COSEWIC guidelines concerning sensitive information

Approved by COSEWIC in November 2017

COSEWIC may hold or generate sensitive information associated with SSC and COSEWIC meeting minutes and notes as well as internal communications, including initial deliberations of a working group or discussions between SSC members or with the Chair of COSEWIC. COSEWIC also may hold or generate sensitive information associated with status reports. This may include, but is not limited to the location of a wildlife species or its habitat, ownership of private lands where a wildlife species occurs, and details of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge.

The following guidelines outline how sensitive information held by or generated by COSEWIC may be protected.

Part 1. Sensitive information in the final status report

In cases where information related to the location of a wildlife species or its habitat is considered sensitive but essential to the understanding of the status report during COSEWIC review and assessment process, such sensitive information must be included in the status report. It is possible to limit the specific information that is published on the public registry. The Chair of COSEWIC can advise the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, via correspondence with the Director General of the Canadian Wildlife Service, to redact specific information from the status report related to the location of the wildlife species or its habitat. This is done on the recommendation of the relevant SSC Co-chair. Relevant Species Specialist Co-chair and jurisdictional members will be copied, as appropriate, on this correspondence.

Article 124 reads as follows:

“The Minister, on the advice of COSEWIC, may restrict the release of any information required to be included in the public registry if that information relates to location of a wildlife species or its habitat and restricting its release would be in the best interest of the species”.

It is suggested that COSEWIC determine, during the assessment process, if such advice should be provided to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Such advice should be included in the COSEWIC’s annual report to the CESCC and the Minister that includes the wildlife species in question.

When sensitive information (e.g., documented wildlife species occurrences) is not necessary for the assessment of the wildlife species, COSEWIC requests that status report writers provide this information in appendices that are separate from the status report itself and not explicitly referenced in the status report. The purpose of having such detailed information appended to status reports is to ensure that it is available to COSEWIC as needed for assessment purposes, while being protected from public release. This minimizes potential risk to wildlife species.

Such information is maintained in the files of SSC Co-chairs and/or COSEWIC Secretariat. This information may be released upon request, with the permission from the Chair of COSEWIC on the recommendation of the relevant Co-chair as detailed in Part 2, sections A and B.

The identification of data sensitive species.

COSEWIC poses the following question to identify data sensitive species:

What is the risk that broad publication of information on a species location affects its survival or recovery for each of the following categories of threats?

  1. Capture/ harvest of individuals
  2. Disturbance by observation
  3. Intentional killing of individuals
  4. Intentional destruction of habitat
  5. Reduced collaboration by stakeholders

The risk is graded on a scale of 1 to 4:

  1. Low probability of events and if it happens, it would not affect survival or recovery of the species (Low or nil)
  2. Could happen at a scale that would not affect survival or recovery of the species (Moderate)
  3. Could happen and could impact the survival or recovery of the species (High)
  4. High probability of events and it would have an impact on survival or recovery of the species (Critical)

Criteria grid

1. Capture/harvest of individuals (examples of uses: hunting, gathering, collecting, culture, trade, etc.)

Circumstances and intensity of collecting

  • Legal or illegal trade at the time of the evaluation of the species by COSEWIC
  • Historical trade
  • Species targeted by collectors (e.g., butterflies)
  • Traditional/subsistence hunting
  • Collecting for other personal use

Aggravating or mitigating factors

Habitat accessibility

  • Occurs near populated areas
  • Vocation of the territory facilitates access (e.g., park)
  • Trail network/access

Species’ motility

  • Individuals sessile (e.g., plants) or moving only short distances
  • Individuals easily located using coordinates and GPS
  • Motile species but adapted capture methods available

Habitat characteristics

  • Highly specialized habitat, easily definable
  • Fragile habitat, easily disturbed/destroyed

Risk of unintentional threat spreading or aggravation

  • Spread of diseases or parasites known to affect the target species

2. Disturbance by observation (any observation or related activity that has the potential to disturb or destroy individuals or habitat components)

Public or media interest devoted to the species

  • Species constituting an exceptional observation (e.g., species presumed extinct or extirpated)
  • Taxonomic group targeted by amateurs/enthusiasts
  • Special/media interest

Aggravating or mitigating factors

Species’ vulnerability to observation or manipulation

  • Observation conducted during the breeding season
  • High probability that observation can result in deleterious effects (e.g., reduced breeding success, permanent abandonment of residence)

Habitat’s vulnerability

  • Fragile habitat, easily disturbed/destroyed

Needed degree of proximity for observation

  • Identification necessitates manipulation of individuals
  • Observation involves direct habitat disturbance (trampling, lifting rocks, etc.)

