Updates to taxon geoprivacy and conservation statuses in Canada

Starting on April 5, iNaturalist will update taxon geoprivacy for many species within Canada which will greatly reduce the number of species that are automatically obscured. The changes may take a week or more to fully implement. This update will apply taxon geoprivacy more consistently across provinces and territories and is intended to allow increased access to true locations of species while safeguarding those that are Subject To Persecution or Harm (STPH).

Two years ago iNaturalist Canada attempted to standardize the way in which taxon geoprivacy was applied. At the time, the intention was to mirror the approach of the Conservation Data Centers (CDC) as the recognized authorities in Canada and avoid curators making one-off changes to taxon geoprivacy which may have unforeseen negative effects on a species. As some curators and people active on this Forum correctly pointed out, there were concerns that this wasn’t being applied consistently across provinces and territories. Each provincial/territorial authority had different official stances for which species to obscure within their own systems, some maintaining all S1-S3 species while others having a much smaller list, and Quebec, not being a member of NatureServe Canada, wasn’t involved in the process at all. iNaturalist Canada has appreciated the insight and constructive criticism and made great efforts to bring in some consistency. There are some minor differences among provinces/territories in the upcoming changes that reflect different circumstances, for example when harvest or disturbance is a threat in one area but not another.

As opposed to mirroring the CDC’s approach, iNaturalist Canada has now incorporated their expert opinion (including Quebec thanks to a new partnership), as well as undertaken a review for all species assessed as Threatened or Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Any species whose reason for designation (i.e. why it is at risk) includes some form of persecution or harm (ex. poaching, harvest, collection, persecution) is also included on the STPH list. The list consists of 125 species.

Changes to taxon geoprivacy applied to Canada or provinces/territories do not override the global taxon geoprivacy (generally based on the IUCN criteria of “Near Threatened” or worse). This also does not override observation geoprivacy that has been manually set by the observer.

The iNaturalist Canada steering committee has pursued this second extensive update because Canada has recognized authorities on sensitive species (the CDCs) and an extremely rigorous process to assess the status of species at risk which takes persecution and harm into account when assessing threats. iNaturalist Canada therefore is encouraging that curators not make changes to taxon geoprivacy in Canada unless first consulting with and getting approval from the iNaturalist.ca steering committee using the process that will be outlined in the curator guide. If there are instances where a global taxon geoprivacy setting should be revisited because it is obscuring Canadian observations, please use the normal process of starting a flag for discussion of the proposed change.

Since many members of the forum contributed to past discussions on Canadian taxon geoprivacy, we are providing this advance notice on the forum to be upfront and forthcoming with the planned changes. On March 22, an announcement will also be made on iNaturalist.ca with updated content in the help section (curator guide and getting started). iNaturalist users with observations in Canada are encouraged to review the list and make any geoprivacy changes to their own observations before April 5 should they not want the precise locations of their observations made public.

The STPH list is available as a pdf and a link to the pdf will also be available from the help section of iNaturalist.ca.

Thank you to the iNaturalist.ca steering committee, especially @allisonsw_nsc and @jpage_cwf for their work to find a balance of obscuration and openness for species in Canada.

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Carrie,

Can you please clarify, is that list of 125 species the totality of species that will be obscured, or a subset ?

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The 125 species are the only species that will have taxon geoprivacy applied within Canada or its provinces or territories.

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Are there plans to properly display the status for a given province as well? For BC anyway, the iNat status’ often do not match the BC CDC.

For instance Monotropa hypopitys shows up as VU and says it is a S3S4 in BC, but on the CDC site it is S5. iNat does not seem to use the current BC status list.

On this same topic, does anyone know why hybrid plants in Ontario have a conservation status on iNat which isn’t consistent with the NatureServe and NHIC status? (The vast majority of hybrids are not assigned a conservation status by NHIC and should not have a conservation status on iNat).

Updating the NatureServe rankings is part of this process. Some S5 statuses may be removed from iNat in the process. The goal is not to have every NatureServe status in iNat, but to provide context for species that are somehow under threat.

Can you provide some examples?

