Raising the bar: Recovery ambition for species at risk in Canada and the US

Goals to recover endangered species are stronger in the United States than Canada, but recovery goals under both countries need improvement.

An estimated one million species are at risk of extinction globally. 

In Canada and the United states, there is legislation that is intended to protect species at risk. However, the majority of species are not recovering in either country. 

Researchers from the University of Victoria, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Dalhousie University, and the University of Northern British Columbia, set out to study the quality of the goals for endangered species recovery in American and Canadian federal endangered species legislation. The results were published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

The research demonstrates that recovery goals in the US are of higher quality than in Canada. However, the overall quality of recovery goals published under both the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) could be improved.

Recovery goal quality as quantitative and ambitious

The research examines the quality of recovery goals by evaluating whether goals included measurable, ambitious population targets. Recovery goals were scored as quantitative if they included numeric values like population size, number of breeding pairs, or percent population increases. Goal ambition was scored on a five-point scale based on the extent to which goals specified an intent to achieve species recovery (i.e., population increase above current levels or maintain current population size ).

These research findings give unique guidance to strengthen recovery goals and improve outcomes for species at risk. 

The findings show that species recovery planners – especially in Canada – should aim for higher recovery goal ambition and include quantitative recovery goals wherever possible. For example, findings reveal that:

  • only 38% of recovery goals had a numeric population target,
  • only 41% of recovery goals were considered to be high ambition,
  • only 26% of targets were both ambitious and had a numeric population target,
  • the quality of recovery goals was higher in the US over Canadian legislation,

the quality was also greater as the threat of extinction rose: the goal for recovering an endangered species was more likely to have a numeric population targetor have high ambition compared to a threatened species.


Pawluk KA, Fox CH, Service CN, Stredulinsky EH, Bryan HM (2019) Raising the bar: Recovery ambition for species at risk in Canada and the US. PLoS ONE 14(11): e0224021. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224021


Routinely crossing international borders and/or persisting in populations across multiple countries, species are commonly subject to a patchwork of endangered species legislation. Canada and the United States share numerous endangered species; their respective acts, the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), require documents that outline requirements for species recovery. Although there are many priorities for improving endangered species legislation effectiveness, species recovery goals are a crucial component. We compared recovery goal quality, as measured by goal quantitativeness and ambition, for species listed under SARA and ESA. By comparing across ESA and SARA, the intent of the study was to identify differences and similarities that could support the development of stronger species’ recovery goals under both legislations. Our results indicated that: (1) overall, only 38% of recovery goals were quantitative, 41% had high ambition, and 26% were both quantitative and with high ambition; (2) recovery goals had higher quantitativeness and ambition under ESA than SARA; (3) recovery goals for endangered species had higher ambition than threatened species under ESA and SARA, and; (4) no recovery goal aimed to restore populations to historic levels. Combined, these findings provide guidance to strengthen recovery goals and improve subsequent conservation outcomes. In particular, species at risk planners should seek to attain higher recovery goal ambition, particularly for SARA-listed species, and include quantitative recovery goals wherever possible.

Select figures

Figure 2

Figure two of Raising the bar: a series of charts comparing US and Canada metrics and ambitions for recovery targets.
Fig 2. Quantitativeness and ambition of recovery goals for species (n = 208) listed under both the United States’ Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Percent of quantitative recovery goals (A) by species status (i.e., threatened [T], endangered [E], or extirpated [Ex]), and (B) by natural grouping. Ambition of recovery goals listed under the ESA (denoted by a star) and SARA (denoted by a maple leaf) (C) by status and (D) natural grouping, Ambition of recovery goals within published recovery documents was scored on a scale from 1 to 5; however, no goals received an ambition score of 5 (see Methods). Sample sizes are displayed to the right of bars. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224021.g002

Authors and affiliations

Kylee A. Pawluk, Caroline H. Fox, Christina N. Service, Eva H. Stredulinsky, Heather M. Bryan

Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, British Columbia, Canada
Hakai Institute, Heriot Bay, British Columbia, Canada

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