Habitat accessibility

  • Occurs near populated areas
  • Vocation of the territory facilitates access (e.g., park)
  • Trail network/access

Species’ motility

  • Individuals sessile (e.g., plants) or moving only short distances
  • Individuals easily located using coordinates and GPS
  • Motile species but adapted capture methods available

Risk of unintentional threat spreading or aggravation

  • Spread of diseases or parasites known to affect the target species

3. Intentional killing of individuals

Susceptibility to intentional destruction

  • Species regarded as antagonistic to human activities (e.g., wolverine, wolf, snakes)
  • Species may be considered harmful but is little known or with restricted distribution (e.g., timber rattlesnake, poisonous plants)
  • For tree species, individual appears in decline

Aggravating or mitigating factors

Prevalence of threat

  • Nearby populated areas
  • Potential conflicts over a significant portion of the Canadian range

Species’ motility

  • Individuals sessile (e.g., plants) or moving only short distances
  • Individuals easily located using coordinates and GPS
  • Motile species but adapted capture methods available

4. Intentional destruction of habitat

Susceptibility to intentional destruction

  • Habitat subjected to conflicting land uses/pressures (e.g., habitat concentrated in urban or suburban settings: western chorus frog)
  • Landowner wants to evade SARA-related restrictions

Aggravating or mitigating factors

Habitat characteristics

  • Highly specialized habitat, easily definable
  • Fragile habitat, easily disturbed/destroyed
  • Habitat rare, few options for relocation
  • Habitat mostly located on private lands

Prevalence of threat

  • Nearby populated areas
  • Potential conflicts over a significant portion of the Canadian range

5. Reduced collaboration by stakeholders

Situations that can result in reduced collaboration from partners

  • Large proportion of the species’ distribution located on private land
  • Large proportion of the species’ distribution located on aboriginal land
  • Species targeted by amateur groups (e.g., orchids, snakes)

6. Do you think that an eventual at-risk status will intensify or reduce the risk associated in any of the five previous categories?

Data Sensitive Species Results

The results are reported in the Excel spreadsheet (Table 1.1). In cases where there is more than one threat in a category, only the highest risk should be noted. For instance, hunting and collecting would be considered two different risk factors (or threats) of the category “Capture/harvest of individuals”. If there are any regional or population differences in category of risk, it is recommended that the assessment be based on the impact on the survival or recovery of the species. The precautionary principle should also guide the decision when this happens.

Table 1.1. Data sensitive species reporting sheet

Figure 1.1. Proposed Data Sensitive Species Procedure

Part 2. Sensitive information associated with status reports, and information generated by COSEWIC

A. When a request to release information is filed at the COSEWIC Secretariat under the Federal Access to Information Act (ATIP or ATIA)

The COSEWIC Secretariat, being funded by and operating under a Federal department, is subject to requests for information under the Federal Access to Information Act (ATIP or ATIA).

When such a request is made, the Secretariat, in communication with the Chair of COSEWIC, will review what is being requested for release. The information requested to be released may include but is not limited to the following: sensitive appendices describing specific locations of a wildlife species, data used to prepare wildlife species distribution maps, status reports in all stages of preparation, and related correspondence on file, e-mail correspondence, meeting notes and minutes (see also Part 3 for guidelines associated with COSEWIC communications).

Not all of the information maintained in files at the Secretariat will be subject to release. The COSEWIC Secretariat, on behalf of COSEWIC, may restrict the information requested for release by using, as applicable, exceptions under the Federal Access to Information Act, and by referring to guidelines for reports finalized under the “old” and “new” system, as detailed below.

i) ATIP Exceptions:

  • Section 13: When the information was obtained in confidence from another government (province, nation, municipality, international organization of states).
  • Section 16 (2): Disclosure of any record, which could reasonably be expected to facilitate the commission of an offense [Note: applicable only for federal species on federal lands].
  • Section 18: Disclosure of any record for a species of commercial value which would give an undue benefit to a person who would then gain from capturing and/or selling that species.
  • Section 20 (1b): The head of a government institution shall refuse to disclose any record requested under the ATIA that contains financial, commercial, scientific or technical information that is confidential information supplied to a government institution by a third party and treated consistently in a confidential manner by the third party.

ii) Guidelines for status reports finalized under the “old” and “new” systems

  • Requests for status reports prepared/finalized under the “old system” (i.e. for reports prepared prior to 2002, including letters of agreement and old contracts with report writers as authors): Only the finalized report can be released as it is co-authored by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the report writer. If the author of such a draft report is contacted by the ATIP office, he/she in consultation with the Chair of COSEWIC can decide to authorize or not authorize the release of the draft report. This is done on the recommendation of the relevant SSC Co-chair.
  • Requests for status reports prepared and finalized under the new type of contract with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) (under which terms, the Crown retains the intellectual Property of the report): All drafts and the final report on a wildlife species must be released; however, Environment and Climate Change Canada can recommend against the full release of draft and final as it can be cause/reason for damage to the final results (of assessment) and for that reason, ECC will release only the text which is the same in the draft reports and the final (the rest of the text in draft documents would then be blacked out).
  • Requests for status reports prepared under the new type of contract with Environment and Climate Change Canada which are still in preparation and therefore only available as drafts when the request under ATIP is made: Environment and Climate Change Canada can withhold the draft report if the final report is to be available within the next 60-90 days.

