Updates to conservation statuses in progress in Canada

#1

Short version: Curators, please don’t change any conservation statuses or taxon geoprivacy in Canada for the next couple of weeks, and after that, please consult with NatureServe Canada first.

We’ve been in correspondence with collaborators at NatureServe Canada (part of the iNaturalist Canada steering committee) about updating conservation statuses. After much consultation and refinement, we are starting a process of bulk updating thousands of records across Canada.

As part of this conversation to improve the process of updates, we’ve added instructions to the curator guide about how to manage other conservation status or taxon geoprivacy changes in Canada going forward.

In Canada, where iNaturalist has a member of the iNaturalist Network that oversees iNaturalist.ca, NatureServe Canada’s Conservations Data Centers (CDCs), establish and maintain the conservation statuses for each province and territory (except Quebec) that control the automatically applied “taxon geoprivacy”.

If any curator would like to make changes to the taxon geoprivacy for any national, provincial, or territorial unit of Canada, please contact Allison Siemens-Worsley (aworsley@natureserve.ca) NatureServe Canada’s National Data Support Biologist with the proposed change(s) and rationale. Allison will forward your request to the appropriate provincial/territorial CDC for review/response. Discussions between CDCs and curators should lead to an agreement that is favourable to both parties and biodiversity conservation. Curators must ultimately follow the recommendation from the CDC and are invited to discuss any concerns with the iNaturalist community in order to promote a broader discussion and identify alternative solutions that are agreeable to all parties.

If no response is provided to the curator by the CDC within 10 business days, the curator may proceed with the change to taxon geoprivacy and will confirm the details of their update(s) by email to Allison Siemens-Worsley.

We expect these updates to happen over the next few weeks. The first step (done on March 7) is to update statuses and add taxon geoprivacy for some species. The second phase (late March) is to open up (i.e. remove) obscuration due to taxon geoprivacy for some species in some places. Please bear with us during this process. The end result should be less obscured data for species in Canada that are not threatened by poaching, collection, or harassment.

Additional context on the updates provided below by @allisonsw_nsc:
NatureServe Canada is a registered charity that functions as a network of provincial and territorial Conservation Data Centres (CDCs) to develop, manage and distribute authoritative information critical to the conservation of Canada’s biodiversity. There are nine independent CDCs covering all provinces and territories (except Quebec). Each CDC is responsible for maintaining data on species that occur in their subnation. CDCs undertake biological inventories to document rare species and ecological communities, analyze critical conservation data, provide tailored information products and services, and make their data widely available to the public. On top of these tasks a CDC also has responsibility to assign provincial ranks (Sranks) to the species in their jurisdiction. These ranks are developed through rigorous scientific standards set by NatureServe.

When the iNaturalist.ca gateway was created in 2015 iNaturalist exported subnational and national species ranks from NatureServe Explorer tool. Anything with the rank of S1-S3 (ranks are numbered 1-5 with 1 being most endangered and 5 being common) was automatically obscured for the region in which it was ranked that. Since ranks are constantly being reviewed and updated these are now very much outdated. NatureServe Canada on behalf of the CDCs approached iNaturalist to have the obscured lists updated, to reflect current ranks and location sensitive species.

In order to update the obscured species lists on iNaturalist we first had to compile lists for every province and territory of sensitive species that merit protection by having their location obscured. Each CDC was approached separately and provided a list of sensitive species and their ranks. Overall the general consensus was to pare down the obscured species lists so that researchers (CDCs included) could extract more accurate and timely information from iNaturalist. Most CDCs did an internal review of their taxa and only selected species for obscuring that are sensitive to persecution or harm, regardless of rank. Others chose to stick with the method of obscuring all of their “tracked” species and/or species with ranks of S1-S3. This method of allowing the CDCs to provide a tailored list for their jurisdiction ensures that the most up-to-date and accurate information is used to determine which species are obscured.

For further information on NatureServe Canada and the NatureServe Network, or on the decision process for obscuring species please contact Allison Siemens Worsley, who can put you in touch with a CDC if necessary. You can email her at aworsley@natureserve.ca.

