Ecojustice Case – Nature Case Status: In Progress

Species at Risk Act Implementation

Sean NixonLawyer
Pierre SadikLawyer
Whale - species at risk
Photo: iStock

There are thousands of plant and animal species at risk in Canada. The Species at Risk Act (SARA), Canada’s national endangered species law, is meant to protect at-risk wildlife from extinction or extirpation (ceasing to exist in Canada). The law, which was passed in 2002, requires the timely identification and protection of species and their critical habitat. It’s a good law on paper, but it’s not working the way it was intended.

SARA requires that the federal government create recovery strategies for endangered and threatened species within a legislated time-frame. As of January 2014, 162 recovery strategies for threatened or endangered species were overdue, many by more than five years. For wildlife teetering on the brink of total collapse, these delays can mean the difference between recovery and extinction.

In 2014, Ecojustice lawyers went to court in a bid to force the federal government to produce recovery strategies for four at-risk species living along Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker route. The case was successful, and the ensuing judgment rebuked the federal government for chronic, unlawful delays in producing recovery strategies for vulnerable wildlife. But with so many species in need of immediate protection, it’s not feasible to rely on court actions alone to force the federal government to live up to its legal responsibilities. SARA’s failure to adequately protect at-risk species is a systemic problem that requires a systemic response.

Part of this systemic problem is underfunding. Quite simply, Environment Canada doesn’t have the resources it needs to do its job and recent funding cuts have only made problems worse. That’s why the federal government must increase funding for implementing SARA, to the tune of $40 million per year for the next five years.

Why is Ecojustice involved?

Ecojustice pushed hard for Parliament to enact SARA because we know that a strong, national endangered species law that focuses on critical habitat protection is the best way to protect biodiversity. Loss of habitat is the key cause of decline for more than 80 per cent of Canada’s at-risk wildlife. And with a slew of major industrial projects on the table —including several proposed pipelines through ecologically sensitive areas — this threat is increasing.

Since coming into force, SARA has failed to live up to its potential. In 2012, Ecojustice released Failure to Protect: Grading Canada’s Species at Risk Laws. Our research revealed that weak, inconsistent and poorly implemented laws at the provincial and federal levels are allowing species to fall through the cracks. Ecojustice is committed to ensuring that the law we helped bring into force does what it is meant to do.

What would a win mean? 

If implemented to its fullest extent, SARA would help Canada’s endangered species survive and recover. This would have several spin-off benefits. For example, these species play important roles in the natural systems that purify our air, clean our water, remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and generally support our communities. Protecting our threatened wildlife is thus critical to ensuring that our environment remains healthy in the long-term. A meaningful financial investment and show of political leadership would turn a strong law into strong on-the-ground protection for at-risk species and their critical habitat.

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