Updates to conservation statuses in progress in Canada

I am hopeful that this process will work well from now on. The discussion under this flag that led to Red Spruce finally being opened up again may be of interest to people here.

For any future cases where a similar process happens in other areas, here is some points that I would hope would be communicated to any organisation:

  1. Location data on iNaturalist is shared voluntarily by site users, with the explicit intention of allowing other people to see it. Taxon-based obscuring runs counter to that. Unfortunately it is a necessary evil in many instances, but it is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Obscuring data hides it from everyone, including local conservation organisations and others who may be able to make use of that data for conservation.
  2. Species rarity alone is not sufficient reason to obscure data on iNaturalist. While the decision of whether a species’ geoprivacy can be opened up should be made conservatively, it should still be based on a plausible mechanism by which open locations on iNaturalist might threaten the species. For example, it is very unlikely that such a mechanism exists for almost any species of moss, grasshopper or sedge.
  3. The documentation for iNaturalist clearly indicates that for jurisdictions without an established formal process, there are provisions for curators to unilaterally change geoprivacy statuses. In some places, these changes may have been quite substantial. You should not make claims to other people or organisations that do not reflect this reality.
  4. If a species currently has a geoprivacy setting for your jurisdiction that does not match the listed conservation status, that means that a site curator has manually changed it. It is NOT acceptable to erase these changes with an automated decision based only on conservation status. The current geoprivacy status of these species should remain in place until you are able to review them manually, and you should be prepared to defend any changes.
  5. You should individually assess the geoprivacy of all frequently observed species in advance and make changes as appropriate. It does not inspire feelings of goodwill in the iNaturalist community when they have to make requests to unobscure species for which there are obviously no risks from open locations.
  6. The lines of communication by which community members can make change requests or ask more general questions should be clear, as should how your responses will be communicated. As much as possible, this should happen in a publicly visible location such as the iNaturalist forums.

Also: I think it’s dangerous to declare intent to automatically sign over our data autonomy, even to a respected organization like natureserve. I don’t think individual curators acting unilaterally should be able to un obscure either. But ultimately it has to be inat’s decision. Natureserve entities are political and may be constrained in ways there’s no reason for us to be.

I’ll note that there is no barrier preventing anybody from creating a somewhat formalised, consensus-based process in any non-Canadian jurisdiction. Could be as simple as a forum thread (“Taxon geoprivacy changes in Vermont”) in the curators section with links to flags for each species where people can discuss and vote. iNat is probably unlikely to hand over the reins to a third-party organisation if there is already an effective process where they could express their concerns and contribute.

FYI there is currently some internal discussion among non-Canadian NatureServe nodes about possibly pursuing a process parallel to Canada’s – while of course incorporating the various lessons learned (thank you Canada! ;-). Stay tuned (but be patient…).

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I don’t get too involved in the Vermont process from this side since I do work for the state (albeit not for NHI) and in any event can just go talk to them. But, Vermont NHI has already been involved here. There are a couple of things they obscure that I maybe wouldn’t but they are rarely observed and I don’t worry about it much as it’s a very reasonable list overall. It would be great to get more NHI nodes involved as long as they are doing it in the spirit of obscuring based on need rather than just blanket obscuring…

@carrieseltzer @allisonsw_nsc can you clarify step #6 here? Several taxa that were decided by the respective provinces to be set to “open” are still obscured, e.g. Veronica missurica, Peltigera aphthosa, Peltigera venosa, Phaeophyscia hirsuta, and Physcia stellaris to check a few. Can you modify the process to be that the CDC will change the geoprivacy status of the taxon at the same time they submit their decision?

Regarding this particular CDC Rationale for obscuration:

Atlantic Canada is not opening geoprivacy for any provincial or federal legally listed species (which is what should be obscured now)

This reasoning flies in the face of the intention of this entire process. Conservation status alone is not an acceptable rationale for obscuration on iNaturalist. A provincially or federally listed taxon on iNaturalist should be unobscured if it is in little danger of being collected or otherwise exploited by the public knowing the exact location.