This is great, but a few comments:

  • Some items are specified to subspecies for no clear reason. E.g. Coluber constrictor foxii is obscured in Ontario, even though it is the only subspecies found there. This is likely to lead to records not being obscured due to only being identifed to species, as is very common on iNat. The obscuring for this species and others that are similar should definitely be rolled up to the species.
  • Even where multiple subspeces are found e.g. Arnica angustifolia subsp. tomentosa in Newfoundland, hopefully obscuring the whole species anyways has been considered? If this species is really vulnerable to targeted disturbance (I have no information about this personally), only obscuring the subspecies is likely to lead to exposed locations.
  • There are cases where a species and a subspecies of that species are listed for the same location (e.g. Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin in Newfoundland). This doesn’t really matter, but it’s unnecessary complication for no apparent reason.

And most importantly,

  • These lists (at least for Ontario) seem really lacking many species. It seems absurd to me that e.g. all of Barn Owl, Henslow’s Sparrow, Allegheny Mountain and Northern Dusky Salamander, Large Purple-fringed Orchid, Northern Barrens Tiger Beetle etc. would be unobscured? Is that something someone actually made a decision to do? I realise there will be a process for changing things but I find it somewhat concerning that the locations for these species may be revealed for weeks or months in the meantime. Like, those dusky salamanders have ranges in Ontario measured in square metres, and are not easily discoverable online. Maybe we can at least generate a list of species that will remain obscured pending further discussion?
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Thanks for the update! A few questions:

Will Eastern Hognose Snake be ‘obscured’ in Ontario, or fully private (the current setting, with all observation locations automatically set to private with the range map blank)?

Why are so many bat species obscured, and other species that are at risk solely due to habitat loss? The main logic behind obscuring observations, from what I know, is to prevent poaching etc. – obscuring potentially newly discovered populations of at-risk species that are not at risk from poaching/hunting/harassment etc seems counterproductive.

Also, many British Columbia red-listed species (critically endangered) are missing from this list, but numerous blue-listed (vulnerable, near-threatened) species are so. For example, Sharp-tailed Snake, with a tiny plummeting population in a couple tiny areas in BC, is not obscured, whereas North American Racer and Great Basin Gopher Snake are so despite both being very common throughout the entire Okanagan and Thompson-Nicola regions of the province.

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Thanks Carrie!

https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/170683-Dryopteris---benedictii
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/170980-Quercus---bebbiana
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/170997-Quercus---deamii

All of these hybrid taxa have an Ontario status of S1 on iNat with the source listed as NatureServe. A quick look at the NatureServe Explorer shows that this is false. These are just a few examples.

Some feedback

While I applaud the process that was clearly not working being turned off, I fear some issues from this.

Most Canadian users do not use the .ca portal so this will catch many users unaware.

Many users have entered records under the assumption the system geoprivacy will obscure it. Many of these will get opened with no awareness by the observer. And this will result in anger.

I cant help but feel a safer process is to keep any records already obscured by the existing data obscured, if needed set them as if the user manually did it, and encourage users to open anything they are comfortable with after imolementation. This seems a much more viable approach than what seems to be proposed now which is to proactively find all your current auto obscured records you wish to protect and manually obscure them before this is turned on.

Not only is this a more safe approach, it removes the time pressure.

I echo what @reuvenm wrote above,there are some very surprising taxa not listed here.

Addendum - my proposed approach also ensures records from inactive users that really should not be opened especially given questions about missing taxa stay hidden.

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Many bat species, especially cave roosting ones do so in extremely sensitive environments prone to disturbance if people are waltzing through the caves (to say nothing of the potential risks of entering caves without proper equipment). Not disclosing the locations of those roosts is not a bad thing. Especially given the persecution faced by bats and targeting of their roosts.

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Please consider, I would say it is essential providing documentation and a complete list of species whose status will be changed from obscured to open.

Not only will this make finding potential issues in the list easier (my original very first question if the 125 was the full list was prompted by obvious things not listed), it will also be significantly easier for users reviewing their own records.

Just me as an example, I have 30,000 observations on the site, almost entirely in Canada (the leaderboard shows me with 18k, but I have another roughly 10 k casual that still have locations attached).

