of this information, the best available, is pertinent to COSEWIC's assessment process.
All available information useful for status assessment is presented within a status report that is prepared for each wildlife species and is the principal source of information during the wildlife species' status assessment.
8. How does COSEWIC justify its designations?
COSEWIC's decisions are based on a status report, available to the public. Reasons for designation are available through our database search page. A reason for designation is a short justification of the status category that was assigned to the wildlife species by COSEWIC. The reason for designation typically provides information about population sizes, trends in population size (increasing or decreasing), threats to the wildlife species' existence, or biological characteristics that make the wildlife species particularly susceptible to extinction.
9. Are the meetings public?
No. COSEWIC may discuss sensitive information (such as locality information) that may affect a wildlife species' well-being and that must be kept confidential. Members must be at liberty to speak freely as independent experts during a meeting to enable the committee to discuss all aspects of the risk assessment.
10. Can I attend a COSEWIC meeting and try to persuade the Committee of my point of view?
Observers may attend a COSEWIC meeting at the discretion of the chair of the Committee if they apply in advance in writing and agree to abide by COSEWIC's rules of procedure and confidentiality. Because the committee deliberates solely on the basis of available information, it cannot be lobbied and its decisions are not influenced by special interests. COSEWIC is apolitical and is not interested in opinions, but welcomes useful information on the status of wildlife species from any credible source. Information useful for status assessment is best contributed during the writing of status reports.
11. What if I want to write a COSEWIC status report?
COSEWIC annually commissions status report preparation through an open bidding process for high priority candidate wildlife species on the COSEWIC Candidate List or for wildlife species that require re-assessment ("update status reports"). You can register to receive notification of upcoming calls for bids to prepare status reports.
12. How does the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee ensure that information from all aboriginal sources is made available to COSEWIC?
Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee (ATK SC) members are gatekeepers and work closely with the National Aboriginal Ecoregion Network to gather information from Aboriginal Knowledge Holders and Resource Users.
13. How are Wildlife Management Boards (WMBs) involved in wildlife species assessments?
When a wildlife species being assessed by COSEWIC occurs in an area under the jurisdiction of a Wildlife Management Board (Comprehensive Land Claims Area), the WMB is contacted and offered opportunities to provide comments and data during all stages of the assessment process. More information on how Wildlife Management Boards and COSEWIC work together is provided on the COSEWIC website (Wildlife Management Boards and COSEWIC).
14. How is community knowledge included in wildlife species assessments?
Community knowledge is an important source of information on wildlife species. Community knowledge may come from many sources, including people who hunt, fish, or live closely with the land.
There are a number of ways that community knowledge can be included in status reports. Writers of COSEWIC status reports are instructed to contact anyone who has expertise on the wildlife species and its status in Canada. Report writers also are required to contact federal and provincial agencies and Wildlife Management Boards. These sources may have additional contacts or information for the report writers on available community knowledge. Holders of community knowledge can contribute by referring to a current list of assessments in progress and then by informing the COSEWIC Secretariat that they have information on a particular wildlife species that could be useful for status assessment. The Secretariat can direct the information to the co-chair overseeing the preparation of the report. COSEWIC encourages all people, groups or organizations in possession of useful knowledge on wildlife species to contact the Committee through a web-based questionnaire.
Assessing wildlife species-theory
15. Does an increasing total number of wildlife species designated by COSEWIC mean there is a worsening endangered species crisis?
The total number of endangered, threatened and special concern wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC will continue to increase into the foreseeable future because COSEWIC is far from finished assessing suspected at-risk wildlife species. The increase in total number of wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC does not provide evidence of a worsening endangered species crisis. The pace at which new wildlife species are assessed mostly reflects the capacity of COSEWIC to fully investigate and assess wildlife species suspected of being at risk.
Similarly, changes in taxonomic representation in COSEWIC's new assessments do not reflect changes in the level of endangerment for various taxonomic groups. Early in COSEWIC's history, the number of at-risk birds and mammals grew quickly, mostly because COSEWIC concentrated on better-known wildlife species. New assessments are now dominated by fish and plant species because these groups are particularly numerous, not necessarily because they are more at-risk than before. Arthropods are the most recent additions to COSEWIC's mandate and account for about 2/3 of the world's species. While many arthropods are likely at risk, there is relatively little known about them. Thus, the number of arthropods designated by COSEWIC is expected to remain small due to lack of information. The numbers and proportions of birds, mammals, fish, and arthropods, etc., that have been designated by COSEWIC to date are largely a function of time and data availability.
