10/02/2012 11:59 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

Provinces ill-equipped to protect fragile species at risk: report card

OTTAWA - A new analysis suggests provincial governments are in no shape to protect endangered species if the federal government decides to take a step back.

An examination by Ecojustice lawyers of laws to protect wildlife give four provinces failing grades — mainly because they have no formal regimes.

No province scores higher than Ontario at a C-plus.

The federal government gets a C-minus mainly because it has dragged its heels in many cases — sometimes delaying protection and recovery plans for years.

Environment Minister Peter Kent says he wants to overhaul the Species At Risk Act in a process that would begin this fall, but environmentalists fear he wants to lessen federal involvement and hand more responsibility to the provinces.

The federal regime has been in place for about 10 years.

Kent has said he wants to make the act more "efficient" and take an ecosystems approach to protecting fragile wildlife.

But environmentalists say they have little confidence in his intentions, after the federal budget bill last spring overhauled the environmental assessment process, dramatically changed fisheries protections, and removed impediments for pipelines.

"There's a risk that the federal government will do exactly the same thing with the Species At Risk Act as it did with those other laws. And our report shows that protection of species will only get a lot worse if the feds pass the buck to the provinces," said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice and a co-author of the report.

While he says the existing federal act has some weaknesses, the biggest problem with the legislation to date is Ottawa's unwillingness to implement it properly.

The report states that the government has delayed completion of recovery strategies for 188 species considered at risk. Of those, 87 recovery strategies are more than five years overdue.

Woodland caribou — the animal that graces the Canadian quarter — are a case in point, he said.

They are designated as a species at risk across the country, making Ottawa responsible for putting together a recovery plan. But the deadlines for such a plan have long past, and a strategy is now five years overdue — despite two years of litigation.

Another deadline on Sept. 30 came and went with no final federal plan, although sources say it could come any day now.