Asking me, and every other active user over a 2 week period, which includes a holiday weekend to both even figure out which of my records will be impacted and then manually obscure them if I still wish them protected is a significant task.

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Just to back up this, there are likely fewer than 10 Barn Owls in the whole province of Ontario, and that might be a high estimate. Their locations are among the most tightly guarded secrets in the Ontario field naturalist community. Should their locations be made public, even for a short period, it could result in hundreds of birders overwhelming the area to try and add the species to their list.

I don’t mean this the wrong way, but do mean it directly. Any list which suggests it is OK to reveal their locations is not fully thought through, or hasn’t been reviewed by the right people.

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Thank you everyone for the input and a special thanks for your concerns. Throughout this process we want to keep the conservation of the species at the forefront of decisions. The last thing we want is to put a species in harms way if the location were to be known. Likewise, as it’s been pointed out on forum posts in the past, there are conservation risks when not making locations of species known to the public.
The intent on the forum post was to generate a discussion and feedback on how to ensure the safety of species while maintaining the balance of providing access to species location data. It certainly worked and there’s lots of good discussion and valid points.
Since posting of these plans and the points that have been brought up regarding the species list, we realized there was some confusion when we initiated the conversations with conservation partners here in Canada which resulted in some omissions of species that should be considered. We are circling back to those partners and welcome suggestions from those of you on the forum on updating this list to include additional species. Many of which have already been suggested here.

To account for this, we are looking to move the timeline to start implementing the changes no sooner than early June. If you have specific suggestions of species to add, please provide them through this forum thread (or @jpage_cwf and @allisonsw_nsc) by mid-April to allow time for a decision and adequate lead time (aiming for one month advance notice) for iNat users to update observations they deem necessary.

Good point. We’re looking into creating a “List” of which species will move from obscured to open that will allow people to compare which of their observations would open up as a result of changes. Something like @carrieseltzer did with this for her observations that are set to open in comparison to a small example list.

Ranks will be updated along with this process. But this is still a snapshot in time when the update is implemented, as opposed to being continuously updated, so there may still be some discrepancies with NatureServe ranks.

After we finalize the list of species to obscure, we don’t expect many ongoing changes, but it will be reviewed on an annual basis. Similarly, if there are changes that anyone would like to suggest, they can reach out to @jpage_cwf or @allisonsw_nsc and we will consult with local experts and the iNaturalist Canada Steering Committee to make a change (if deemed necessary).

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A few notes, I will refrain from commenting oin the list itself until the changelog is provided as it makes reviewing so much easier.

This is now the 2nd time an attempt to centralize management of the Canadian geoprivacy lists has taken place. Both times literally within hours active local users/curators were commenting that there were fundamental very serious problems with the lists. It’s a little frustrating that something with implications as potentially severe for threatened wildlife didn’t learn the lessons of the first attempt. Something is missing in this process that such fundamental errors are being made.

A couple of process notes, please note I may not fully understand or have details on the plans, so hopefully nothing I write is incorrect.

I really think you need to rethink how to broaden the communication of this change. Most Canadian users do not use the forum, and ,most do not log into the .ca portal, they use the .com address. Thus a very significant number of users are only going to learn about this when it happens. Given that this change will potentially involve opening access to locations that they may wish to be withheld, that will come as an unpleasant surprise to users.

I’d also appreciate understanding the thinking about why it is felt better to put the onus on users to learn about, and react to the changes before implementation by manually reobscuring stuff in a limited period versus what I proposed above in terms of a process to allow users to ‘opt in’ to their records being opened (ie users choose and act to open any currently obscured records, not to enter again they want them locked)

I think this speaks to a broader discussion that has to be had about iNat. There is a difference between the locations of threatened species not being known at all, versus restricting access to those who have a legitimate reason to know. At least in Canada there are robust processes to ensure the relevant government, conservation etc bodies can know where species are found (the Ontario rare species project, admins of the .ca portal getting access to true locations etc). This is fundamentally different than needing to communicate the locations to the broader public.

