05/30/2011 06:14 EDT | Updated 07/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Endangered Species Act: Important, and Needs Improvement

Biodiversity is a priority for Canadians; not just for our own enjoyment, but also for the future generations, who should continue to enjoy a diverse and rich environment.

This blog was co-authored by Claudia Schmidt, a research associate at the George Morris Centre.

Biodiversity is a priority for Canadians; not just for our own enjoyment, but also future generations should continue to enjoy a diverse and rich environment. The protection of endangered species is an important element of this.

Ontario recently began the implementation of a new Endangered Species Act (ESA). It seeks to protect the over 200 species listed as endangered by safeguarding and managing habitat. This will require partnerships with rural land owners and managers. However the ESA does not clearly contemplate partnerships with land owners and managers as a critical element of implementation; it focuses more on inspections and penalties for non-compliance, with the prospect of exemptions on an approval basis.

An illustration of the challenges in ESA implementation is the bobolink. The bobolink is a small bird that was listed as endangered in June, 2010; the listing triggers a process of developing habitat management rules. One of the elements that will bear on the development of habitat management rules is that the bobolink lives in mature hay fields, and harvesting of hay may diminish the value of its habitat. A move toward limiting hay harvest could have profoundly negative effects on agriculture, notably on the dairy and beef industries. The ESA does not currently contemplate the opportunity costs associated with habitat management or accommodation of competing land uses (outside of granting exemptions). As such, the prospect for land use conflict, resistance to implementation, and reduced effectiveness of policy are very real.

Ontario recently granted a three- year exemption on regulations under the ESA for the bobolink; this could allow some opportunity for innovation in management. The government should use this period to engage private landowners and managers on the ESA. It is clear that they are central to its success, but the lack of engagement with landowners/managers would suggest that they were not fully considered in the development of ESA rules. Furthermore, the role of the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) could be expanded to assist with implementation. For example, COSSARO could help by establishing targets for the levels of protected habitat for species. It could also be useful in developing alternatives for implementation, such as tradeoffs between habitat loss in one region could be offset by habitat creation in another.

ESA rules should be less prescriptive and allowed to evolve as interaction with land owners and managers proceeds. In so doing, the regulations can provide transparency on best practices and

accommodate different parcels of land/habitat. The development, monitoring, and publicizing measures of results from the ESA, as opposed to action motivated by it, would be greatly beneficial. Doing so could elevate the legislation from largely bold statements to the driver of practical outcomes.

Measuring results will also be of assistance. As it stands, the regulatory instruments in the ESA are all sticks and few carrots. In an environment of scarce endangered species, remote locations, and real costs of compliance, it is unrealistic to think that strict compulsion can effectively implement species protection. The issue of cost compensation to induce stewardship effort must be opened up to advance the dialogue.

Moreover, the ESA should be better coordinated with existing instruments affecting land use and (especially) the provision of wildlife habitat. For example, forest management agreements contain provisions for the protection of wildlife habitat, and certain municipal bylaws may have the effect of enhancing endangered species habitat, even if that was not their intended purpose. If these can be coordinated in the implementation of the ESA, its effect could end up being complementary, or at least incremental to existing instruments.

The people who are charged with providing the habitat to protect endangered species must be engaged as part of the policy. It is hard to see how the policy could be successful otherwise.