In the introduction to Signs of Life: Field Notes from the Frontlines of Extinction, Sarah Cox says that as a “teenager and young adult, living in Vancouver in the 1980s, I took Canada’s wild things and wild places for granted. I thought they’d always be there. But, over my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a seismic shift. Wild things and wild places are disappearing at an unprecedented pace.” In Signs of Life, Cox sets out to document our current approach to trying to protect and rescue species at risk. She says, “Signs of Life isn’t a book about who is to blame for our broken system. It’s an appeal to reimagine how we approach the issue of at-risk species and biodiversity loss, especially in the context of global warming.”

Last-Ditch Efforts

The book begins with the seemingly hopeless attempts to save the northern spotted owl. There is only one northern spotted owl remaining in the forests of British Columbia, although there are 400,000 in the United States. Millions of dollars are being spent on a captive breeding program, but “trying to rescue a species from extinction without ensuring it has sufficient habitat in the wild is like trying to bail a leaky boat without sealing the hole in its hull. Saving a small number of individuals, or preserving DNA, will only be of limited assistance as long as their habitat continues to be eroded, fragmented, and destroyed.”

Caribou require large, undisturbed stretches of old-growth boreal forest, but 90% of their traditional territory has been altered by industry. The introduction of roads and cutlines due to logging and mining provides predators, such as wolves, with easy access to their prey, leaving caribou defenceless. Caribou numbers have risen since 2020 in response to wolf culls. But killing one species to save another is controversial. In 2015, a group of experts gathered together to consider what they considered flawed and inhumane approaches to wildlife control. They developed a set of 7 evidence-based principles that provide a common decision-making framework. The principles are expressed as questions with the first and most important being, “Can the problem be mitigated by changing human behaviour?” As Cox says, “Decisions about wildlife control should focus on how human behaviour has affected the ecosystem in question and address the root causes of conflict ‘rather than only the problematic outcome’.” The principle clearly identifies the inherent contradiction between industry putting up money to support culls when the caribou’s habitat is being eroded by industrial activity.

Seeking Solutions

One might assume that Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) would protect endangered species, but its powers are extremely limited. Protection is mandatory under the US act, while in Canada the opposite is true. SARA lists species at risk, but even there there is possible bias. The list must be approved by the federal cabinet and species are often denied listing for socio-economic reasons. Provinces that don’t want to protect endangered species habitat won’t do anything until the federal cabinet intervenes, and petitions for emergency orders rarely succeed. Groups are sometimes successful in taking a case to court, but it’s a slow process as winning one case isn’t enough. You have to go back and fight the same battle over and over again.

Cox points to individuals and communities that have chosen to develop their own plans in order to protect endangered species. In Grand Cache, AB, the Caribou Patrol helps woodland caribou to cross the highway without being hit. On Vancouver Island, SPLAT built an underpass so toads, frogs, newts, and salamanders could cross the road safely. The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation encourages ranchers who own native grasslands to sign conservation easements, ensuring the land will be retained as native grassland for a minimum of 25 years. A group in Nova Scotia set up a camp to protect a forested area frequented by moose from being logged. They used their time in camp to search for rare and endangered lichens. The provincial government requires a buffer zone around rare lichens; they were able to identify enough to make logging uneconomical and it was called off. Rare lichens were also found at the Fairy Creek blockade; however, BC doesn’t have an endangered species act, so logging went ahead and the largest-known occurrence of the speckleberry lichen was destroyed.

Military Protection

Under Canadian legislation, endangered species are only automatically protected on federal lands - and that includes military bases. CFB Suffield near Medicine Hat is Canada’s largest military base. While land around the base was dug up for agriculture, housing, mining, and oil, the base’s mixed grass prairie remains untouched. A national wildlife area on the base of 460 sq km is one of the biggest uncultivated blocks of native prairie remaining in North America. Other Canadian bases also protect endangered species. CFB Shilo in Manitoba protects 17 at-risk species in habitat ranging from sand dunes to tamarack-black spruce swamp, while CFB Esquimalt shelters Canada’s largest populations of 7 at-risk plant species.

Priority Threat Management & Ecosystem-based Targets

How much time and effort should we dedicate to saving an individual species? Cox points out that BC spends millions of dollars trying to breed the spotted owl with very limited results. What if we took a more business-like approach and considered how conservation money could be used most effectively to protect the greatest number of species? For example, how much would it cost to decommission abandoned industry roads, how many species would benefit, and by how much?

World Wildlife Fund Canada set up a test project in New Brunswick. A 3-day workshop identified watershed species and ecosystems of concern, looked at key threats to each group, costed strategies to manage the threats, and determined which species or group stood a greater than 60% chance of still being alive in 25 years. Removing a large hydro dam carried the highest price tag but would have the biggest impact. It provided a large proportion of the province’s hydro power but had structural deficits. Spending the money set aside for repairs on renewable energy projects would have positive outcomes for all wildlife habitats and groups of species.

Cox notes that priority threat management doesn’t receive universal support as some groups feel it leaves too many opportunities for government and industry to wiggle out of commitments. Another person commented that funds were only limited because we failed to place enough value on nature.

Ken Wu, founder of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, believes we don’t have enough time to rescue individual species. Instead, we need to protect ecosystems and all their interconnecting parts. The non-profit American Prairie Reserve hopes to protect the full complement of wildlife found on North America’s Great Plains by stitching together public lands through the purchase of private lands for an eventual total of 1.3 million hectares, larger than Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks combined. Canada’s Nature-Based Solutions Foundation hopes to achieve something similar “by filling critical gaps, including funding, that will smooth the path for creating new protected areas in the most important areas for wildlife and biodiversity.” Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada, along with other environmental organizations, is identifying areas of key biodiversity that are most in need of protection.


Sarah Cox concludes Signs of Life with a call to action. She says,

“Only when nature becomes a primary focus at all levels of decision-making will Canada be able to take meaningful and lasting steps to protect wildlife and biodiversity. Until then, we’ll be consigned to expensive, eleventh-hour attempts to rescue species like the spotted owl … The task is daunting, especially considering Canada’s longstanding focus on natural resource extraction and the constitutional authority of provinces and territories over most natural assets. Yet it’s far from impossible. It’s already being accomplished on a small scale across the country, especially through Indigenous-led conservation. If we are to protect wildlife and nature - and in doing so, secure our own future as a species - it’s time to ramp up.”

Photo credit: Goose Lane Editions

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