After 10 years of ups and downs, the legislation that protects precarious wildlife is ready for an overhaul that will kick into high gear this fall, Environment Minister Peter Kent says.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Mr. Kent said he wants to spend the next few months figuring how to make the Species At Risk Act more efficient.
In particular, he wants the recovery plans provided for in the legislation to consider whole ecosystems, rather than just species in isolation.
"There are improvements to be made," Mr. Kent said. "Sooner rather than later we need to address changes to the Species at Risk Act to be more effective."
Mr. Kent said he has already been in deep talks with wildlife experts and legal advisers about the weaknesses of the existing legislation, enacted in 2002 by the former Liberal government after years of agonizing.
But the changes are not ready to be included in the budget omnibus bill expected to be tabled soon after Parliament resumes sitting next week, he said.
That may be a bit of a relief to environmentalists.
Major changes to environmental oversight were included in the last budget bill in the spring, dramatically streamlining environmental assessment procedures, reforming the Fisheries Act and handing federal ministers more power over what kinds of projects need to be reviewed.
The scope of the bill, as well as its intent, prompted a huge outcry from the opposition and environmentalists. They accused Ottawa of abandoning federal responsibility for the environment in the name of resource development.
Now they're afraid the government wanted to use the second omnibus bill to water down the Species at Risk Act without consultation.
"They're going about making changes to major habitat protection laws....with no formal consultation process," said Ottawa-based lawyer Will Amos with Ecojustice.
"It is obvious that the Harper government is deregulating and devolving authority on environmental protection to the greatest extent possible. It comes as no surprise that this government would want to weaken and off-load endangered species legislation."
Mr. Amos, like Mr. Kent, sees many weaknesses in how the Species At Risk Act has protected vulnerable wildlife over the past decade.
Mr. Kent says flaws in the legislation became obvious the minute it took effect and have become starker over time.
But Mr. Amos says the federal government has all the tools it needs to improve that situation. All it has to do is implement the act properly.
"We've litigated this stuff and we've won every time," Mr. Amos said. "The federal government is not implementing."
The existing law is meant to develop plans that protect animals such as grizzly bears, timber rattlesnakes, woodland caribou, many types of whales, whooping cranes, screech owls and a long list of other fragile plants and creatures.
Analysis done by environmental groups argues that the federal government has dragged its feet in putting animals on the list, developing recovery plans and implementing those plans to protect habitat and restore fragile animal populations.