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Access to data for sensitive and obscured observations
#2

Awesome! Does this include Quebec? If so, maybe i will finally be able to talk to someone about the super common tree species that are obscured in Quebec due to being edge of range. But it sounds like those might get unobscured anyway. (I never ask for unobscuring of anything that might actually be at risk!). But either way the collaboration is good news!

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#3

It does not include Quebec, as with many other bodies in the country, Quebec will not participate in national organizations seeing it as an infringement on their independence.

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#4

I get that, but i am hoping someone from Quebec will come on here so i can change those without feeling like i am out of place. Or maybe no one cares if i unobscure oaks that are super common to the south? I should just do it but it feels wrong…

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#5

Uptake in Quebec of iNaturalist is exceptionally low, it represents less than 5% of Canadian records (it is roughly 25% of the national population), and a majority of the top observers for records in the province are visitors, not residents. You’re not going to find anyone from a provincial body or conservation group on the site.

If the ‘2 vote’ model I propsed for adopting geoprivacy were in place I would happilly approve requests you made, but like you I am unwilling / uncomfortable unilaterally doing it.

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#6

Hmm, yeah that makes sense. Is there a French portal to the site? I’m actually number 34 on there even though i only make it up there about once a year.

@carrieseltzer would you be OK with @cmcheatle and i doing a review of some really comon speices such as the oaks and unobscuring a few of those? I just want a process to do it since i too don’t feel comfortable doing it unilatearlly. I’d only advocate for unobscuring thinsg that are super common to the south and has no collection risk (we can leave things like spring ephemerals obscured).

I don’t have time to review now but could do so soon…

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#7

It is fully translated. At the risk of sounding cynical, you’d have more luck promoting the main default site than the .ca iNaturalist Canada portal that exists.

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#8

hey, i get it. Vermont doesn’t have a separate language than the rest of the US, but a lot of us wish we were a different country too. We actually were, for a short time, in the 1770s. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vermont_Republic We are too little though… so it doesn’t go as far as it does with Quebec. (sorry, off topic)

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#9

Excellent!

Will see how the obscuring actually plays out once they are implemented. Right now a whole bunch of dumb things are newly being obscured in Ontario (including the #1 most reported species in the province!) but as you’ve said above that is hopefully temporary:

The second phase (late March) is to open up (i.e. remove) obscuration due to taxon geoprivacy for some species in some places.

However, I’m still concerned about this:

Others chose to stick with the method of obscuring all of their “tracked” species and/or species with ranks of S1-S3.

It would be helpful to know which provinces/territories these are? If it’s the territories or PEI it probably won’t change anything from the current situation anyways. If it’s Ontario this is going to cause a lot of problems.

Obscuring all S1-S3 or tracked species is simply not reasonable in the long-term. It’s great as a stopgap until someone can come up with a better list - but overall it is clearly going to result in way too many species being obscured. I see three options here, from worst to best:

  1. The S1-S3 species are blanket obscured with no judgement (the original situation on iNat)
  2. The above lists are changed by curators over time. The changes are rather haphazard and disorganised, and are surely wrong occasionally. (This is the current situation)
  3. Experts compile a list of species that should be obscured using their judgment and experience. (where most provinces will now be)

Moving from 2 to 3 is great! Even if I disagree with some or many of the species on that list, this process is sensible as long as somebody has actually gone through and used their judgement for each species, and as long as their judgments aren’t completely ridiculous (e.g. obscuring Monarch butterfly).

However, if these CDC’s come back and say “Obscure all rare species” (i.e. moving from 2 back to 1), this is not an example of:

the most up-to-date and accurate information is used to determine which species are obscured.

Rather, it is them saying “We cannot, or will not, use our judgement to determine what should and should not be obscured”. There may well be a good reason for this, I have no idea what kind of resources are available to the CDC’s. But the idea that iNat will then implement their (non-)suggestions anyways seems really backwards to me.