16. Does COSEWIC focus its efforts on wildlife species that it thinks might be at greater risk of extinction?
Yes, COSEWIC investigates principally those wildlife species suspected of being at risk of extinction or extirpation (COSEWIC keeps a list of these wildlife species in its Candidate List). It is not worthwhile for COSEWIC to commission status reports on wildlife species that are obviously not at any risk, such as American robins, raccoons, or black spruce. Therefore, most of the wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC are designated as being at risk of extinction.
Information gathered during the preparation of the status report may show that a wildlife species is at a lower risk than suspected. Thus, new wildlife species sometimes are assigned to lower-risk status categories such as Special Concern or Not at Risk. Additionally, COSEWIC uses quantitative criteria based on those used by the IUCN (World Conservation Union) to help with an objective assignment of wildlife species into status categories that reflect risk of extinction or extirpation. Much of COSEWIC's deserved reputation for integrity rests on its demonstrated commitment to unbiased review of the best available biological information, community knowledge, and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge contained in detailed status reports.
17. Why would COSEWIC make an emergency designation?
Sometimes, available information suggests that a wildlife species might be at such grave risk of extinction that it may become extinct in a short period of time and COSEWIC's normal assessment process (which typically takes two to four years) may be unacceptably slow. In these cases, COSEWIC can consider assessing a wildlife species on an emergency basis if requested by an outside party. COSEWIC would then ratify its Emergency Assessment decision in due course based upon a full report that would be examined by the full committee. For example, the Oregon Spotted Frog (Rana pretiosa) from British Columbia was designated endangered in an emergency designation in November 1999. Evidence provided in a preliminary status report suggested that there were only about 200-300 breeding adults in Canada and their wetland habitat was highly fragmented. This wildlife species was also in trouble throughout its range in the United States. COSEWIC's emergency assessment allowed recovery plans for this wildlife species to be started in time for the following early-spring breeding season.
18. What happens when the conservation status of a COSEWIC wildlife species gets better or worse, or when new information becomes available indicating a wildlife species may be in the wrong risk category?
COSEWIC strives to re-examine the status of each previously-assessed at-risk wildlife species at least every ten years. All new and pertinent information on the wildlife species is included in an update status report. On the basis of that information, the wildlife species may be placed in a greater risk category if its status worsened, it may remain in the same category if its status is unchanged, or it may be placed in a lower-risk category if its status improved. A wildlife species may be moved to the "Not at risk" category if its situation has sufficiently improved. A wildlife species can be reassessed earlier than the 10-year time frame if new information suggests its conservation status has changed.
19. COSEWIC reports over 500 wildlife species at risk. Will all of them be extinct in the next few years?
Neither the loss nor the persistence of any wildlife species is guaranteed. When making its assessments, COSEWIC considers the risk of extinction or extirpation of wildlife species from Canada, if current conditions persist. All wildlife species designated as Endangered or Threatened are at some risk of being lost from Canada in the short or medium term, but not necessarily at risk of disappearing within a few years. Wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC as Endangered are thought to have at least 20% probability of extinction over the next 100 years if current conditions persist. Wildlife species assessed as Threatened are likely to become Endangered if conditions persist. Special Concern wildlife species are not in imminent danger of disappearance from Canada, but they have characteristics that make them particularly susceptible to become Threatened if not properly managed or protected. It is up to citizens, organizations and all levels of government to implement protection and recovery measures for wildlife species that have been assessed by COSEWIC as being at risk of extinction. While COSEWIC's assessments inform the subsequent development of recovery and protective measures, the implementation of recovery and protection is outside of COSEWIC's mandate.
20. Why does COSEWIC sometimes consider subspecies and populations for separate designation?
COSEWIC's usual approach to assigning status is, first, to examine the wildlife species as a whole, and then, if deemed appropriate, to examine the status of designatable units below the species level. There are situations in which units below the species level may be assessed separately. For example, if one subspecies is thought to be at risk while other subspecies are clearly not at risk, COSEWIC will only examine the subspecies suspected to be at risk.
COSEWIC's mandate is to inform Canadians about the conservation status of wildlife species. In some cases, a single designation for the wildlife species as a whole may not convey an adequate representation of that wildlife species' conservation status. Where more than one subspecies occurs in Canada and they are found to be at different levels of risk, COSEWIC will designate them separately in order to more precisely specify those risks. This may also apply, when justifiable, to distinct populations or groups of populations isolated from others or inhabiting a different ecological region of the country.
