Updates to conservation statuses in progress in Canada

To provide some context, there was a conversation related to this on github a few months ago, and I had a brief email conversation after that. At the time I was told that Ontario was likely one of the provinces which was going to obscure all rare species.

Now, this was never confirmed, and things could have changed since, but I’m not concerned about this for no reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I have extremely high regard for the people at NHIC (didn’t realize that was literally the same as the CDC). Mike, more than anyone else, is why I’m a naturalist and not just a birder! But the incentives in place for NHIC seem to be extremely one-sided. If they un-obscure something, and it ends up causing issues, the blame will now fall squarely on them. Whereas the positive effects will be diffuse and harder to identify and will never really be connected back. And there’s also the fact that NHIC already does have easy access to most records even if they are obscured, meaning that they don’t necessarily see the downsides.

If the collection of NHIC employees privately and secretly put together a list of what should be obscured, I would trust it. But if the list is going to be directly connected to the organisation, I see a lot of potential issues that will lead to way too many things being obscured. Maybe they won’t occur right away, and maybe they never will, but that’s where my concerns are. And last I heard was that Ontario was going to just obscure all rarities.


@carrieseltzer do you have any updates on this process? It’s been a frustration to have the range maps for our common species jumbled at the border, and i am hoping to move this forward so in the least we can get things like red spruce and the oaks unobscured. Hopefully eventually anything not globally rare without a credible poaching risk should be unobscured. I can reach out to natureserve directly, but as that’s a closed process that does not include the iNat community, i’d prefer we handle it in-community rather than having various curators email natureserve and take up their time and also ultimately totally giving control over to an outside entity. I have no idea what the internal workings are in Canada, but if we expand this approach on iNat, eventually we will encounter a group that literally won’t let us unobscure any of these, and in those cases, i personally don’t think it’s best policy to let them have that kind of power over our community.
Also my understanding is Quebec handles things differently from the rest of Canada, but yet these species have been obscured there as well. My efforts to reach someone in Quebec to discuss this haven’t gotten anywhere. Can we unobscure common species in Quebec?
Any thoughts?

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My interpretation of the new curator guidelines is: change taxon geoprivacy settings for Quebec as you would any other place, as it’s not part of this particular process.


Is it possible to unobscure a smaller place (Quebec) under the blanket of a larger place (Canada)?

I’m not actually sure. But helpfully, most of the conservation statuses are set separately for each province, not a blanket status for all of Canada.

While I agree with the interpretation, the wording of the curator guidelines right now does not support this.

It says ‘If any curator would like to make changes to the taxon geoprivacy for any national, provincial, or territorial unit of Canada’. I think / hope this is an oversight or poor choice of words, but the policy right now may not allow it. Clarification would help.

I am hoping Carrie is around and can weigh in given Tony I isn’t around right now.

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Hello Everyone,
This is Allison with NatureServe Canada. Unfortunately the obscuring process is not yet finished. Things always seem to take longer than you expect and we did run into some difficulties with iNat taxonomy not matching up to NatureServe taxonomy and also records missing in iNaturalist. We are working through these issues but it takes time. Another limiting factor is that Scott Loarie is the only person who can physically implement these updates and as most of you probably know he is very busy guy. All I can ask is that you continue to have some patience and grace for this process as it is new to all of us. In regards to Quebec I cannot give any help here in who to contact. Quebec is not a member of NatureServe Canada and therefore is not a part of this update process.


Hi and thanks for your response! I am a wetland ecologist working just across the border in Vermont. I use iNat a lot for looking at the greater context of species that occur here, and when such a large number of Canada’s observations were obscured, it made it a lot harder to use iNat that way, and also there are some concerns with future proposals surrounding obscuring where yet more things might be obscured.

Many species with provincial status are very common elsewhere, especially things like trees which we use as ecological indicators for things since they are well, really big, and don’t move. I am hoping we can soon un-obscure things in Ontario such as Red Spruce, one of the most common tree species in Vermont. Broadly, I personally don’t think we should obscure anything without collection risk, even if it is rare, but in that regard i am just speaking for myself here and i know that is a complex issue. But things like red spruce, ash, and the oaks seem like a very straightforward example of things we don’t want to obscure.

It sounds like for Quebec things should just be treated like elsewhere in the world beyond the rest of Canada. I’ve tried to track down a contact there and haven’t really succeeded yet, so no worries from your side on that.

I hope if this model is repeated elsewhere, the list of obscured species can be constructed before all the obscuring occurs, so this problem doesn’t recur.

Great to have you involved thought @allisonw_nsc ! Welcome and thanks for all the hard work you are doing.


Hi all. I’ve got an update. Thanks to @bouteloua for updating the curator guide to clarify that Quebec is excluded from the requested process.

We’re working on the last steps of these changes this week. To recap what happens next:

-We update/add conservation statuses and taxon geoprivacy for taxa that didn’t match the first time (thank you to @allisonsw_nsc for going through that list).
-For all subnational (excluding Quebec) conservation statuses in iNaturalist that weren’t updated in March, we update the taxon geoprivacy to “open”.
-The last step is opening up taxon geoprivacy for all Canada-wide conservation statuses. This means that nothing in Canada will be obscured by default across the entire country.

Once these steps happen, it should be much easier for the iNat community to have productive conversations with the CDCs about what should and should not be obscured, and curators can work with CDCs to make mutually agreed upon changes. If these dialogues are not happening usefully, please let @allisonsw_nsc and myself know.