As one of the more passionate users in Ontario of the site and one who is constantly trying to promote the site to others to use, this is the biggest barrier I face, a growing sense and feedback that the site is ‘unsafe for wildlife’ and is doing too much damage to wildlife by exposing locations to find things. Right now it feels like the balance between protecting wildlife and public outreach is out of balance. This of course is a broader question than the specific topic here about the Canadian changes, but I do feel it is a critical discussion to have.

Circling back to the prior paragraph, the easiest way to ensure locations are not known to those who need them legitimately is to ensure people are unwilling to document them for fear of harm coming to the flora/fauna.

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I hear and understand the frustrations that have been voiced and I assure everyone that we are coming at this with the best intentions for the community, conservation, and species protection. We’re acknowledging that there were problems with the lists and implications would be severe which is why we’re open to suggested changes. And that the communication of this needed to be better. We were careful to not implement the changes prior to getting feedback and making sure we’re putting in enough safeguards to be sure sensitive species locations remain protected. There are roughly 2,200 unique species in Canadian observations for which taxon geoprivacy currently applies and there is definitely a justification to shorten that list.
There is a way to check a existing observations that are currently obscured, using this url: https://inaturalist.ca/observations?place_id=6712&taxon_geoprivacy=obscured&view=species. Users can then filter by username to see what this might mean for your own observations. @cmcheatle as you used yourself as an example (and I think it is a good one), with 30,000 observations, taxon geoprivacy applies to 95 of the species you have recorded. Assuming all of these would open up (which they won’t because several would still be on the updated list) and you may be comfortable with some others being open, I’m hoping the task may not be so monumental.
Checking on the programming ability, its not possible to keep past observations obscured when making changes to taxon geoprivacy, so any change will have to be retroactive.
I do see a distinction needed between restricting access to the general public and those who have a legitimate reason to know. We intend to preserve this for species at risk of persecution or harm, which we’re working to have these properly identified. For other species, even many SARA-listed species, the general public knowing these locations can be beneficial to conservation. Monarch, Butternut, Yellow-banded Bumblebee, are currently obscured in some provinces and landowners would benefit from knowing they exist there. These aren’t the people who would be entering into a data sharing agreement with a CDC, but might likely browse iNaturalist to see what’s around them before harvesting or mowing.
There is definitely a broader question about how to ensure user confidence in iNaturalist and keep it safe for wildlife. This is why we are pursuing a more centralized management of which species are obscured by taking into account the expert opinion of CDCs along with the COSEWIC reasons for designation and vetting proposed changes by the community through local experts. There are also risks to an approach that primarily relies on curators to make taxon geoprivacy decisions. We’re committed to learning from this process and we appreciate the feedback from the community to find the right balance of open vs. obscured and also managed vs. crowdsourced.

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This is unfortunate if so, and I’m wondering what leads you to this conclusion? In my experience, most users (often including myself) are not aware of whether a particular species has taxon geoprivacy applied at the time they upload their observations. And it will not be evident after upload either, since users don’t see an obscured map view of their own observation.

Maybe better communication is needed to remind users that taxon geoprivacy is not a permanent guarantee in iNaturalist, and that the only permanent guarantee is to apply obscured geoprivacy to the observation oneself (or, as you say, to not upload it at all).

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Unless you are telling us that observations which are currently manually obscured of these taxa are going to be switched to open regardless of the user manually obscuring them, which would be a massive breach of confidence to users, this is not true.

The system currently does not change the geoprivacy of records manually obscured when the baseline geoprivacy of the species is changed. Therefore there must be a way those records are identifiable, be it a database flag or whatever. And that can then be updated before this is turned on as I proposed. If it can be updated manually one at a time by users via the UI, it can be centrally updated via a database update.

If you don’t want to update them fine, that’s your decision to make, but unless I’m missing something there is no can’t involved here.

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Sorry, there’s a communication here. All user selected geoprivacy (i.e. users manually obscuring their observations) will remain in effect. You are right, if that wasn’t the case, it would be a massive breach in confidence. What I meant is that for observations to which the current taxon geoprivacy applies, it’s not possible to program it so that those remain obscured when implementing changes. I hope this clarifies.

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