Scientists monitoring Canada's process for identifying and protecting endangered wildlife say the system is floundering because the federal government is taking too long to list species that are deemed at risk while not doing enough to improve the status of those that are already listed.
So serious is the problem that none of the 67 species that have been recommended for listing under the Species at Risk Act for the first time since January, 2011 has been taken forward to the point where a decision to list it or not can be made, as federal legislation requires.
"There have been delays before … but what's shocked me lately is that the process has absolutely stopped," said Sarah Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, who has been tracking the backlog.
A listing under the act is a necessary first step before the government can move to protect a threatened species and its habitat on federal lands. But getting a species listed has turned into an increasingly drawn-out process.
Under the law, a government appointed-expert panel known as Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada makes detailed assessments of plant and animal species and sends recommendations for listing once a year to the minister of the environment.
It is the minister's job to then take those recommendations to cabinet. At that point, the law allows the government nine months to decide if a species should be listed or not. If no decision is issued, the law specifies that the listing should occur automatically.
However, the law does not specify how long the environment minister can take to table recommendations from the committee. The government has used this indefinite period as the time when departments under whose purview a species may fall – including Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or Parks Canada – conduct internal reviews "to determine the extent of public consultation and socio-economic analysis necessary to inform the listing decision," Jirina Vlk, a spokeswoman for Environment Canada, said in an e-mail.
Ms. Vlk added that, "Once consultations are under way, Environment Canada collects feedback from landowners, environmental organizations, industry representatives and aboriginal groups, as well as from provincial and territorial governments, which are responsible for the protection of species at risk on provincial lands."
But some scientists question how much consultation is necessary, particularly in the case of species that are widely acknowledged to be in dire need of listing.
That includes three bat species that have seen their populations reduced by 94 per cent since 2010 due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease. In February, 2012, the bats were given an emergency assessment by the committee and recommended for listing, but neither the current Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, nor her predecessor, Peter Kent, fast-tracked the bats for listing and they remain unprotected.
"The intention of the law is to get species listed without delay," said Dr. Otto. "I think somewhere along the line, the government found a way of not moving."
To date, 501 species are currently listed under the act. By Dr. Otto's count, 114 more species that have been recommended for listing by the committee remain in limbo – including all of those recommended after 2010.
"This is not about taking extra time to contemplate the status of species," said Jeremy Kerr, a conservation biologist and professor at the University of Ottawa. "This is a comprehensive across-the-board failure to permit a clearly defined process to proceed."
Members of the committee, who met in Ottawa last week, note that the problem may be one of sheer volume.
When the Species at Risk Act was launched in 2002, the process was "front-loaded" with a large number of species known to be at risk, said committee chair Eric Taylor, a professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia. After 10 years, many of those species have come up for reassessment, and much of the committee's work since 2012 has involved revisiting species that are already listed under the act.
Dr. Taylor said Environment Canada may not have the human resources necessary to cope with the steady stream of newly recommended species on top of those already on the list.
"If they had more people, then perhaps the backlog could be cleared," Dr. Taylor said.
Even then, evidence suggests that the outlook for species that manage to get listed under the act is dismal.
A recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS One showed that out of 369 listed Canadian species for which multiple assessments from the committee are available, only 14 per cent showed any improvement in status. Nearly one-third of the species showed a further deterioration. Among the factors inhibiting recovery is the fact that the government has so far identified critical habitat for only a relatively small number of listed species, another crucial step required by the act.
The poor track record shows that it's far better to maintain species so that they don't need to be listed, said Brett Favaro, a researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland and lead author of the study.
"We should be making every effort to prevent species from becoming at risk in the first place," said Dr. Favaro. "It's probably a lot cheaper and it's definitely a lot more effective."
Ms. Vlk noted that last year the Prime Minister unveiled the National Conservation Plan, which includes $50-million over five years to support voluntary actions to restore and conserve species and their habitats and another $50-million to restore wetlands. Dr. Otto applauded the measures but said they fall short of what is needed to meet Canada's targets for habitat protection under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Editor's note: Jirina Vlk is a spokeswoman for Environment Canada. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect surname.