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Making the Species at Risk Act stronger: Four recommendations

Nature Canada / What we do / NatureVoice / Endangered Species / Making the Species at Risk Act stronger: Four recommendations

When Canada enacted the federal Species at Risk Act in June 2003 to address mounting threats to Canada’s endangered species, it was an important day for wildlife protection in North America.

However, key weaknesses in the Act, exacerbated by shallow federal implementation, have reduced the Act’s effectiveness in four ways.

The federal government should list species following COSEWIC designations, including emergency designations, and should remove cost-benefit analyses and stakeholder consultations from the listing process.

Issue: endangered species are denied listing under SARA, contrary to the Act’s purposes.

fishThe listing process under SARA is overburdened with socioeconomic considerations. While SARA requires COSEWIC to designate species at risk, it allows the federal government to deny legal listing to any designated species it chooses. It is only once species are legally listed under SARA that the protection under SARA applies.

Science-based listing—the principle that listing of species at risk must be based exclusively on scientific, community and traditional knowledge—is the foundation of effective endangered species legislation. Federal obligation to justify any listing denials was intended to keep the process science-based. Unfortunately, the federal government has boldly used its discretion to deny protection to more endangered species each year.

In March 2004, the federal government burdened the listing process with cost-benefit analyses and major public consultations not required by law. One month later, it refused COSEWIC’s emergency designations for two endangered BC sockeye salmon populations.

In April 2006, it refused to list 10 of 12 COSEWIC-designated species, including 6 returned to COSEWIC for further consideration, and 4—three populations of Atlantic cod and the Interior Fraser River coho salmon—outright denied legal listing.

Federal justifications for these decisions imply that species will be listed under SARA only if listing is inconsequential: the northern bottlenose whale was listed because anticipated “costs” of listing are “minimal due to overlap with other ongoing conservation efforts and regulatory controls”.

Whether a species is at risk should not be decided through political discussion. Socio-economic considerations must help determine if and how to recover a species, but these considerations have no place in the listing process. Species at risk lists under federal, provincial and territorial laws should reflect COSEWIC designations.

The federal government should:

1) issue emergency protection orders for identifiable critical habitat under imminent threat prior to recovery strategy approval;

(2) apply the federal safety net for species under imminent threat where provincial/territorial inaction can be demonstrated; and

(3) complete recovery strategies on time and implement action plans.

Issue: SARA protection of critical habitat is too limited and arrives too late

Approximately 75% of COSEWIC-listed species have been put at risk by loss or degradation of their habitats. Recognizing this, SARA promotes habitat protection through voluntary stewardship, and prohibits the destruction of critical habitat once it is identified in a recovery strategy.

These strategies are due one year after listing for endangered species and two years for threatened species. However, in many cases deadlines have been extended, and critical habitat is left unprotected during this delay.

Image of peary caribou

Peary caribou

While SARA allows for emergency protection orders to immediately safeguard critical habitat, the federal government has thus far refused to issue any.

In January 2006, the first 16 recovery strategies required under SARA were due. As of May 2006, recovery plans have been approved, encompassing just 7 of the species due in January.

Every day that a recovery strategy is overdue is a day that species habitat remains unprotected. Once identified in a recovery strategy or action plan, critical habitat is automatically protected— but only within federal jurisdiction, a far too limited realm to provide for Canada’s terrestrial species at risk. As a “safety net,” SARA allows for federal protection orders that “can only apply on provincial or private lands if provincial legislation or other measures are not already in place to protect the species, and if cooperative stewardship measures fail.”

The Act specifies no situation in which the safety net must be used. Protecting critical habitat is thus possible under SARA, but it is not required.

Habitat protection is also possible under SARA through voluntary stewardship, conservation agreements, or regulations to implement recovery plans. However, while the Act requires action plans that specify concrete recovery measures for listed endangered and threatened species, it gives no deadline for completion or implementation of these plans. Thus the Act dedicates considerable resources to understanding why a species is at risk and how best to recover it, without requiring that a single recovery action be taken.

Provincial and territorial governments have not always adequately protected critical habitat for species at risk on non-federal lands. To meet SARA’s goal of preventing extinction, the federal government must be more willing to implement the Act’s federal safety net.

The registry must be updated to include all plans and documents within the deadlines specified under the Act, and revised to provide coherent and comprehensive information to engage Canadians in species at risk conservation.

Issue: Deadlines and Registration Requirements are Not Being Met

The federal government has failed to meet the Act’s requirements to maintain a comprehensive public registry.

The online SARA public registry was originally lauded as a key public participation tool for species at risk. Today, the registry is confusing, out of date, and missing numerous documents required by law. Even SARA Annual Reports are missing, making it extremely difficult for the public to learn what has been done under the Act thus far.

image of humpback whale

Humpback whale

Exacerbating its omissions, the registry appears at times deliberately confusing. For example, its FAQ page answers the question, “How many species are at risk of extinction?” with directions to COSEWIC’s web site, then later suggests that, by cross-checking the hundreds of species on SARA’s legal list with COSEWIC’s designations, “anyone should be able to check whether or not all the species COSEWIC determines to be at risk receive legal recognition from the government.” This is hardly providing the
public with easy access to information!

Given the federal government’s emphasis on cooperative protection of species at risk, the public registry must be improved to better inform and engage Canadians. At a minimum, documents must be completed and registered according to legal deadlines to protect species and their habitat.

The HSP program and alternative funding sources should be expanded with increased funding and easier access for potential stewards, and recovery teams should seek information and assistance from the naturalist community.

Issue: Stewardship and Public Participation Opportunities Are Inadequate

Stewardship has been left the greatest burden for saving species without a corresponding increase in funding.

Species at risk listing and recovery planning do not yet adequately incorporate community knowledge. COSEWIC is attempting to remedy this by accessing, validating and incorporating such knowledge in its status assessments. This is a strong indication of the value of information held in the naturalist community—from compiled records of recent sightings of a species to historical population and habitat trends. As such information is equally important in recovery planning as in listing, recovery teams should likewise access and incorporate knowledge from the naturalist community.

Unfortunately, SARA has not yet increased or eased the involvement of naturalists in species at risk recovery, education or monitoring. This is so despite federal descriptions of stewardship as the cornerstone of the Act. Indeed, stewardship is the federal answer to recovering species on non-federal lands.

With so much expected of voluntary stewardship, mechanisms must be put in place to better inform, mobilize and fund potential stewards like those in the naturalist community.

Through the Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) for Species at Risk, established in 2000, the federal government allocates almost $10 million annually to conservation projects that protect habitat, mitigate threats, or help implement recovery strategies for species at risk. Valuable as this funding is, it will prove inadequate to implement the hundreds of
recovery and action plans coming due in the next few years. As implementation of these plans will rely more on stewardship than regulation, federal funding opportunities must increase accordingly— through HSP and alternatives.

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