For the first time in my 28-year life ruffed grouse are so numerous around the family farm in northeastern Alberta that I don’t have to trudge through the willows to find them. They regularly strut through the front yard, so common the dogs hardly notice. Up in Nunavut, meanwhile, there are so many polar bears that they “may have exceeded the co-existence threshold” and become a serious threat to humans in some communities, according to a recent Nunavut government report. These anecdotal observations are supported by the latest Wild Species survey of Canadian flora and fauna, which concluded that “the majority of species in Canada are secure. In fact…80 percent of species have a national rank of apparently secure or secure.” So when the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Living Planet Report 2018 was reported by the CBC to have concluded that “60 percent of world’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970”, the stark contradiction of credible research as well as my own experience cried out for investigation.
Advancing the narrative that the world is dying and we – we in the rich, Western-world sense – are to blame is a familiar tune among environmental organizations and their media friends, and the WWF’s massive and lavishly illustrated report is a particularly ostentatious example of this genre. The Living Planet Report 2018 rests its statistical laurels on the Living Planet Index (LPI). The report is a so-called meta-analysis, that is, rather than being original research, it’s a compendium of studies that reaches conclusions based on other people’s data. Merely understanding how the LPI got to its claim of a 60 percent decline – and what that means – wasn’t easy. The LPI looked at 16,700 wildlife populations – defined as pockets of individual animals from a given species living in a distinct geographical area – of 4,005 species. But there are about 63,000 vertebrate species worldwide, with millions of local populations (the number appears to be unknown). The LPI, in other words, bases its conclusions on a fraction of total populations representing barely six percent of the world’s vertebrate species.
The report says the LPI adjusts the weighting of each population to take into account population sizes, distribution, location and composition to determine the threats to, and changes in, the 4,005 selected species. It’s not hard to imagine the numbers of assumptions, modelling formulae and other calculations that go into all that – any one of which, if altered, might change the results. In any case, the LPI’s baseline year was 1970. Plugging in all the variables yielded the overall result that the studied populations declined in number of individuals by an average of 60 percent over this period.
The ZSL acknowledged in a technical backgrounder that the LPI “is not a census of all wildlife but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size.” At minimum, inferring from the Living Planet Report that 60 percent of the world’s wildlife populations have been “wiped out” is a gross exaggeration. But it’s not hard to see why the CBC, among other media, reported the story the way they did, because the report’s executive summary baldly states that, “On average, we’ve seen an astonishing 60 percent decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years.”
It takes an extra-careful reader to discern that only a very small percentage of a tiny proportion of the world’s species was even studied, and thus conclude it’s effectively impossible from such a dataset to make a sweeping assertion of “worldwide” population decline. The report’s technical backgrounder says the studied populations were selected simply because these data were available from existing research. Further digging revealed that the criteria for inclusion are surprisingly thin. Emily Giles, WWF Canada’s Senior Specialist, Species Conservation, told me in an email that to qualify for inclusion in both the Canadian and international reports, a study must be numerical in nature, have a consistent collection methodology, and include data for as little as two years between 1970 and 2014. Any study that meets the above criteria, Giles wrote, is included. The minimal timespan criterion makes it even harder to see how sweeping generalizations about nearly half-century-long trends can be supported.
The LPI’s weighting practises should make up for this, but it too has a troublesome methodology. While it adjusts the weight of populations for some factors, these do not include large, anomalous increases or decreases. A mass Pilot Whale die-off, such as recently occurred in New Zealand, would not be adjusted, but instead logged as 100 percent decline, thereby distorting population averages. That would clearly cancel a number of smaller population increases, one disaster thereby masking numerous instances of good news. Nor does the LPI adjust for relative species risk. Gaining one Siberian tiger while losing two pigeons would result in a net overall species “loss”.
The Living Planet Report 2018 issues a specific Canadian alarm, drawn from a 2017 WWF-Canada regional report. Using the same flawed methodology as the global report, WWF Canada monitored 3,689 populations from 903 vertebrate species. It found 451 species are in decline, then stated, “And of those, the index shows an average decline of 83 percent.” Overlooking the two key words – “of those” – as well as that Canada has about 80,000 known species of flora and fauna, and hundreds of thousands or even millions of populations, a fact relegated to the main report, would lead one to envision that Canada’s wildlife as a whole has suffered a horrific, 83 percent overall decline – virtual Armageddon. Again, the media reporting ignored these distinctions.
In comparison to the ambiguity, obfuscation and exaggeration required to arrive at these gloomy numbers, the Wild Species project is a model of clarity – and a source of much better news about the state of Canadian wildlife. The project is the work of scientists representing the federal, provincial and territorial governments, operating under the national Accord for the Protection of Species At Risk. Their most recent study examined 29,848 species of flora, fauna and fungi. Of those for which firm data were available, the report found that only 449 species faced an increased level of risk (which did not necessarily mean that they were dramatically declining), 414 had a decreased level of risk, while the rest were unchanged or showing signs of improvement.
Even then, 50 percent of the changes – an increase or decrease in risk level – were not necessarily due to observed numerical changes, but to improved knowledge of a species. The overall picture was that the health of flora and fauna in Canada is in aggregate stable or improving. Equally encouraging was that as the number of species evaluated has risen along with more research and better data, the assessment of overall species security has strengthened. Among species of known conservation status, the proportion rated as “apparently secure or secure” increased from 74 percent in 2000 to 80 percent in 2015. During this period, the number of assessed species increased from 1,670 to 29,848, or about three-eighths of Canada’s known species.
