11/16/2014 11:24 EST | Updated 01/16/2015 05:59 EST

It's a Slippery Slope for Canadian Species at Risk

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In 2012, Canada's Fisheries Act was changed so that protecting fish habitat would no longer be mandatory in all cases. The government's rationale was simple: conservation laws were overly invasive, and went "well beyond what is required to protect fish and fish habitat." Over the years, similar arguments have been made for laws that manage Canada's rivers and lakes, and for the conduct of environmental assessments on industrial projects -- we are doing too much, more than is needed to protect biodiversity.

In a new scientific article authored by myself and colleagues from the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, we have found that 86 per cent of species considered to be at risk of extinction in Canada are either deteriorating or failing to recover. Despite the fact that many of these species should be receiving protection, the government has largely failed to identify the critical habitat necessary for the species to recover, and as a result this habitat may be going unprotected.

This is bad news for biodiversity. Just like us, species need a place to live, or they go extinct.

To understand why this matters, we first have to understand how species protection works in Canada. Canada uses a two-step process for determining whether a species receives protection under our Species at Risk Act (SARA). In the first step, a group of scientists called the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) reviews the abundance, range size (or the area in which the species lives), and other parameters that may make a species particularly vulnerable (e.g. low rate of reproduction). COSEWIC does not consider how much protection may cost -- much like a doctor performing a physical exam, their only job is to assess the health of the species, and whether intervention is needed to ensure its persistence in Canada. As a result, their reports can be treated as an unbiased assessment of the true state of a given species.

In the second step, COSEWIC passes its assessment on to the federal government. Here, the Minister of the Environment decides whether the species gets the protection it needs to survive -- in this case, through listing under SARA. If the Minister decides to list, then the full might of Canada's conservation apparatus is brought to bear in support of that species. It becomes illegal to kill, sell, or trade the species, and its critical habitat (the habitat necessary for survival or recovery of the species) must be identified and protected.

We found that there are problems with the second step. In the majority of cases, the species' critical habitat has not been identified. If it's not identified, we can't be sure that it has been adequately protected. It is difficult for species to recover without habitat protection, meaning that we are unlikely to see an improvement in the trends of imperiled species in Canada. We are not the first to notice this deficiency -- similar concerns have been raised by the Auditor General, in the court of law, and in other scientific literature.

The fact that 86 per cent of species have deteriorated or remained at elevated risk of extinction is of grave concern. By definition, any species assessed as 'at-risk' has an elevated chance of going extinct. It is in our national interest to protect biodiversity and prevent extinctions, and the benefits of keeping robust ecosystems are too many to count. It is for this reason that in 1993, Canada became the first industrialized nation to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, obligating us to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainably use of our biological resources.

Canada's biodiversity is a treasure to be managed for the long-term. Unfortunately, our findings suggest that we are currently failing to do so. This conclusion has prompted my colleagues and I to draw two main conclusions. First, at-risk species in Canada are mostly not improving. This should make Canadians wary when a public figure suggests that current laws are too strong -- there is simply no support for that statement.

Secondly, we must collectively redouble our efforts to identify and protect critical habitat for species at risk of extinction. The national conservation plan has put welcome funds into conservation of private lands, but more must be done -- specifically, we must ensure that the habitat essential for survival and recovery of a species is identified and protected for all SARA-listed species.


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