Risky Business 

Under the Harper government, Canada's species at risk are at greater risk than ever

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF ECOJUSTICE BY URSUS PHOTOGRAPHY - at risk Four environmental groups are fighting to protect the habitat of Pacific humpback whales and other species at risk.
  • Photo courtesy of EcoJustice By Ursus Photography
  • at risk Four environmental groups are fighting to protect the habitat of Pacific humpback whales and other species at risk.

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, Ontario's Upper Thames River Conservation Authority handed Scott Gillingwater, a species at risk biologist, the prestigious provincial Conservation Pioneer Award. Gillingwater's work includes some of Canada's longest-term research on a number of declining snake and turtle species. Gillingwater also provides technical expertise to provincial and national endangered species recovery teams and the board of directors of the Institute for the Conservation of World Biodiversity. The award — honouring individuals who've contributed significantly to Ontario's conservation movement — makes Gillingwater a hero with local, provincial, national and international standing. As for those at the federal level who might benefit from his considerable expertise to act on recommendations, he may as well be banging his head against a wall: when it comes to species at risk, Ottawa just doesn't seem to care — as it proved again the very next day.

"The federal government's approach to endangered species is a blueprint for extinction in Canada," Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee told reporters at a September news conference.

Indeed when considering the current plight of Canada's growing list of endangered species, many critics point first to the Harper government's Trojan Horse "budget" bill, C-38, which passed this summer. Significant changes to existing laws contained in C-38 included weakened protection for fish and species at risk; an entirely new — and less comprehensive — environmental assessment law; broad decision-making powers for cabinet and ministers, and; less accountability and fewer opportunities for public participation. Others might finger the second such legislative bludgeon, bill C-45, which included changes to laws preventing harm from hazardous waste and the shipping industry, and which protected fish and their habitat through the Navigable Waters Act. On Dec. 4, Canada had 2.5 million protected rivers and lakes; the passing of C-45 on Dec. 5 reduced this to 87 lakes and 62 rivers. (Bizarrely 90 per cent of them lap the shores of Conservative ridings.)

And yet the Harper government's greatest slight to species at risk has nothing to do with these actions, but with inaction, as demonstrated in its avowed disinterest in enacting existing provisions of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). By not acting on existing laws, the federal conservatives have put species at risk in greater peril than ever — and squandered the considerable tax dollars spent on listing those species in the first place.

Nevertheless, as the 10th anniversary of SARA approaches, numerous more animals and plants have been added to the ranks of those considered endangered, threatened or at-risk. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) alone has added a dozen animals to the endangered list. One of those is the much-persecuted Massasauga rattlesnake, found only along the shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The committee also raised alarm over three bats in Eastern Canada — the little brown myotis, the northern myotis and the tri-coloured bat — that have declined a shocking 90 per cent in two years due to White Nose Syndrome, a deadly fungal disease. "It's very dire," said Graham Forbes, a professor at the University of New Brunswick. "There's virtually no bats left."

New Brunswick's bat population, in fact, fell from 10,000 to only a few hundred over 24 months, and there's fear the disease could spread west. Nova Scotia's government requested emergency assessment of the bats last year after the disease surfaced in that province, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Although COSEWIC recommended in February that all three species be listed as endangered, nothing has happened since, highlighting issues around implementation. "There's no legislative requirement to actually do anything in the end," said Eric Taylor, a professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia and one of dozens of COSEWIC members who met last week to review the status of 42 species. The process takes time and money, he said, and then falls victim to government "stalling." Some think such stalling might is illegal.

In September, Ecojustice — a non-profit environmental law group representing the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace Canada, the Sierra Club and Wildsight — filed the latest in a string of SARA lawsuits in Vancouver in a bid to force the feds to implement existing habitat protections available under the legislation part of the recovery strategies for Pacific humpback whale, Nechako white sturgeon, marbled murrelet and southern mountain caribou — endangered or threatened species that will be impacted by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

While these four species are of special concern (there are many other less-endangered species that will be adversely affected) to the coalition with environmental review of the pipeline currently underway, a couple hundred species across Canada languish in the same limbo: listed, but with no recovery strategies finalized despite a legal obligation to do so. The groups say Environment Minister Peter Kent's ongoing refusal to implement finalized recovery strategies violates SARA

"The recovery strategies for these species are at least three years past the mandatory, statutory deadline set out in the (act)," EcoJustice lawyer Sean Nixon told the Victoria Times Colonist. "This isn't just a technical breach of the law. The federal government's delay in completing recovery strategies is further endangering species that are already endangered or threatened."

The 87 recovery strategies that are currently more than five years overdue directly undermine the environmental assessment process and aid in fast-tracking regulatory approvals at the expense of wildlife. "While the federal government is dithering about whether and how to protect critical habitat, industrial development marches on," said Nixon. "By the time recovery strategies are actually completed, by the time critical habitat is identified and protected, our options are closed. We already have a pipeline... that punches through the critical habitat of whales... of southern mountain caribou."

In typical fashion, Kent has attempted to both politicize and economy-wash his government's conspicuous inaction by reminding Canadian Press that the Species At Risk Act "introduced in 2002 by a Liberal government," will be both "more efficient and more effective" when the Harper government overhauls it. Given the conservatives' track record on such matters, no one is holding their breath.

There are now 668 wildlife species listed, including 297 endangered, 159 threatened and 190 of special concern. Twenty-two species are considered extirpated (i.e., no longer found in the wild). There is, however, some good news: the bottom-feeding Salish sucker, found in the Lower Mainland, has been upgraded to threatened, and the committee said the spotted, northern and Atlantic wolffish are all showing signs of recovery in response to protection and management measures — proof that implementation works. Which puts the ball squarely in the feds' court — where it has now been sitting idle for six years.

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