If the draft report is not to be finalized in the next 60-90 days, Environment and Climate Change Canada, under article 16 of the ATIA, can then ask that specific information from the draft report, concerning wildlife species specific location or habitat, be blacked out before the draft report is released, as permitted under article 124 of SARA.

If the draft report is not to be finalized within the next 60 to 90 days and the draft report does not contain any sensitive information which can be withheld as indicated above, then Environment and Climate Change Canada must release the full content of the draft report. A disclaimer can be added indicating that Environment and Climate Change Canada does not recommend the release of the content of the draft report in question because it can be cause of damage to the final results (of assessment) of a wildlife species possibly at risk, as some information may differ between the draft and the final report.

B. Other types of requests for information associated with status reports received by the Chair of COSEWIC or the COSEWIC Secretariat (e.g., non-ATIP requests).

The applicants requesting access to sensitive information are often part of recovery teams or groups or individuals involved in studies directly related to the conservation of the wildlife species or who are undertaking research on the biology of the wildlife species that could potentially lead to new information resulting in a better understanding of the wildlife species. This may include jurisdictions, recovery teams, writers of status reports to be updated, or other scientific authorities.

The release/ sharing of sensitive information (as defined above) archived at the COSEWIC Secretariat must be authorized by the Chair of COSEWIC on the recommendation of the respective SSC Co-chairs, in all situations except when the request for information is made by the writer of the status report. Prior to approval and release, applicants must provide a written statement of the need and use for this data and agree to safeguard site information so that it is not released into the public domain.

Part 3. Sensitive information contained in SSC and COSEWIC meeting minutes and notes, and internal communications

For COSEWIC to operative effectively as a national science advisory body, confidentiality is vital to its deliberations and discussions. In part, this is because of the sensitive nature of COSEWIC’s recommendations to the federal government that can have significant socio-economic consequences for various sectors of society. Just as importantly, however, is the need for COSEWIC to provide a confidential forum in which a wide breadth of perspectives can be presented on various issues without threat of recrimination from one's employer1.

Sensitive information may include COSEWIC and SSC meeting minutes and notes, summaries of information and COSEWIC internal communications by e-mail (including letters prepared by or received by the Secretariat for the Chair and/or the Committee). Similarly, the e-mail correspondence among members of COSEWIC (including SSC members) is of a confidential nature. The correspondence may pertain to the initial deliberations of an internal Working Group of COSEWIC, or discussions between SSC members or with the Chair.

This information belongs to COSEWIC, a third party, and will not be released under an ATIP request received by the Secretariat (as defined under the Terms of Reference of COSEWIC, the Secretariat is providing an administrative support to COSEWIC). When contacted by the ATIP office, the Chair of COSEWIC may authorize or not authorize the release of the information in question. Only the Chair of COSEWIC can authorize the release of COSEWIC correspondence.

Part 4. Protecting Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK), including tapes, interviews, and other original ATK related information

In most cases, the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge collected, verified and included in the status report, will be obtained in confidence and therefore details of the ATK will be protected from public release.

If the Secretariat is the repository of ATK information gathered by contractors preparing status reports, all information gathered will be protected from being released under any type of request for information including any request for Information under ATIA because the COSEWIC Secretariat will consistently treat the information as scientific or technical information received in confidence from a third party. The section 20.1 b) of the ATIA can then be used to protect the details of the information from being released. (In most situations, original information such as transcripts and tapes will be returned by the status report writer to the knowledge holder or the community for archiving.)


(1) Members of COSEWIC are appointed individually by the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change and, in accordance with Section 16(6) of SARA, shall make their own judgments and decisions independently of the government, academic, industrial, or NGO department of which they are a part.

About us

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is an independent advisory panel to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada that meets twice a year to assess the status of wildlife species at risk of extinction. Members are wildlife biology experts from academia, government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector responsible for designating wildlife species in danger of disappearing from Canada.


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Telephone: 819-938-4125
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Email: ec.cosepac-cosewic.ec@canada.ca

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