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Ottawa doesn't give a hoot for species at risk

Remember the old saying "extinction is forever"? Well, someone should try explaining that to the governments of Canada and British Columbia. They haven't quite figured it out yet. Or if they have, they just don't seem to care.

Canada's few remaining spotted owls are in dire straits. Less than 100 years ago, an estimated 500 mating pairs thrived in southwestern British Columbia's old-growth forests. Today, there are just six pairs left in B.C., along with a handful of singles.

Yet, neither government is willing to do anything to save them. In fact, you could say that it is official policy of these two governments to allow the spotted owl to quietly go extinct in this country.

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The situation is a far cry from what was promised when Canada finally and belatedly adopted legislation to protect endangered species -- long after the United States and Mexico had their own laws. While Ottawa trumpeted the new Species at Risk Act as a breakthrough, environmental groups complained that holes in the legislation were big enough to drive a logging truck through.

Turns out they were right -- and the spotted owl will likely be the first victim. Clear-cut logging, sanctioned by the B.C. government, continues in their last remaining habitat, and Ottawa refuses to intervene. The main problem is that Canada's endangered species legislation only requires the federal government to act if the species in question is on federal government land -- which makes up less than 5 per cent of the country. And since spotted owls don't usually nest on military bases or in those anonymous civil servant bunkers in Ottawa, it leaves them -- and most species occupying the other 95 per cent of Canada's vast landscape -- unprotected.

But there is a discretionary provision that gives the federal government power to intervene on provincial land in emergency cases where the province has failed to protect an endangered species. In the case of the spotted owl, the failure is clear. The owl is Canada's most endangered bird. Yet, not only does the B.C. government allow logging in the last of the bird's habitat, it is actively encouraging logging through its Timber Sales Program. And it has slashed funding for its Spotted Owl Recovery Program.

Without immediate intervention, the spotted owl is as good as gone. And it won't be the last species to die out while supposedly under the "protective" wing of Canada's Species at Risk Act. Many of the 500 species in Canada currently listed "at risk" by the science body governing species at risk are critically imperilled. And if the federal government is unwilling to step up for the spotted owl, it sets a depressing precedent for the other 499.

Even the recommendations made by the government's science panel regarding which species to list as threatened or endangered is being challenged. In recent months, the federal government has refused to list northwestern grizzlies, western wolverines, and two highly imperilled populations of sockeye salmon as species at risk -- despite the panel's recommendation. So politicians are not only deciding which species are worth saving, but which species are actually endangered in the first place. This distortion of science is something more akin to what would be expected of the Bush administration, not the Canadian government.

Before the Species at Risk Act was adopted, I was asked by a reporter whether I thought the legislation would make a difference. I replied that it had potential, but only if politicians heeded the science and were willing to take action. So far, they haven't done either, and the spotted owl could soon be history because of it.

David Suzuki is chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation.

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