Updates to taxon geoprivacy and conservation statuses in Canada

Just want to add here that even if this functionality were implemented, I do no believe it would be desirable. I don’t think it makes sense to forever lose public access to records to accommodate a minority (I assume) of users who misunderstood how geoprivacy is implemented. There is no harm in making sure things are communicated as broadly as possible, and of course it is important that you don’t un-obscure species that should remain obscured, but if those things are true, obscuring huge numbers of records with no evidence that the user wanted them obscured seems bad to me.

And thanks for taking a second look at the list!

Can you clarify whether species that are not COSEWIC-listed (or perhaps also provincially listed under similar laws) will be obscured at all? As you are likely aware, the listing process is slow and somewhat politically motivated (e.g. Black Ash was listed instead of Green or White Ash not because it is more at risk, but because it is culturally important for basket-making), and COSEWIC will not generate a complete list of species that most people would agree should be obscured. I’m particularly thinking of various orchids here, that are not necessarily in known decline, but have very restricted ranges in Ontario and may be quite sensitive to disturbance.

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The site should no more be changing obscuring decisions made by users than they should be changing licenses applied to photos etc. There is no justification to change either without the approval of the submitter.

Nobody is suggesting changing user geoprivacy decisions. If you look at the .json for any observation, it will show a taxon geoprivacy and a user geoprivacy (just called “geoprivacy”), they are entirely separate fields. The observation is displayed with whichever geoprivacy is stricter. Changes made to taxa will never affect the “geoprivacy” field.

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It is impossible to know or evaluate if any record with geoprivacy set was submitted by:

  • a user who is completely unaware of what geoprivacy is or how it works
  • a user unaware that specific taxa is covered by geoprivacy
  • a user who does not know what their observation is and it gets identified by another person. This to me is the most concerning as the observer, who is the only person who can set the user geoprivacy will not have had any reason to suspect it may be of concern
  • or a user who is fully aware of how geoprivacy works and what the status of the species is and is simply letting the automatic setting take effect.

It is likely that most records of auto obscured taxa with manual obscuring are being done by users who either obscure all their sightings or are obscuring all their records from that day to reduce the ‘breadcrumbs’ as it were. I suspect virtually no one is thinking ‘well, I need to obscure this manually as well so will do that in addition to the automatic setting’

If users need to be concerned about their records being opened, then every time they submit a record which will be auto obscured they should be prompted along the lines of ‘this record will be auto obscured. At any time without your knowledge or approval its location may be revealed by a change in the taxon geoprivacy. Do you wish to also apply manual obscuring to it?’

I would rather see this change err on the side of caution. If users want to open their records, that’s great, but make them make that clear and take the action to do it.

I don’t know how common it is, but I always do this for records I’m concerned about (which is very few tbh)

I don’t know how common the misunderstanding is that taxon geoprivacy is fixed and unchangeable, but the goal should be to fix that misunderstanding, not to make it reality. Otherwise you’re in the situation where huge numbers of records are permanently lost anytime a species is unnecessarily obscured.

I get the concern, and I’m all for thoroughly communicating the changes to geoprivacy so nobody is caught off guard (it should be easy enough to create a project listing all records that will be affected so people can look at what they have). But I just don’t see how these concerns justify losing huge amounts of data that qualified people have already decided probably don’t represent a conservation issue.

This is all assuming we end up with a proper list of species that doesn’t have glaring holes like the current one.

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The data and or records would never be permanently lost. When a taxa is moved from open to obscured, the original gps is still retained. MNR staff, .ca portal admins etc still see the actual locations. They may lose visibility to the general public for some time.

They will be permanently unavailable to most users (including e.g. NHIC if permission for projects has not been granted) for the many users who are inactive or will otherwise never take the time to go through the records.

