Federal Species At Risk Act failing to protect biodiversity: study

A polar bear shakes the snow off himself after a swim in Wapusk National Park on the shore of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Man., on November 6, 2007. An academic analysis says Ottawa's Species At Risk Act is failing to protect species at risk. The study from the University of Ottawa is the latest to point out problems with the legislation, created 16 years ago to safeguard Canada's biodiversity.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA - Researchers say inadequate funding and poor collaboration between governments and private landowners are behind the failure of Canada's laws to protect endangered and threatened species.

"There is a sense with many parties that it's not quite getting us where we want to be," said Scott McFatridge of the Smart Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa.

"We need to take a more collaborative approach."

The think tank released a report Friday that looks into the failures of and possible improvements to the Species At Risk Act, federal legislation passed 16 years ago intended to identify vulnerable plants and animals and to guide their recovery.

The report points to previous research suggesting the way the act is currently implemented is failing. That study found that of the more than 350 species being tracked by the committee that rules on threatened plants and animals, 85 per cent of them have seen no improvement or have deteriorated.

Last fall, the World Wildlife Fund released research that concluded being listed under the act made no difference at all to the fate of a species. Plants and animals on the list declined just as often and as rapidly as unlisted ones.

It's not the act, said McFatridge.

"It's a very flexible act and it has many different tools. It has to do with the implementation and political will among all the parties."

Environment and Climate Change Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2013, the auditor general found Ottawa hadn't met legal requirements for establishing recovery strategies and management plans. That report concluded 146 recovery strategies were incomplete, over 90 per cent of required action plans hadn't been completed and management plans for species of special concern were not completed in 42 per cent of cases.

Last fall, almost all the provinces failed to meet federal deadlines for caribou recovery plans.

McFatridge said better co-operation between the federal, provincial and territorial governments on Crown land is needed. Ottawa can put protections in place on federal lands, but not others.

"It forms a bit of a patchwork. We need to see much more active co-operation."

He suggested provinces could establish species at risk permits similar to ones that exist for federal Crown land. The permits are required for work that could disturb the habitat of the most threatened species.

As well, he said, governments need to work harder to bring private landowners into the game. About half of all species at risk have habitat on private land.

Governments should use compensation to get more landowners to preserve habitat, the report concludes. Tools such as conservation easements, which restrict the type of development that can occur, should be used more often.

"In some cases, it's going to require payments for farmers, especially if the species at risk is a nuisance for their property, because they're providing a benefit for us," McFatridge said.

Ottawa also has to be willing to move on its own, he said. The act currently allows the federal government to move in with a special protection order if a province lags too much in establishing a recovery plan.

But the act already contains the necessary tools, McFatridge said.

"It's not necessarily throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but building on and scaling up and pushing further some of the things we're already doing."

The current approach isn't working, he said.

"Species are just going to continue to deteriorate.

"We need to be doing a lot more to reverse that trend line. That will take commitment and that will take resources."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow @row1960 on Twitter


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