The law created to protect Canada's species at risk has failed to live up to its promise, and environmentalists fear the federal Conservative government's recently announced plans to revise it are aimed at weakening it, not giving it more teeth.
Environment Minister Peter Kent said last month that the Species At Risk Act (SARA) is due for an overhaul and he would spend this fall considering how to make it more efficient. Specifically, said the minister, recovery plans for species under threat must consider the whole ecosystem in which they live, not just the species itself.
But biologists who study endangered plants and animals says it's not the law that is flawed, it is the lack of vigour that has been applied to its implementation. And they are looking with trepidation at the government's move last spring to change the Fisheries Act by eliminating the need to protect fish habitats that are not of direct use to society.
The rewriting of the Fisheries Act eliminated obstacles that could have significantly delayed any approval of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. And the Species at Risk Act threatens to create similar roadblocks for that development. Already, a number of environmental groups are using it as the basis of a lawsuit that would force Ottawa to protect species along its route.
Given what happened to the Fisheries Act, the proposed revision of the SARA isn't about making this law more effective for species at risk, said Susan Pinkus, a senior scientist with Ecojustice Canada. "This is about making this law more expedient," said Ms. Pinkus. "And the reason we are so suspicious is that we have spent the last 10 years since the law was passed trying to get this government to implement it and they have just fought us at every turn."
Mr. Kent was unavailable for an interview last week. His spokesman said there is no timetable for changing the Species At Risk Act but there have been widespread discussions on all sides about the need for reform.
Scientists do not question that the law has been less than effective.
"It's very difficult to point to species at risk in Canada that are actually doing better now than they were 10 years ago," said Scott Findlay, a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa who took part in a conference last week in Ottawa where the first decade of the SARA was assessed. It is even more difficult, said Dr. Findlay, to point to species that are better off because of the law.
"There has been a fair amount of effort devoted to using some of the areas of the act which are unclear," he said, "especially those that allowed discretion, to reduce the ability of the act to do its job."
The SARA requires the government to prepare a recovery strategy for the more than 500 animal and plant species that are officially listed as at risk in Canada. But, according to Ecojustice, Ottawa has delayed completion of those strategies for 188 species and 87 are more than five years overdue.
If Mr. Kent wants to adopt an approach to species preservation that looks at the whole ecosystem, the existing Species At Risk Act allows for that, said Ms. Pinkus. "So go ahead, try it out," she said. "You don't need to set us back into the Stone Age to do that."
Two weeks ago, the government released the final version of its Boreal Woodland Caribou Recovery Strategy. Eric Hébert-Daly, the national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said there were some good things in it and some bad. But its mere existence can be attributed to the the Species at Risk Act.
So the act does work even if it has not been as effective as it could have been, said Mr. Hébert-Daly.
"The fear is 'are they [the government] going to gut the act entirely in the name of efficiency?'" he said. "And that's obviously a concern for us because we don't think the act is the problem, the implementation is the problem."