Canada’s Endangered Species

Changes to Species at Risk Act may spell more danger

Canada’s Endangered Species

Will the proposed changes to Canada's Species at Risk Act help endangered species, or put them at further risk? Environmentalists fear the worst.

Recently, the government announced changes will be made to the Species at Risk Act to make it more effective. Despite concerns since its inception that the act is not effectively used, environmentalists and conservation biologists have not welcomed the announcement, and instead fear changes will further endanger at-risk species.

What are species at risk?

A “species at risk” is considered to be any species that falls under one of the following categories:

extirpated (locally extinct in a given region in which it used to live, but still in existence in other parts of its range)

  • endangered
  • threatened
  • a “species of special concern” (sensitive to human activities and natural events because of its biological characteristics)

How many species are at risk?

The number of species considered to be at risk in Canada varies widely: anywhere from 345 species (Environment Canada) to 645 (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). Some of the species affected include the following:

Endangered species

  • North Atlantic right whale
  • piping plover
  • pink coreopsis

Threatened species

  • American marten
  • Blanding’s turtle
  • beluga whale

Extirpated species

  • grizzly bear (prairie population)
  • striped bass (St. Lawrence estuary population)
  • tiger salamander (Great Lakes population)

Threats to Canada’s species at risk

There are many threats to species at risk, including overharvesting (as in the case of some species of cod or salmon being overfished) and loss of habitat due to urbanization, spread of invasive species, pollution, climate change, or fragmentation.

What is the Species at Risk Act?

Passed in 2002, the Species at Risk Act (SARA) came into full effect in 2004. The intention of this federal law is threefold:

  • to prevent at-risk species from becoming further endangered, threatened, extinct, or extirpated
  • to help recover at-risk species
  • to prevent species of special concern from becoming at-risk species

In order for a plant or animal to come under the protection of SARA, it needs to be recognized by the Government of Canada as one of the following: extinct, extirpated, endangered, or threatened.

This occurs through environmental assessment, consultations with scientists and the public, and, in particular, on the recommendation of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Once legally recognized, it becomes illegal to collect, trade, or otherwise harm that species directly or by destroying its dwelling or habitat on federal Crown land.

SARA: the good, the weak, and the not used

“SARA was a great step; we now have an act that protects species at risk,” says Dr. S., a conservation biologist in Nova Scotia who asked to remain unnamed. “Overall, it is good, but where it suffers is where it’s both a conservation document and a political document.”

Political expediencies

Although COSEWIC, an independent, scientific, at-arm’s-length-from-government body, is responsible for advising the government about species at risk, it is ultimately up to the environment minister to decide if a species, as recommended by COSEWIC, gets recognized and placed under protection of the act.

However, “there are built-in safeguards,” says Dr. S. “The government has to publicly say why they’re not going to list something [recommended by COSEWIC], and that has happened particularly with commercially viable species, such as cod. That is within the political restrictions of the act, and they’ve done it for sound political reasons.”

Despite what seems like a transparent process, Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings, president of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE) and past chair of COSEWIC, has expressed concern about how the government ultimately makes decisions on whether a COSEWIC-suggested species should be recognized or not.

Questionable analysis

Much of the government’s decision is based on a socio-economic analysis, known as a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA). These RIAs are not subject to external peer review to determine legitimacy or scientific credibility.

“One good example of a scientifically suspect RIA was the socio-economic analysis that supported the decision in 2005 not to list Atlantic cod,” says Hutchings. “The RIA was based on the supposition that listing of cod would result in closure of all fisheries that captured cod accidentally, or incidentally. This supposition (a closure of bycatch fisheries) was contrary to the scientific advice received by the DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] minister.”

Lack of funding

Lack of funding available to use SARA properly is also considered a serious challenge, according to Dr. Sherman Boates, biologist with the Department of Natural Resources in Nova Scotia. “Mobilizing people and resources around the law is a fundamental problem—we haven’t even properly implemented the first [current] SARA yet.”