As a technical note, because of the large number of species (thousands) impacted by these changes (most of which are going from obscured to open at this point), the nearly 1 M observations in Canada, and the number of species shared with the US where they may be extremely common, iNat staff need to test these changes before we can make them live. Running this many updates at once can have a real impact on site performance (and it did in March, so we’re trying to do better this time). This means we have a little more uncertainty on the exact timing. I’ll update when the test is complete.



I’m a bit confused about this. Are you talking about the majority that were obscured in March or just ones that were made ‘open’ in March?

I know i will be able to see when it comes online, but wanted to make sure I am understanding the situation, because I’d been thinking about trying again to track down the people in Ontario behind the obscuring of common species that are edge of range there. but it sounds like that may already be happening, right?

In March we didn’t change anything from obscured to open, but some things may have gone open to obscured. That means that there are many older existing conservation statuses in iNaturalist with taxon geoprivacy that will be opened shortly.

Here are some made up examples (assume for the example that this is a complete list of Canadian taxon geoprivacy designations for these taxa):

Before March:
Smilax charlie is obscured in Ontario
Carex carrie is obscured in Canada
Bouteloua cassi is obscured in Yukon
Bouteloua cassi is obscured in Alberta

Smilax charlie is obscured in Ontario
+Smilax charlie is obscured in Manitoba
Carex carrie is obscured in Canada
+Carex carrie is obscured in Nova Scotia
Bouteloua cassi is obscured in Yukon
Bouteloua cassi is obscured in Alberta
+Bouteloua cassi is obscured in British Colombia
+Myotis allison is obscured in Ontario

Next week:
-Smilax charlie is open in Ontario
Smilax charlie is obscured only in Manitoba
-Carex carrie is open in Canada
Carex carrie is obscured only in Nova Scotia
-Bouteloua cassi is open in Yukon
Bouteloua cassi is obscured in Alberta
Bouteloua cassi is obscured in British Colombia
Myotis allison is obscured in Ontario

Did that help? Please let me know if it still doesn’t make sense. I know it’s complicated!


Hi Carrie, yes that does make more sense now! Has any work been done to un obscure locally ‘rare’ common species yet, or do they all need to occur via dialogue with NatureServe? (There seems to be a lot of them, though less soon than before this latest update). Is there a place we can keep track of who should be contacted to discuss geoprivacy changes?


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Those are good questions for @allisonsw_nsc.

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Thanks for the update @carrieseltzer - I look forward to the changes, they sound promising for Canadian data users.

@allisonsw_nsc @carrieseltzer have we figured out yet who we are supposed to contact to fix things that are being obscured but shouldn’t be? Or can I just change them yet? I see burr oak is being obscured in New Brunswick, a very common oak species…

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@loarie and I were just talking about this today with @pleary and we’re going to hold off on these updates until after CNC. I’m sorry again for the delay. The additional obscuration (in this intermediate state) shouldn’t negatively impact the inclusion of species in the City Nature Challenge for any parts of Canada participating.

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As I’m reading Carrie’s posts, it sounds to me like the near-term result will be much less obscuration in most Canadian provinces, and a way forward to address remaining cases with individual Provinces.

And I don’t blame them for holding off until after CNC, given the server-intensive nature of the changes. This would be exactly the wrong time to have the site go down, or get slow or buggy.

[EDIT: for context, the post to which I originally replied was subsequently deleted.]

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Alright, these are done! Take a look and reach out to @allisonsw_nsc about any issues after exploring.

Here’s how I’ve been comparing before/after the conservation status updates. We have a test server called ‘gorilla’ that has data as of March 14, so it doesn’t have the new updates to conservation statuses and taxon geoprivacy. I’ve been comparing what’s live and what’s on gorilla for observations that were added on or before March 13 (there will still be some differences due to identifications updated since March 14 that aren’t reflected on gorilla).

To view gorilla, log in with the username preview and password 313phant (then your own username if needed. let me know if this doesn’t work)

All species with a conservation status in Canada on iNaturalist (increased from 3414 to 3526)

Observations with “obscured” taxon geoprivacy (went way down from 3,354 to 1,125 species obscured and half the number of observations)

Note that you can’t just compare the reverse of how many observations and species there are where taxon_geoprivacy=open (I spent a lot of time trying to understand why so please don’t fall down that rabbit hole; it is briefly described in this github issue).

Sorry this took so much longer than expected. (For the record, in case anyone was wondering, this was unrelated to the unexpected downtime today).


Thanks! That’s great to see!

Looks a lot better! There are a few that i am really surprised to still see on the list though: red spruce, pitch pine, butternut, hickory… I can possibly imagine some scenario where some overzealous forager might want to collect butternuts or something, but with red spruce? This is a cold-affinity species that occurs in some wetlands and we monitor in Vermont where it’s very common but indicates cold, acidic conditions (but intolerant of acid rain). As such it’s super important for understanding the effects of climate change, acid rain, and past logging history.

@allisonsw_nsc is it possible we can unobscure red spruce, or at least you can help me understand why you would not want us to be able to see where it grows? If there’s some conservation issue i am not aware of, at least it would help me understand why it’s obscured. But i can’t imagine what that would be as it really is one of the dominant species here. pitch pine is another one that would be really nice to be able to see as it’s at the north edge of its range here and relevant to climate change and altered fire regime and occurs in one or two unusual wetlands here. No, i am not publishing papers but we do a lot of spatial ecology and i really do use this information.