Put simply, conservation works. When government takes the time to understand a species’ decline and cooperate with local NGOs to enact timely and meaningful change, the most at-risk species under their purview recover. Go figure.
A 2005 review of the Endangered Species Act, for example, established in the United States in 1973, estimated that an additional 227 species would have become extinct were this legislation not in force, including the yellow-shouldered blackbird, greensea turtle and Bighorn sheep. Closer to home, Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) has enabled several species to be delisted as a consequence of rebounded numbers, such as the white pelican, Baird’s sparrow and Caspian tern, while many more have been downlisted to reflect their lessened risk of extinction, such as the sea otter, wood bison, Rocky Mountain tailed frog and several species of whale.
Most countries have similar legislation and a corresponding abundance of success stories, but nowhere, to my knowledge, have acts like SARA been fully and faithfully implemented, making their successes unrepresentative of their full potential. In this most recent federal election, Canadians made it abundantly clear that climate change was among their priorities, the masses demanding an end to oil and gas, and the vindication of renewable power, but while each party hastily assembled its plan to address carbon emissions, very few made mention of species-at-risk, the other side of our crisis coin in sore need of attention.
Our Species at Risk Act was established in 2002, empowering us for the past 17 years to list species as either “not at risk,” “of special concern,” “threatened,” “endangered,” “extirpated” or “extinct,” endowing each with certain protections. If they land in either the threatened or endangered categories we are obligated to prepare a recovery strategy on their behalf, outlining the actions we must take in order for them to recover. These strategies must be established two years after a species is declared threatened, and one year after a species is declared endangered. These strategies are also supposed to identify “critical habitat,” lands in need of prompt protection if the species in question is to recover. These two key obligations – recovery strategies and critical habitat – common indicators of progress, and it’s not looking good.
Ecojustice, which is a registered Canadian charity and law firm upholding environmental legislation, took our federal government to court in 2014 because a staggering 162 recovery strategies for species listed under SARA were grossly overdue, some by as many as five years. This lawsuit was a success and our federal government was ordered to address its backlog. I reached out to Ecojustice senior scientist Liat Podolsky just this month for an update, and while our federal government has made meaningful strides toward addressing these overdue recovery strategies, she said they remain extremely hesitant to identify and protect the critical habitat of threatened and endangered species, and routinely refuse to use the special powers granted them by SARA for those species in immediate peril.
For example, the protections enacted by SARA, such as protection from bodily harm, are only automatically applied on federal land, which can be problematic if that species then wanders onto provincial or private land. However, SARA empowers cabinet to issue “emergency orders” when a species’s situation becomes critical, expanding its protections wherever is deemed necessary. A similar mechanism, called a “safety net order,” extends SARA protections onto provincial or territorial land. To date, however, as several provinces and communities fail to protect listed species, our federal government has only ever issued two emergency orders, and not a single safety net order to date.
Tonya Wimmer is a marine mammal biologist in Nova Scotia and founder of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), and when I posed the question of overdue SARA protections she said the situation is even worse at sea. As she explained it, our marine species-at-risk are caught in a jurisdictional nightmare, because every stretch of ocean has several overlapping stakeholders, be them fishermen, oilmen, shipping traffic and the rest. As a consequence, she has found government especially unwilling to fully accommodate marine species-at-risk, particularly when the public isn’t paying attention. Yes, SARA works, but only for those species who’ve caught the public eye and thus receive its fuller safeguards, like the North Atlantic Right whale. Some species become priority cases because they’re cute or well known, while the majority languish in obscurity. In the absence of government action she fears for the blue, fin, humpback and minke whales of our Atlantic coast, and all dolphins, species no one is paying any attention to, with the exception of charities like hers.
Our Species at Risk Act is a strong piece of legislation, containing all the tools our federal government needs to recover and protect the most beleaguered members of Canadian biodiversity, but for 17 years this Act and its legal requirements have been ignored without serious consequence for those political parties charged with upholding them, ignoring our at-risk flora and fauna with the same organized apathy as they once did climate change. That can’t stand. As we lead our federal government toward a sustainable climate, so to should we insist on the timely rescue of our species-at-risk.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.
Shown above is the North Atlantic blue whale, listed as endangered by Canada’s Species at Risk Act. (Zack Metcalfe photo)