Reasonable fear of change

It is interesting, then, that given some of the criticisms and weaknesses of SARA, environmentalists and conservation biologists are not happy about the environment minister’s announcement to review SARA and make changes to make it more effective.

“When [Peter Kent] made the announcement to review SARA he used language I think would be welcomed by conservationists,” says Dr. S. “The act, like any document, needs to be reviewed periodically [to identify inefficiencies].

“However, like many other conservation biologists, I am fearful of what the outcome of the review will be … the basis for [this fear] is what the federal government did in the last omnibus bill with all kinds of environmental legislation. I don’t think this is an unreasonable fear.”

More disregard for scientific research?

The uproar that has resulted from the environment minister’s announcement to revisit SARA is, more than anything else, indicative of the level of distrust scientists and environmentalists have of the current government, who have time and time again sought to undermine scientific research and ignore scientific evidence pertaining to several environmental concerns.

Changes: To be determined

Currently, it is not known what sorts of changes the government will propose to make to SARA. Last year Hutchings wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of CSEE, to urge him against revisiting SARA, stating it would be “unwise, premature, and unhelpful.”

However, when asked whether SARA could conceivably be improved in order to make it more efficient and effective, Hutchings did make two important suggestions that would increase transparency and accountability in the recovery of at-risk species.

Allow RIAs to be open to external peer review to increase their scientific credibility, and ensure decisions to leave a species out of SARA are based on sound evidence and not poorly conducted analysis.

Although it would be controversial, amend SARA “in such a way that, under some conditions, it could be permissible to ‘take’ and sell a listed species as part of a harvesting plan that was authorized by an official recovery strategy.”

The idea behind such a suggestion, which seems at odds with the objectives of what a species recovery plan should be, is that it would not only increase the chances that a marine fish would be listed under SARA, but also allow the species to be harvested under a monitored recovery strategy that would be guided by specific targets set out by SARA. This would be particularly important for the recovery of commercially viable species such as northern Atlantic cod.

A fine balance

Although environmental legislation almost always requires the balancing of conservation needs with socio-economic needs, it is important that we don’t make environmental and ecological sacrifices for the sake of short-term, quick-fix socio-economic goals.

Refusing protection for species considered commercially viable may save jobs in the short-term, but will ultimately cause economic hardship in the future when the species becomes severely endangered or extinct because of overharvesting, loss of habitat, pollution, or climate change.

“Ultimately, protecting species at risk is not just about these interesting and unique plants and critters,” says Boates. “It’s about taking care of environmental changes that are also affecting people. The Species at Risk Act is about a larger biodiversity agenda that affects the needs of people too.” 

Ecojustice report card

A recent analysis titled Failure to Protect: Grading Canada’s Species at Risk Laws has resulted in poor grades across the country. The grades assessed by the Ecojustice report were based on the commitment of federal, provincial, and territorial governments to following these four cornerstones for saving species at risk:

  • Identify species that need help.
  • Don’t kill them.
  • Give them a home.
  • Help them recover.

If the federal government were to amend SARA by downloading more responsibilities to the provinces and territories, we would be in serious trouble. Here’s how the grades stack up:

Province or territory Grade
British Columbia  F
Alberta   F
Saskatchewan F
Manitoba C-
Ontario C+
Quebec C-
New Brunswick D+
Prince Edward Island D
Newfoundland and Labrador C-
Nova Scotia C
Yukon F
Northwest Territories D+
Nunavut C-
Government of Canada C-

Want to get involved?

  • Contact your member of Parliament. Changes to SARA are, as of yet, undetermined. Let your MP know you will be watching, and that you expect any changes made to not put Canada’s at-risk species in further danger.
  • Encourage your provincial government to enact better species-at-risk laws. We can do better!
  • Learn more about Canada’s at-risk species by visiting COSEWIC’s website, www.cosewic.gc.ca.
  • Check out the petition sponsored by Ecojustice, “Save Canada’s Species Before It’s Too Late” at ecojustice.ca.

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