These results are consistent with numerous examples of conservation successes throughout the developed world. In 1976, for example, the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in the U.S. had just 136 grizzly bears. By 2016 the Obama Administration proposed delisting the grizzly from the Endangered Species Act because the population had zoomed to 700. Wolves, recently reintroduced from Canada, have repopulated the Yellowstone region even faster. In France, wolves were extirpated in the 1930s but by the 1990s had started a comeback, moving north from Italy. By 2018 there were 360 with plans to allow the population to increase to 500 by 2023 (to the consternation of local farmers). Last July a wolf was seen in Flanders for the first time in over a century, while Germany witnessed a 15 percent increase in wolf packs in 2016-2017.
Much of the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 is focused on the habitat degradation and destruction that puts wildlife populations under pressure to begin with. And that is indeed a serious problem. To its credit, the report doesn’t resort to the normal trope of blaming everything on climate change, noting that, “While climate change is a growing threat, the main drivers of biodiversity decline continue to be the overexploitation of species, agriculture and land conversion.” The LPI effectively demonstrates that the overuse of land and species – such as poaching or overfishing – is a potentially mortal threat to wildlife. The biggest threats are in South America, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Forest cover in Indonesia, for example, plummeted from 65.4 percent of the country’s landmass in 1990 to 50.2 in 2015, according to the World Bank. With palm oil exports continuing to surge, it appears the decline is increasing.
But these are not on the whole first-world or Canadian problems. Forest cover in Canada is essentially stable, 38.3 percent of total land area in 1990 versus 38.2 percent in 2015, despite the export value of forest products growing by 42.2 percent between 2012 and 2017 alone. Forest cover across the far more densely populated European Union has increased from 35 percent to 38 percent, despite Germany being a larger exporter of wood and paper products than Canada. For OECD members as a whole, forest cover has crept up from 30.9 percent to 31.3 percent. The World Bank also collates data into high, middle, and low-income countries, finding that, high-income countries collectively grew their forests, while they shrank in all middle and low-income countries. As for commercial fishing, just five nations – China, Japan, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan – are responsible for 85 percent of high-seas fishing, with the latter charged with committing some of the grossest violations of sustainable practices.
The Living Planet Report 2018 makes the case that biodiversity and a clean environment are not just good in themselves, nor merely important sources of intangible benefits such as humanity’s enjoyment of nature, but critical to our physical health and economic success. It discusses what Oxford scholar Max Roser called “The Great Acceleration”, the explosion of human population and economic output since 1800. But the report does not go down the path, trod by many environmentalists, of anti-industrialization or Malthusian fearmongering. “This growth,” it states, “has improved the lives of billions of people. Global average life expectancy is over 70. Diseases such as smallpox have been eradicated and others look set to follow soon: mumps, measles, rubella, polio. More children reach adulthood and fewer women die during childbirth. Poverty is at an historic low. All this we should celebrate.” Indeed we should. The experience of developed countries that practice responsible resource management prove it is possible to achieve population growth and economic growth while sustaining a healthy environment.
The report’s calls to increase the amount of protected land will, however, no doubt be exploited by some in Canada to justify further roadblocks to resource development. Just last month, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the fight against climate change must include pushing for more land conservation. Currently, Canada is committed to protecting 17 percent of its landmass from development – nearly double the existing 9.69 percent – and in two years the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will set new objectives for 2030 and beyond, which could further raise Canada’s commitment. China, meanwhile, is going in the opposite direction. It claims to protect 15.45 percent of its landmass, but that is almost certainly a gross exaggeration, and the World Bank says its protected lands are declining.
While the Living Planet Report 2018 is obviously not directly comparable to the Wild Species report or the other observations I’ve cited, the latter sources of data act as a check on the WWF exercise. They reveal two important things. First, that the apocalyptic claims accompanying international environment-related reports are often exaggerated and, for some countries, simply untrue. Second, that the biggest decreases are caused by habitat destruction and overharvesting of animals, problems that, by-and-large, the developed world has surmounted but the developing world has not. In attempting to shame people in countries with great conservation track records, the media and their NGO enablers obfuscate distinctions and extrapolate findings from the developing world in order to export guilt. One possible explanation for this subterfuge is that first world citizens and governments are a richer source of donations and grants.
It was certainly heartening that anecdotal evidence I see around me on the farm matches what credible scientific exercises are finding: Canada’s animal populations are in a healthy state. Data and reams of individual examples also show this to be mostly true throughout the developed world. Economic and human population growth are not destroying the environment and wiping out wildlife. In fact, it’s possible if not probable that the opposite will occur as more countries adopt responsible and sustainable natural resource management policies.
In 1980, business professor Julian Simon famously made a bet with Malthusian biologist Paul Ehrlich, who had become a celebrity by predicting that the burgeoning human population would imminently deplete the world’s resources. Simon bet that a basket of commodities of Ehrlich’s choice would actually be cheaper in 10 years – indicating increased availability rather than scarcity. Simon won across-the-board – though Ehrlich never paid up. I propose a similar bet with the WWF: I predict that over the next 10 years, wildlife populations will generally stabilize or increase in countries that become wealthier and freer. If populations decline even in the developed democratic world, I’ll concede. But I’m not a prosperous business professor, so for now the only things I can wager are my pride and reputation.
Mathew Preston is a writer and farmer based in Alberta.