For brevity, COSEWIC and SARA refer to all of these designated entities as "wildlife species".
21. Why is Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge included in wildlife species assessments?
Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge is the term used by the COSEWIC ATK Subcommittee to describe the complex and unique knowledge systems held by Aboriginal Peoples. Linking ATK and Western Science knowledge systems benefits wildlife species by increasing the accuracy of COSEWIC wildlife species assessments.
Aboriginal Science is based on knowledge of connections between humans, wildlife, spirituality, environmental conditions and land forms in a defined locality and, frequently, over lengthy time periods.
22. How can a wildlife species such as Atlantic cod be endangered when there are millions of them left?
A steep, continuing decline in population size, or in geographical distribution places a wildlife species at risk of extinction. Even if many individuals remain at the time of assessment, the wildlife species may become extinct within a few generations if the threats causing the decline persist. In addition, at reduced population sizes, each individual's risk of mortality may increase (if, for example, very large groups are required to avoid predation or to forage effectively). At reduced density, recruitment rates may also decrease if animals cannot find mates or if they normally require large congregations for spawning, as appears to be the case for many marine fishes. If it was clear that the population had stabilized at a new lower abundance and was no longer facing the threat of any further reduction, then there would likely be a different assessment of its risk of extinction.
23. Why are commercially exploited wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC? Shouldn't this be left to management agencies?
SARA specifies that COSEWIC is responsible for reporting on the status of all wildlife species that are at risk of extinction. This includes wildlife species that are harvested commercially or recreationally, including wildlife species that are hunted, fished, trapped, or taken for other purposes. Marine species are managed on regional and sub-regional scales by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Freshwater species are managed either by Fisheries and Oceans Canada or the provinces and territories, depending on the wildlife species, where it occurs and the activity that is being managed. Terrestrial species are managed either by Environment Canada, Parks Canada, or the provinces and territories, again depending on the wildlife species, where it occurs and the activity that is being managed. Within their boundaries, Wildlife Management Boards (WMBs) co-manage aquatic and terrestrial species with the above-listed provincial, territorial and federal jurisdictions. COSEWIC operates at arm's length to any government, and the explicit processes and criteria that COSEWIC applies ensures that all evaluations of risk are done to a common conservation standard, unaffected by any differences in management objectives or management strategies used by the different jurisdictions.
COSEWIC in a broader context
24. Is COSEWIC part of the federal government's Species at Risk Act?
The Species at Risk Act (SARA) identifies COSEWIC as one of its key components. The Act mandates COSEWIC to use the best available scientific, Aboriginal and community knowledge to assess the status of wildlife species that may be at risk of disappearing from Canada. COSEWIC's wildlife species assessments are taken into consideration by the Government of Canada when establishing the Legal List of Species at Risk.
25. When do wildlife species that have been assessed by COSEWIC as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern get considered for legal listing by the Government?
Once per year, usually in late summer or early fall, COSEWIC forwards its assessments to the Minister of the Environment and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council. This begins the Government's consideration of the wildlife species for legal listing. Information on the legal listing process once the assessment has been forwarded to Government by COSEWIC can be found on the SARA Public Registry.
26. Why aren't the assessments of COSEWIC automatically legal?
Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) it is up to the federal government, which is politically accountable, to legally protect wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC. COSEWIC has been established as an advisory body to make impartial assessments of wildlife species status based on the best available scientific, Aboriginal and community knowledge.
27. What is Species at Risk Public Registry?
Species at Risk Public Registry is an online service that provides access to information and documents relating to the Species at Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC status reports and wildlife species assessments for wildlife species listed and protected under SARA are among the many documents that are available.
28. Why are some of COSEWIC's status reports not available on the SARA Public Registry?
Not all status reports for wildlife species on Schedule 1 of SARA are currently available on the SARA Public Registry as they have not yet been translated. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. In time, all Schedule 1 status reports will be made publicly available on the SARA Public Registry. Meanwhile they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.
29. Why isn't it called the "COSEWIC List" anymore?
In 2005, COSEWIC updated its website and other documentation to remove the word "list" in phrases such as "COSEWIC's list" and "listed species." This was done to avoid confusion with the wildlife species identified in the Legal List of Species at Risk under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The change highlights the fact that wildlife species designations by COSEWIC are independent and based on the best available scientific, Aboriginal and community knowledge. These designations carry no legal implications unless legally listed under SARA, which also considers potential economic and social implications of legal protection.