If this is the case, which under the current process is 100% within the ability of the CDC to implement, then the documentation should be updated to state that Atlantic Canada is frozen, and no reviews will even be accepted. No point in wasting anyone’s time.

Why not change them yourself? I’ve done that for a bunch of species (after the decisions). Do all the CDC’s even have a curator able to make the changes? Should they? Asking people unfamiliar with iNat to make changes seem like it has the potential to cause more problems than it solves.

Looking at the spreadsheet it appears that Alberta and Nunavut (at least) are also following the same “logic”. I’m glad at least that they are explicitly admitting that they have been acting in bad faith and never had any intention of participating in the process they agreed to. I don’t think that’s an unfair reading - what else could this possibly mean?

Ontario, Saskatchewan and Northwest Territories seem to be doing things right.

@allisonsw_nsc Clearly some of the CDCs have a very different conception of their role that was has been communicated to us here. Are we misunderstanding, or are they? To be clear, the actual species-level decisions are completely and utterly unjustifiable in at least some cases. North American Monarchs are not at risk from open location data anywhere outside of their wintering grounds in Mexico and California, and probably not even there.

My main request is that the process is clear, which it’s not when some geoprivacy settings are being updated and some are not. At this point, it will require that every taxon’s settings be checked again after the decision is updated in the spreadsheet (swap #s 6 and 7 in the above, or add an extra #8). If we do need to check every taxon’s geoprivacy settings again after the decision, so be it, but it seems like extra work for volunteers to have to take on yet another step in this process.

The process is broken as it is, the discussion above suggests that Red Spruce (and in the flag there) says should be open. The spreadsheet still says it should be obscured. It is open on the site, but that is not what the ‘official’ record says should be the case.

I’m going to sound like a douche when I write this (which is not my intention), but I don’t see what is happening as bad faith at all, it is an inevitable consequence of what was implemented. The CDC’s in question are not doing anything they are not empowered to do. They are empowered to obscure anything they want, for any reason they want, and to communicate anything at all they want about the decision. Nowhere did they agree to accept any changes, no matter no reasonable or passionate the iNat community feel about them.Whether we like it or not, they are fully within the bounds of what they have been given as authority over the site to say they will accept no changes or even reviews

I’ve reached out to @allisonsw_nsc for clarity on whether or not all CDCs have a curator and whether some are refusing to consider reasoned requests from the community to unobscure.

I acknowledge this process is an inadequate solution and hope to be able to do something much better down the road.


Hi All,
I will try to respond to all the points made since my last post on this thread.

Firstly, I took some holidays last week and wanted to get the spreadsheet updated before I left, but did not get a chance to email @bouteloua to say she should make the changes (except in the case of Ontario who has a curator). Not all CDCs have iNat curators and do not know how to make these changes to geoprivacy (I also am not a curator, but could potentially be in the future).

Secondly, if red spruce is incorrect on the spreadsheet, I apologize. It is hard to keep up with all the changes, especially in a spreadsheet that is editable by so many parties.

Thirdly, I hate to sound like broken record but the initial status on iNat was to auto obscure based on rank. When we intitiated this process some CDCs took it upon themselves to update that notion. Some CDCs like NHIC (Ontario) and SKCDC did opt for the “old” method of all S1-S3, however they have been very reasonably entertaining requests. Other CDCs went with smaller lists of very well thought out species subject to persecution and harm, while others chose a middle ground of all legally listed species (affording them the legal protection they are due). I will not comment on which method is “right”. But in the current process they were given the responsibility to chose. Ontario and Saskatchewan started out you could say the most “unreasonable” and have been adjusting that. Howerver, places like Atlantic Canada have made the statement that they will not be entertaining unobscure requests at present, because they have made their decision. Others like Northwest Territories, Yukon, Manitoba, and BC made very well thought out lists from the beginning and I would be very surprised to see any of those jurisdictions make changes now. Not saying a request cannot be made of course. The reality with Nunavut and Alberta is that sadly in both cases there is not much actual CDC staff presence, so there is the potential for requests to not get proper attention. I will work my hardest to ensure requests there do receive adequate answers.


