Dal faculty an asset to Canada's endangered wildlife committee

Sher Scott - May 28, 2014

A Harris's Sparrow, one of the species on the "high priority candidate" list of COSEWIC as of February 2014.

Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)
has the daunting task of assessing the risk of extinction of every creature in the country — from insects to whales — to recommend conservation status under the federal Species at Risk Act.

At that table are several Dal faculty members, bringing their expertise to bear on helping identify which species deserve special protection.

The committee meets twice a year to assess between 30 and 40 species and provide advice to the federal Minister of the Environment. Each year, one of these meetings is outside of Ottawa to give the public in different regions a chance to attend and observe the process.

Last month, the committee hosted its meeting in Halifax — convenient for Marty Leonard, a professor of Biology at Dal who serves as chair of COSEWIC. (She’s also chair of the Birds Sub-Committee.)

Science, not politics



The committee bases its decisions on science and Aboriginal traditional knowledge.

“We don’t consider economic impacts. That can be factored in, but it’s at a different part of the process. It’s separate so as to not muddy the waters of science,” explains Dr. Leonard.

This is an important point for the scientists involved. As the committee is often the part of the endangered species process that’s most visible to the public, there can be confusion about its role. As Dr. Leonard clarifies, the committee’s scientific assessment is not the only factor in what is and is not listed under the Species at Risk Act at the end of the day.  

“We provide the science, but that is just one step. After COSEWIC provides its advice to the Minister of the Environment, there is a period of public consultation, a recommendation to the Governor In Council and, ultimately, the cabinet can choose to list, not list, or return a species to us for further review.”

In other words: when the committee recommends that species be added to the list it’s on a scientific foundation, not a political agenda.

Dal contributions



Dr. Leonard is one of many of Dalhousie’s Biology faculty who have played an important role in the committee. Jeff Hutchings, has also contributed to the committee as a COSEWIC chair, and Daniel Ruzzante and Paul Bentzen contribute as members of the Marine Fishes Specialist Subcommittee. Dr. Hal Whitehead has also contributed to the assessments of marine mammals in the past.

“The committee has a lot of credibility in the science community,” says Dr. Leonard. “It can be very exciting and rewarding work.”


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