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Change process to update obscuring level of taxa
#10

I suspect that very soon we will be having the same situation for southern Africa, specifically South Africa. Sensitive species are dealt with via an open forum and committee and data on the process can be found here: http://biodiversityadvisor.sanbi.org/online-biodiversity-data/sensitive-species/

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#11

What’s wrong with obscuring all S1-S3 species in Ontario? Sure some (maybe most) probably don’t need it. But I see no real issue with it…

Additional note, will this fix the glitch where hybrid taxa are assigned a random conservation ranking (almost always rare)? I have yet to figure out why this is happening, but almost every hybrid plant taxon in Ontario is ranked as S2 or S3 on iNat which isn’t supported by NatureServe. Hybrid taxa aren’t typically assigned a conservation rank anyways so where is this coming from?

E.g. Symphyotrichum x amethystinum https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/18844329

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#12

Because a bunch of edge of range species are s3 there but really common to the south and it ruins the ability to look at the edge of range observations so crucial in understanding spatial ecology and things like the response of those species to climate change. To some people, like me, the range maps are one of the most appealing and important features of inat and the obscuring really ruins it as the scale I look at.
California has seperate ranks for “rare in California, less rare elsewhere” or similar. Those are things it doesn’t make sense to obscure unless there are other factors. Also things like sedges and different asters and such with no conceivable collection risk. Why obscure those?

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#13

What Charlie says is just one of many reasons why iNat data is useful. And for most of those purposes, obscured observations are fairly useless. So obscuring things should be avoided whenever possible. But honestly it’s more than that to me.

I’m on iNat to share my observations, and to see other people’s shared observations. I have zero problem with other people obscuring their own observations however they want. But if something is auto-obscured, that’s essentially someone saying “I know better than you, therefore you aren’t allowed to share your observation”. And it really bothers me if they don’t actually know better than me.

Basically I think if I am voluntarily sharing location information with any other user, or if any other user is voluntarily sharing location information with me, you need a good reason to stand in the way of that. And for most rare species, that simply doesn’t exist. Just for some of the most egregious examples in Ontario: Monarch, Long-tailed Duck, Barn Swallow, Great Egret, Red Spruce, Honey-locust. (Here’s the full list)

And there’s conservation implications too. If I find a Blanding’s Turtle, Butternut or Bobolink at some random spot, I’d like that information to be as readily available as possible for someone who is trying to protect that land. Unfortunately, Blanding’s Turtle is too vulnerable to targeting to be able to have this information freely accessible. But for Butternut and Bobolink, the benefits of open data seem to pretty clearly outweigh the costs from what I can see.

That said, I don’t want to overreact. It may be that when this is fully implemented at the end of the month, a whole bunch of these things will be un-obscured again and it’s all good. Or if not, it may be as simple as coming to a basic consensus among a few people for a list of stuff to unobscure (e.g. a list of forty birds which are rare in Ontario as breeding species, but are common in migration or winter and therefore have no risk of targeted disturbance), and providing that to the “CDC” who will rubber-stamp it or give some good feedback.

The situation I’m worried about is if the CDC puts it’s foot down and refuses to change anything, iNat goes along with it (which I’m assuming they are forced to based on their partner agreements), and we’re stuck with a pointlessly crippled website for no good reason.

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#14

yeah red spruce is a good example. It’s one of the most common trees in Vermont and northern New York ([over 700 observations in Vermont alone] (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=47&taxon_id=47126&view=species)) with multiple ecosystem types named after it since it is the dominant there. Its ‘rarity’ in Ontario is simply a fluke of human created country boundaries, and the idea of someone traveling to Ontario to rip a ‘rare’ red spruce out of the ground when a squirrel could probably literally travel the entire spine of the central Green Mountains a few hundred miles to the SW without letting go of a red spruce tree… is hard to justify. And furthermore, the northermost extent of red spruce is super valuable to be able to track precisely down to habitat type because it is strongly affected by climate change, acid rain, wetland loss, and other factors, and as i’ve said before i use this data for my job as well, which directly connects to getting positive results out of wetland conservation and restoration projects. It’s not an exaggeration that i look at the iNat range maps every office day at work (if i’m not in the field). Yes, obscure orchids, yes obscure ginseng, yes obscure timber rattlesnakes (that one i would just never post without a generalized and obscured location in Vermont, period)… no do not obscure red spruce, monarch butterflies, ash and hemlock (threatened by introduced forest pests which makes northern outliers super important), etc. Err on the side of caution but even the most paranoid person can’t concoct a scenario where you have to hide some of the keystone-species oaks in Quebec, etc.

