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COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada

Evaluation and Proposed Status

We estimate that there are roughly a few thousand pairs of Yellow Rails breeding in the Hudson/James Bay area, another 2000 pairs elsewhere in Canada, and about 600-750 in the U.S. Outside of the Hudson/James Bay area, breeding sites are widely dispersed. Wetland loss is a concern throughout much of North America. Animal and plant species associated with wetlands are often considered to be of particular concern. Among such species, the Yellow Rail is especially vulnerable because the specific wetland habitat that it uses is usually the easiest and the first portion of the wetland that is converted for human endeavours.

The population has declined and is still declining throughout its southern range, albeit more slowly now. In the remaining portion of its range, the Hudson/James Bay region, it may also be declining in certain areas; certainly the degradation of breeding habitat caused by Snow Geese cannot be helping it. The relatively small wintering range is also declining. The rate of habitat decline on the whole seems to be slow to moderate -- it cannot be described as rapid, although it probably was rapid earlier this century throughout most of its range south of the Hudson/James Bay region. The causes of these habitat declines are mostly a result of human activities, whether direct (e.g. wetland drainage) or indirect (e.g. Snow Goose), and we can safely conclude that Yellow Rail habitats are still declining. The decline is probably not rapid today, and the species is clearly not facing imminent extirpation, so Endangered status is not warranted. The relatively small wintering range, combined with the considerable pressure on the habitats that the Yellow Rail is known to use, could likely become the key limiting factor if it is not already.

Information available currently does not allow us to determine whether Yellow Rail extinction would become inevitable if present trends on both the wintering grounds and breeding grounds are not reversed. Nevertheless, extinction seems to be very unlikely over the next few decades. We therefore recommend that the Yellow Rail be designated Vulnerable in Canada (although if we were to strictly apply the COSEWIC criteria, we might have to propose Threatened status because there is good evidence that the Canadian population has declined and continues to decline).

Given the current discussions regarding criteria for selecting species at risk in Canada, we felt it might be instructive to apply the IUCN criteria to the Yellow Rail at the national level. We feel it is possible that the Canadian breeding population could decline by 20% over the next 10 years (Criterion A for Vulnerable), but that under present conditions such a decline would likely take a bit longer (e.g. 15-25 years). In addition, the total breeding population in Canada may be less than 10 000 individuals (Criterion C for Vulnerable). Thus Near Threatened would clearly be justifiable under the IUCN criteria and Vulnerable might be justifiable.

The Yellow Rail has not been listed by the IUCN (at the global level), but given the new information presented in this report, application of the same criteria that were applied for Canada could be justified at the global level, thus giving a Near Threatened and possibly a Vulnerable designation using the IUCN criteria at the global level. (The U.S. breeding population adds relatively few pairs to the global population in relation to the larger Canadian population, and declines in the U.S. have been and probably continue to be more drastic than in Canada.)