Thanks for the response Allison,

As has been reiterated here several times, the initial status on iNat was to obscure based on rank, with changes made by curators. This is literally in the first paragraph in the curator guide under “Editing Taxon Geoprivacy Settings” .

Yes, the situation in February had in many cases more species being obscured than is the case now. But it’s not really the same situation at all. I think it’s pretty clear from this thread that most people felt that the existing statuses were pretty poor, but changes were mostly not being made due to the lack of a defined process and nobody feeling empowered to really make the final call. Generally, there was a lack of urgency, but these things are becoming increasingly urgent. iNat use is growing by an insane degree. 42% of Canadian observations have been made since the first post in this thread! 15% in the past month!!! Consultants, conservation authorities and non-profits are increasingly using the data for all kinds of useful conservation and outreach purposes. Obscured observations are totally useless in most cases.

It doesn’t really bother me much that a species for which no risks from open locations are present is being obscured because nobody is properly empowered to actually make that decision. Whatever, it will get fixed eventually. If anyone really cares, there are ways that they can make the change happen. What does bother me is when somebody is empowered to make that decision, and then not only doesn’t do so, but prevents other people from doing so. Really, the problem is not that Monarch is currently being obscured in Nova Scotia. The problem is that it will apparently be obscured long-term regardless of how idiotic that is.

Not sure if I’m quite getting my point across here. It’s the difference between “Species X is obscured because nobody has gotten around to fixing it yet” and “Species X is obscured because somebody has without justification decided that it will be obscured indefinitely and is unwilling to listen to any arguments to the contrary”. Those are two very, very different situations.

As an example, the Nova Scotia endangered species act notes:

13 (1) No person shall
(a) kill, injure, possess, disturb, take or interfere with or attempt to kill, injure, possess, disturb, take or interfere with an endangered or threatened species or any part or product thereof;

(b) possess for sale, offer for sale, sell, buy, trade or barter an endangered or threatened species or any part or product thereof;

(c) destroy, disturb or interfere with or attempt to destroy, disturb or interfere with the specific dwelling place or area occupied or habitually occupied by one or more individuals or populations of an endangered or threatened species, including the nest, nest shelter, hibernaculum or den of an endangered or threatened species;

(d) contravene any regulation made with respect to a core habitat; or

(e) contravene an order made pursuant to Section 18.

Nothing here indicates that it is illegal for a private citizen to provide information relating to the location of an endangered species. The CDC may have further obligations given their governmental status, but if those obligations are interfering with their ability to act in this role they should be recusing themselves and leaving the decision up to somebody else. Neither iNaturalist nor its users have any legal obligation whatsoever to obscure endangered species in Nova Scotia or any other province.

There is no reason there should be multiple methods. It is frustrating that Ontario made the bizarre decision not to make any changes proactively and to override all the existing statuses, but I feel confident that we will eventually get somewhere reasonable that is comparable to some other provinces. However, if Atlantic CDC is using different standards than other places, they are wrong. When deciding if something should have open locations on iNat, the decision should be based on the potential costs and benefits of that species being open on iNat. Anything else is irrelevant.

This is almost tautologically true. What British Columbia and Manitoba and Ontario are doing is acceptable. The risks to something like Monarch are no different across the country, there is zero reason different provinces should be treating it differently. Allison, I don’t think you are the one who can make that decision, but somebody needs to be able to tell a CDC that they have obligations and that they will lose their privilege of making geoprivacy decisions if they refuse to even attempt to meet the responsibilities that come along with that. Reading between the lines I suspect you agree with me to some extent there.

Why do the CDC think they’ve been brought in? Just to gesture dumbly at the list of endangered species? If they refuse to actually use their expertise, then there is no reason for them to be involved in the process.

[edit: There was some text here about species in the area being open that should really be obscured. But a bunch of species that are not legally listed species ARE actually obscured in the Atlantic provinces (e.g. Showy Lady’s Slipper). Not sure if whoever is responding to requests is even aware of this?]

What recourse will be taken against a CDC that is flat-out refusing to participate in the process? I am really, really tired of posting in this thread, but I’m not going to let the CDCs just cripple the use of iNat for actual data because they can’t bother to put any actual thought into their decisions.

