We welcome Leona Aglukkaq to her new role as the principal steward of Canada's environment. We call upon the Environment Minister to make protection of species at risk in Canada a top priority.
Ten years ago, Canada committed to protecting our endangered and threatened species by enacting the Species at Risk Act (SARA). We wish to alert Ms. Aglukkaq and the Canadian public that our government has chronically circumvented SARA by refusing to get the legal ball rolling once species at risk are identified. Files describing the most vulnerable species in Canada sit, sometimes for years, on the minister's desk.
Before a species can be protected, its status must be assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent expert panel charged with evaluating scientific evidence of species' declines and current risks. COSEWIC forwards its recommendations regarding status to the minister of the environment. The minister must then communicate these recommendations to government, sharing the files with the rest of cabinet and the governor-in-council (GiC).
The law states clearly that the government has nine months to make a decision about listing the species under SARA. The law also states that if no decision is taken, the species is automatically listed. This timeline was intended to prevent species at risk from being lost due to unintentional or willful government inaction.
However, recent ministers have decided to leave many of the files in limbo, not transmitting them to cabinet and so not starting the nine-month stopwatch. Indeed, over the last four years, 92 of the 141 COSEWIC assessments have never been officially transmitted. The result is that many endangered species in Canada are being put on hold, neither accepted as being at-risk nor officially rejected.
Who languishes in this legal limbo? Loggerhead Sea Turtles. Bobolink Blackbirds. Multiple populations of Lake Sturgeon, and even Macropis Cuckoo Bees, despite being at imminent risk of global extinction. Also waiting are three bat species (Tri-colored Bat, Little Brown Myotis, and Northern Myotis) that have declined so rapidly that the government of Nova Scotia took the extraordinary step of requesting an emergency listing decision. This emergency process is rarely invoked and is meant to lead to rapid action, in this case in response to the decimation caused by white-nose syndrome. COSEWIC determined that all three bats are threatened with imminent extinction. This assessment was delivered more than a year ago – Feb. 22, 2012 – to the desk of the environment minister, where the files still languish. Canada risks losing these species through neglect if the minister does not transmit these files and start the process of determining a recovery strategy.
Even those species that do eventually get forwarded are spending longer and longer before being transmitted to cabinet. The Atlantic White Shark waited 1,491 days. The Shortnose Sturgeon waited 1,035 days. The Red Knot, a shorebird that breeds only in the Canadian Arctic and that has declined in numbers by over 70 per cent in the last twenty years, waited 1519 days before the files were officially received by cabinet and the GiC.
This disregard for the timelines set out under SARA was identified as early as 2008, when Parliament's Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations cautioned the government that a delay on the Minister's desk was not the intent of the law.
Under SARA, the machinery for deliberating how best to protect species at risk sits idle until the species is listed. There is no planning for recovery. No meaningful public input. No guidelines for action. These steps are designed to help Canadians consider how much it will take to preserve any particular species and, ultimately, decide what actions to take.
If Canada is to save species at risk, Ms. Aglukkaq must make it a priority to decide to list within the legal nine-month waiting period. If there are legitimate reasons why this timeline is too short, then we urge her to publically set and adhere to new timelines. Such changes can be implemented through policy changes, and do not require amendment of the Act. In the end, the government can decide not to legally protect a particular species, but basic principles of accountability demand that it say so explicitly and give its reasons in a timely manner. If the government decides not to protect sea turtles, bees, or bats, Canadians deserve to know why. But the current practice of dropping species into legal limbo is inconsistent with the intent and likely the letter of the law, and it robs Canadians of their right to contribute to an informed decision about whether and how to protect species at risk. Our native species deserve better treatment.
Dr. Sarah Otto is director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia; Sue McKee is in the Department of Biology & Institute of the Environment at the University of Ottawa; Dr. Jeannette Whitton is in the Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. Also contributing to this article were Dr. Arne Mooers of Simon Fraser University, Dr. Scott Findlay of the University of Ottawa and Dr. Jeremy Kerr of the University of Ottawa.
Correction: Loggerhead turtles were mistakenly referred to as leatherback turtles in the original version of this article.