Let’s make good safe decisions that protect the resource, but let’s not forget the data itself is such a powerful tool.

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#15

Well said @reuvenm and @charlie, agree completely.

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#16

@charlie @revenm I see your points and I don’t disagree. In my experience, obscured observations haven’t been a big deal. And if there’s one I’m really interested in it’s easy enough to message the user and get the coordinates.

I guess one of the side effects of obscuring ultra-rare species is that it can make their range appear more expansive than it actually is. E.g. all of these observations are of the same population of Asclepias hirtella (if not the same plant since that population consisted of just one plant in 2017!). But each observation is obscured independently. Not to mention some of them fall in Detroit lol. On the other hand since this plant is so rare and sensitive (and located on private property) maybe it needs to be obscured? I dunno. :thinking:

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?nelat=42.44187637926318&nelng=-82.11929809624377&place_id=any&swlat=41.882008217086614&swlng=-83.97186767632189&taxon_id=127690

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#17

Obscuring that seems like a good idea. But I think that species is probably in the 95th percentile or higher for rarity, popularity, and vulnerability to disturbance among all Ontario rare species.

In other words, I don’t think that’s typical at all. Is there a single rare lichen, bryophyte, graminoid, submerged aquatic plant, large tree, mollusc, arachnid, grasshopper, hymenopteran etc. for which obscuring is reasonable? Maybe a few, but this list encompasses hundreds and hundreds of species that are currently being obscured.

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#18

Yeah, a lot of it depends on how you use the site. I’m primarily a spatial ecologist and mapper, with strong interest in both large scale and small scale range. The obscured observations are too coarse for where my primary interest lies. And i primarily interact with the spatial data on taxon pages or in the map within an observation. There’s no way to turn off obscured observations on those maps, and they make the map semi-useless for what i want to use it for. Maybe it’s a niche use, i don’t really know. but i know they are building a trust system but afaik when someone ‘trusts’ you it still doesn’t unobscure on those maps. And i have some concerns about the trust system too - how hard is it for a poacher to spend a few weeks befriending someone and getting them to give up the data? But i am drifting off topic again…

Anyhow i have this awesome map of red spruce in the US, and then when you get to Canada (or Ontario anyhow) it’s just jumbled. Red spruce is ecologically a very important indicator for acid rain, climate change and recovery of forests from past logging. I do use that data, when it’s available.

Globally rare or collection prone stuff… it’s a necessary evil. Edge of range trees it really doesn’t make much sense.

very very few. it’s sad to see iNat leaning towards that. The system was too arbitrary before but going too far the other way and just obscuring anything with limited range or edge of range is in my mind a big mistake and a shame

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#19

Some of the CDCs don’t have the personnel or resources to review every species they track, but Ontario’s CDC probably isn’t one of those, it’s big and active. The CDC for Ontario is Ontario’s National Heritage Information Center in Peterborough. They have a project on iNaturalist. I’ve worked with Mike Burrell, who seems to be the one managing that project right now, and I know of several other NHIC employees who actively use iNaturalist. They’re good people.

Try not to jump to conclusions so soon. The announcement says some of the CDC people have volunteered to do the work of reviewing the geoprivacy settings for every species they track so that it isn’t just an arbitrary rule based on S1-S3 ranking anymore. In other words, they’re stepping up to fix a problem caused by iNaturalist importing their rankings, using them for something they weren’t intended for, and then not keeping them up-to-date, even though they didn’t cause the problem. I strongly suspect they’re doing this because the current situation annoys them just as much as it annoys you. If you’re not willing to wait and see, try sending Mike a polite message on iNaturalist asking him to come read about and respond to your concerns in this thread.

To Mike and everyone else from NatureServe Canada who has been or will be working on this: thanks so much!

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#20

Oh for sure. I’m really glad they are involved. I’ve been trying to figure out the same for Quebec as listed above and there’s just no person to actually talk to. But i feel weird changing them when i don’t live there.

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