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I agree. It has always been the case that taxon geoprivacy is not fixed, since there has always been the ability of curators to edit the taxon geoprivacy of any species. We are attempting to make this more fixed, though, so it isn’t as much of a moving target. Once everyone is comfortable with the list, I wouldn’t see lots of changes needed going forward, since I think it would be rare that a species is all of a sudden at risk of persecution or harm that wasn’t before. Although I’m certain it will happen from time to time, which is why the intent is to revisit this annually.
It’s a good point that this could be better communicated to users. It’s true that many users probably don’t know that the list may change from time to time. And it’s also a good point that most users will have no idea which species taxon geoprivacy applies so would never think that “I should obscure this observation even if taxon geoprivacy applies”.

The plan is not to obscure all COSEWIC/SARA (or other laws) listed species, rather just those those that are threatened by persecution or harm (regardless of COSEWIC assessment). We used the COSEWIC reasons for designation as just one additional source of information to help, but are also relying on local expert opinion and other feedback to end up with a thorough list.

This may be true across the spectrum of all observations, but I suspect a pretty good number of records of truly rare and imperiled stuff is being found by more advanced or even professional for want of a better term observers much more likely to know its status.

These are taxa that are typically being targeted (and I mean that in a positive sense) by MNR or conservation employees, what I will call the high end amateur field naturalist etc . They are not the kinds of things people out for a walk in their local conservation area on the weekend tend to stumble onto.

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Ok thanks. To be clear, I’m not asking whether there are listed species that will not be obscured, but whether there are non-listed species that will be obscured.

I would like to chime in with my support for this initiative (ie. the removal of many species from the list of those that are automatically obscured). My own area of interest is Butterflies, and I am one of the curators of the Ontario Butterfly Atlas project. This automatic obscuring of observations is a nightmare for us. In the past, we have contacted many observers, asking them to please alter their settings to allow curators to see the correct coordinates of their observations - both to aid in identifications, and also to allow us to include their observations in the Atlas. I appreciate that there are taxa that absolutely require protection, and I have personally reported a poacher who was subsequently prosecuted. But for butterflies in Ontario, there aren’t many species that really require protection, or where obscuring locations would have much of an effect. Even in those cases where automatic obscuring is warranted, I would argue that it may do very little to protect the location of the observation in question. A person who is oblivious to the status of a species they are reporting, and relies on the automatic obscuring is probably reporting a bunch of other, non-threatened species from the same location. If someone wants to know the location of the obscured observation, they can probably figure it out just by checking the locations of the other observations made by the observer on that day. For most observers, that will narrow down the locations of obscured observations considerably. I would argue that many experienced observers who ARE aware of the status of the species they are reporting won’t make the connection and obscure the locations for the non-threatened species they are reporting for the same location.
Just to put some numbers on the problem this causes for our project:
In 2020, over 35,000 research grade butterfly observations were added to iNat for Ontario. Ideally, we would like to add all of them to the Atlas. Over 1100 of these observations are obscured to curators. Some are common species that have been deliberately obscured - those would be no great loss to science. IMHO, not a single one is for a species that actually requires protection. There are a number of valid reasons for obscuring an observation besides protecting a vulnerable species, and I don’t have a problem with that.
To focus on one specific example, the Tawny Emperor (normally an uncommon and very localized species) experienced an unusual surge in numbers in 2020. There were 133 observations reported in 2020, far more than in previous years (even when we consider all sources of observations). Of those observations, 91 are obscured (a fair number only have the taxon geoprivacy). That would mean that we would lose around 70% of the observations if we simply accept that these observations are obscured, and the Atlas would not reflect this apparent surge in observations. I went through the list of obscured observations, picking out the observers who reported something interesting, and came up with a list of 88 observers. We are in the process of contacting all those observers, asking them to allow curators to see their locations. Not all of them will respond positively, and not all of those that do respond will be able to figure out how to allow access (hard to believe, but it happens). And on top of all that, for the observations where we are granted access to the obscured coordinates, those coordinates have to be copied from from one column to another in the download file(s). That’s an awful lot of work to do for something that (arguably) provides almost no actual benefit.
By all means, lets protect the locations for species that will actually benefit from this protection. I have a very strong suspicion that the original list was created for reasons that had little to do with protecting vulnerable species.

