News Room

Don’t water down species-at-risk legislation

Jul 05. 13

-- By Andrea Smith, Cottage Country

Canadians deeply value their country’s natural environment and biodiversity.  According to a recent Ipsos Reid polls, the majority of Canadians believe our natural heritage is important and worth protecting. 

A 2011 poll found that 75 per cent of Canadians support preserving natural areas and protecting native plants and animals, while 87per cent report feeling happier when they spend time in nature. 

A 2012 poll found that 97 per cent of Canadians think that endangered species should be saved from extinction, and 85 per cent believe that biodiversity contributes to a healthy economy.  The 2012 poll also asked Canadians who should be responsible for protecting species at risk.

Over half of those polled (52 per cent) thought it was primarily the federal government’s responsibility, followed by a quarter (24 per cent) suggesting it should be the domain of the provinces and territories.

Unfortunately, neither level of government is doing a particularly good job looking out for  endangered species in Canada.  Last fall, the national environmental organization Ecojustice released a report card evaluating species at risk laws across the country. 

The results were sobering.  Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon all received failing grades because they lack specific laws dedicated to protecting endangered plants and animals.  The highest grade, a C+, went to Ontario, while the federal government came in with a C-.

Ecojustice graded each jurisdiction based on four criteria it believes are necessary components of effective species at risk legislation. 

First, does the legislation identify species that need help?  Second, does it protect them from being killed by human activities?  Third, does it protect their habitat?  And finally, does the legislation facilitate their recovery, so they are no longer threatened with extinction?

When Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 2007 it was widely praised for balancing science with socio-economic considerations. 

Under the act, endangered species are identified by a panel of independent scientific experts, and listing of those species is mandatory. 

Once listed, it is prohibited to harm or kill species at risk, and to damage or destroy their habitat.  The act requires the development of recovery strategies for each listed species, and official response statements from the Ontario government indicating what action will be taken to protect them.

But what looked good on paper has not been implemented effectively. 

The Ecojustice report highlights delays in listing species once they are identified, and criticizes vague requirements for how the government must respond. 

Currently there are over 200 species at risk listed in the province.  Desite this, only 67 recovery strategies have been finalized and 45 government response statements completed.

In May, the Ontario government announced new exemptions to the ESA which could weaken protection for species at risk where they conflict with industries such as forestry, aggregate extraction, renewable energy, and mining, as well as commercial and residential development.

The government argues that these changes will streamline the ESA implementation process, but opponents fear it will seriously reduce government oversight of projects and activities that could negatively impact species at risk or their habitats.

The federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) came into effect in 2002.  Like under the ESA, endangered species are identified by a panel of independent scientific experts, but the federal cabinet makes the ultimate decision on which of those species gets listed. 

Currently 30 species (including Atlantic cod, sockeye salmon, and polar bear) have been denied legal listing, despite scientific evidence that they are at risk of extinction. 

While SARA has strong provisions to protect listed species and their habitat from harm, automatic protection is limited to migratory birds, aquatic species, or species on federal lands. 

The act requires the federal government to develop recovery strategies for listed species, but this process tends to be extremely slow.     

More than 600 native species are at risk of disappearing in Canada, and the list keeps growing.  These endangered species are the canaries in the coalmine—barometers of the health of our natural environment and native biodiversity.

Canadians recognize the importance of protecting species at risk and believe that federal and provincial/territorial governments should be leading the way.  It’s time for species at risk legislation to be strengthened, not watered down.

Andrea Smith is a local biologist who works on invasive species and climate change issues through the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network and York University.

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