That’s understandable. The appropriate response in these cases is to either indicate that there will be substantial delays in getting to the request, or to just not make a decision and leave it up to the community. Otherwise, going forward, if I receive such a response that makes literally no attempt to identify potential risks from open locations, I am going to treat it as a lack of a response and unobscure that species after consulting with people here or elsewhere to ensure that there is no actual risk.

edit: edited to improve tone. I am finding it increasingly hard to communicate constructively in this topic.


You lasted a lot longer than I did.

Adding on to what Reuven has noted, even in places where the process is ‘better’ is is still flawed and inconsistent.

  • if a species like Monarch is to be obscured (whether I like it or not, as designed, I recognize the CDC has the right to obscure any species it wants for any reason it wants and to communicate that it is obscured because they say so and that’s the end of the discussion), then why are virtually all other butterflies open? Surely they face the exact same apparent local threats as Monarchs ? Are the CDC’s only interested in protecting ‘flagship’ charismatic species, and if some runty little skipper which is far less common in a province is revealed then so be it ?

  • even within provinces like Ontario, where to their credit the provincial CDC is making a clear effort to work through the process, the reasons being given for decisions seem to be at odds with each other. One species will be opened because the reviewer sees no collection threat, another will be obscured because the reviewer sees no collection threat however the species is found in sensitive habitats, and we need to keep people out of sensitive habitats. Like the above, if keeping people out of sensitive habitats is going to be an acceptable rationale, then why are all other species found there not obscured ? And why does the reviewer feel that people can be denied access to public land ?

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Like the above, if keeping people out of sensitive habitats is going to be an acceptable rationale, then why are all other species found there not obscured ?

Ehh, this seems reasonable in principle. If a species is only found at a small number of sites, and those sites are sensitive to pedestrian disturbance, obscuring seems reasonable if the species is otherwise going to lead a substantial number of people to the site. In practice, that last “if” is what seems really questionable for many of the species in question. (How many people are really going to go look for a rare species of pelt lichen?).

I think there is an important distinction between “denying access to public land” and “discouraging access to public land”.

Choosing if to venture into a sensitive habitat where it is legal to do so is an ethical/moral decision left to the individual. I’m simply saying if the CDC’s are authorized to obscure species based on them being found in such areas in the absence of a demonstrated risk, then it is pointless to obscure single species, obscure everything found there, or figure out a way to redesign the site so that entire blocks of geography are automatically obscured (as an extreme example, all sightings in a provincial park in Ontario are automatically obscured).

Far more people are going to use the site to find interesting looking areas to potentially explore than to look for some specific rock lichen.

Well, it’s also an ethical decision to disturb organisms. It is perfectly legal in Ontario to dig up most species of lady’s slippers with permission of the property owner or on crown land, but I still think Ram’s Head and Sparrow’s Egg should be obscured.

I don’t disagree that this is pointless in many if not most cases for the reasons you indicate. But if there is a case where opening a rare species is likely to result in serious habitat disturbance, that seems like a legitimate reason to obscure.

I think we are agreeing with each other, I’m just saying I see no point in picking one species to obscure. If the goal is to discourage entry to, or knowledge about sensitive habitats, then do it properly, and obscure everything. This approach wont work.

EDIT - additionally I am trying to emphasize, whatever the approach is, do it consistently. If fear of habitat disturbance is an acceptable basis for obscuring things, then why is it being applied to fungi and not plants for example, even in the same jurisdiction ?

Truthfully, I would almost prefer the approach being taken by Alberta, Atlantic Canada etc to simply obscure everything and accept no questions, than what is being done in places like Ontario. I’d challenge anyone to tell me how what is being done in Ontario now is different from what was supposedly so wrong with the system prior to February (seemingly random decisions being made with no consistency by people not communicating etc)


I agree that a consistency is the best! We at NSC are continuing to work with CDCs to hopefully come to a consensus and adopt a refined consistent approach. As has also been mentioned before, this whole way of doing this is new and definitely not without challenges and problems. As @carrieseltzer mentioned we will continue refining this approach and see how it goes and iNaturalist will re-evaluate this partnership/approach in 2020.