COSEWIC now uses terms such as "COSEWIC's assessments", "COSEWIC wildlife species designations", and "assessed wildlife species" instead of phrases such as "COSEWIC's list" or "COSEWIC's listed species". The publication produced after each COSEWIC wildlife species assessment meeting has been renamed to "Canadian Wildlife Species at Risk".
30. I can find many of the wildlife species that are on COSEWIC's website on the Species at Risk Public Registry website. Why are there two sites?
The COSEWIC website provides information on wildlife species that have been, or may be, designated by COSEWIC. COSEWIC recommends to the federal government wildlife species for inclusion in the SARA's Legal List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Because COSEWIC makes independent decisions about the status of wildlife species, it uses its own website to provide information to the public, including the assessment process, summary and detailed assessment information for all wildlife species assessed by COSEWIC, and information on how to obtain wildlife species status reports.
The Species at Risk Public Registry website provides the legal List of Wildlife Species at Risk in Canada. Wildlife species in this list qualify for legal protection and recovery under the Species at Risk Act. The List of Wildlife Species at Risk is, in large part, based on COSEWIC assessments and provides information to the public on wildlife species legally listed as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern. Information in the Public Registry for these wildlife species include species’ biology, population and distribution, habitat, threats and protection, COSEWIC status reports, COSEWIC wildlife species assessments, response statements, recovery plans and efforts, action plans and/or management plans. The Public Registry also provides information and status reports on wildlife species that were assessed by COSEWIC but were not included by the government in the SARA legal list of Wildlife Species at Risk in Canada.
31. Why do many provinces and territories have their own "wildlife species at risk" lists and their own legislation? Is COSEWIC duplicating their efforts?
No. Most provinces and territories have lists of wildlife species that they consider to be at risk of extinction in their jurisdictions and legislation to protect these wildlife species. Many wildlife species thought to be at risk in a province or territory are often considered to be at risk on a Canada-wide basis by COSEWIC. Differences may occur when, for example, a wildlife species is particularly at risk in one province or territory but more common in the rest of Canada. More information on wildlife species at risk programs in provinces and territories may be found by visiting their web sites directly.
32. Does the Wild Species website provide yet another list of "wildlife species at risk"?
No. The Wild Species reports are a first step in determining the status of all Canadian wildlife species at a coarse scale. It determines which wildlife species are secure for now, which to keep an eye on, and which may need formal assessment by COSEWIC, or provincial or territorial equivalents. It results from the collaboration of federal, provincial and territorial governments responsible for wildlife conservation in Canada. It focuses on all wildlife species, not only endangered wildlife species. The General Status ranks in the Wild Species reports do not replace evaluations by COSEWIC or by provincial and territorial equivalents, which provide in-depth reviews of knowledge about individual wildlife species that may be at risk. COSEWIC uses information from the Wild Species reports as one source of information in developing its lists of high priority wildlife species for assessment (see Candidate List). COSEWIC status reports draw upon the information collected and generated by the Wild Species report(s). The Wild Species reports are available at: www.wildspecies.ca.
33. Some wildlife species that have been designated by COSEWIC are common in the United States or another country. Why does COSEWIC designate these wildlife species?
COSEWIC investigates wildlife in Canada. Thus, all wildlife species whose ranges extend into Canada are part of COSEWIC's mandate and their level of extinction or extirpation risk in Canada may be evaluated by COSEWIC. If a wildlife species is more abundant in another country, the Committee will consider its risk of extinction or extirpation from Canada to be lower if individuals could immigrate and successfully reproduce in Canada.
34. A number of the wildlife species on IUCN's (World Conservation Union's) Red List have also been designated by COSEWIC. Why are there sometimes differences in status for the same wildlife species?
Understanding the scale of evaluation is key to understanding why there may be differences in status. The Species Survival Commission of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) lists wildlife species threatened with extinction globally on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN operates on a global scale, whereas COSEWIC evaluates the risk of extinction for wildlife species in Canada.
This difference in scale of assessment means that some wildlife species considered at risk in Canada are not on IUCN's Red List because they are more common worldwide. This does not diminish the importance of recognizing them (this is COSEWIC's job), studying them, and protecting them in Canada for Canadians. COSEWIC formally acknowledges this situation for wildlife species that extend across the Canadian border by considering the 'rescue' effect of outside populations on Canadian populations.