Aim Anthropogenic habitat loss is usually cited as the most important cause of recent species’ extinctions. We ask whether species losses are in fact more closely related to habitat loss than to any other aspect of human activity such as use of agricultural pesticides, or human population density (which reflects urbanization).
Methods We statistically compared areas in Canada where imperiled species currently occur, versus areas where they have been lost. Using multiple regressions, we relate the numbers of species that had suffered range reductions in an ecoregion to variables that represent present habitat loss, pesticide use and human population density.
Results We find high losses of imperiled species in regions with high proportions of agricultural land cover. However, losses of imperiled species are significantly more strongly related to the proportion of the region treated with agricultural pesticides. The relationship between species losses and area treated with pesticides remains significant after controlling for area in agriculture.
Main conclusions Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that agricultural pesticide use, or something strongly collinear with it (perhaps intensive agriculture more generally), has contributed significantly to the decline of imperiled species in Canada. Habitat conversion per se may be a less important cause of species declines than how that converted habitat is used.