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I will obscure things manually (or not add them) if i think they should be obscured. I don’t even remember what is or isn’t auto obscured. If someone chooses to add an observation to iNat and feels the location should be obscured, they should obscure it.

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Sorry in the delay. We do not plan to limit it to SARA/COSEWIC species. That said, I wouldn’t feel it appropriate to obscure something like gartersnakes because some people may kill them on their properties. We’ll have to strike a good balance for those.

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Since it seems like we will not be provided a list of what is changing and have to muddle through and figure it ourselves, trying to figure out what taxa are currently obscured, which ones stay, which ones come up in a search because of an incorrect ID etc.

I will start it off, there are something like 40 orchids currently obscured in Canada. 43 come up in a search using taxon_geoprivacy=obscured, but I’m not going through every record trying to figure out why it is obscured.

It appears a good number of these are scheduled to be reset to open. There is no justification to unobscure any of these, the threats of poaching that existed 2 years ago remain unchanged. If anything, but I wont start that discussion too many orchids are already open.

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Thank you for the start @cmcheatle! We’re putting some things together that I hope will help. We just put up a page at iNat.ca and are in the process of an announcement on the .ca dashboards to broadcast this further. Clicking on the Obscured Species at https://inaturalist.ca/pages/getting-started-inaturalist-canada will provide a bit more info and a link to a google sheet for additions/comments. There are some directions at the top of the sheet that we’re asking people to follow.
You can skip that page altogether and see the sheet here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1bBGRQkRIC80T8MhLRRTKWGJP5KWVVuKnSS2Fys-zrfc/edit#gid=0&fvid=2033764420
And there’s a way to check to see which observations are currently obscured due to taxon geoprivacy: https://inaturalist.ca/observations?place_id=6712&subview=grid&view=species&taxon_geoprivacy=obscured - this shows all observations within Canada to which taxon geoprivacy applies. Note that there are more species than these, it’s just that they haven’t been recorded as of yet on iNaturalist.
I hope this gives everyone enough to go on and is helpful in adding to the list.

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It actually does not do that. It lists all records where the taxon is obscured OR if any identification, even if incorrect has been added of an obscured taxa.

It also does not work for the taxa that have been set to Private for some reason, because the geography filter will not work then, so some how a list of these (which mainly I think are herps) has to be checked.

Given that the sheet as it currently exists is effectively the pdf document with the identical species list first posted by Carrie a month ago are we to interpret this as meaning in the past month there has been no additional review or changes despite the apprehensions almost immediately posted ?

Yes, this is the original list now in editable format so those suggestions made on this forum and suggestions from a wider audience can now be added directly to this list. We have also received suggestions from other sources which will be taken into account and reviewed along with all the feedback received.

How do you plan to indicate when requests have been reviewed and any decision on them ?

There are several no-brainers I have already added which can be used to set up whatever approach you are going to use.

Several taxa in Ontario for broader discussion:

  • snakes - Massasauga, Foxsnake, Milksnake, Queensnake, Racer, Ratsnake, Hognose are all currently obscured. Community thoughts on these ?
  • Putty Root - currently obscured orchid, is anyone actually going to target it ?
    -Coralroots - same question, is it something targeted for poaching ?
  • Pawpaw - a lot of the observations will likely be cultivated, but is it at risk of collectors ?
  • King Rail - does its rarity as a breeder justify obscuring ?
  • Ghost, Laurentian and Northern Barrens Tiger Beetles. Are they rare enough and or subject to threats that require hiding
  • rare wintergreens
  • rare trilliums, mainly Drooping, I feel like Nodding is likely common enough in its range to justify being open
  • rare coneflowers and sunflowers
  • Great Grey and Hawk-owl. Kind of conflicted on this. In northern Ontario the bird numbers are large enough and the human numbers small enough they are likely fine open. However when they get south they turn into circuses with baiting, trespassing etc. Maybe spend the time to highly locally obscure in southern regions