According to Environment Canada, there are more than 525 plant and animal species — including the woodland caribou, greater sage-grouse and piping plover — at risk of disappearing from Canada.

The good news is that we have a powerful tool at our disposal to protect these wildlife creatures and help their populations survive and recover. That tool is the Species at Risk Act (SARA), Canada’s national endangered species law.

The law, passed in 2002, is intended to prevent at-risk wildlife from becoming extinct or extirpated (ceasing to exist in Canada) and provide for their recovery, largely by requiring the timely identification and protection of their critical habitat (the habitat a species needs to survive and recover).

The bad news? Slow implementation of the law, exacerbated by chronic underfunding of the law’s key policy mechanisms, means we aren’t doing nearly enough to make sure that the law works the way it was intended.

A modest proposal

So how do we right the ship and get Canada’s efforts to protect its at-risk wildlife back on track?

We can start by increasing funding for implementing SARA, to the tune of $200 million over five years. This investment will allow us to do two critical things: Address the backlog of recovery strategies and action plans, and encourage public stewardship of at-risk wildlife and their habitat.

At $40 million per year (compared to $687 million for each proposed F-35 stealth fighter) that’s an investment worth making, because protecting species invariably means protecting the natural ecosystems that we all depend on.

Delays, delays, delays

SARA can only begin to protect endangered wildlife and its habitat after the federal government has prepared a recovery strategy for it. However, numerous reports — including Ecojustice’s own research — have chronicled the lengthy delays that Canada’s endangered wildlife face before they see any kind of meaningful protection.

More than 160 at-risk species are still waiting for their recovery strategies to be developed. Many of these recovery strategies are more than five years overdue. For wildlife teetering on the brink of total collapse, these delays can mean the difference between recovery and extinction.

Earlier this year, Ecojustice lawyers went to Federal 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 ultimately successful, and the ensuring judgment rebuked the federal government for chronic, unlawful delays in producing recovery strategies for Canada’s vulnerable wildlife.

Justice Anne L. Mactavish wrote in her judgment:
It is … apparent that the delay encountered in these four cases are just the tip of the iceberg. There is clearly an enormous systemic problem within the relevant Ministries, given the respondents’ acknowledgement that there remain some 167 species at risk for which recovery strategies have not yet been developed.

Part of this “systemic problem” is underfunding. Quite simply, Environment Canada doesn’t have the resources it needs to do the job it’s supposed to do. Recent funding cuts of 20 per cent at Environment Canada have only made problems worse.

On the ground
SARA also contains a number of tools, including conservation agreements and permits, to encourage participation and buy-in from people, businesses and sectors that are active within an at-risk species’ habitat.

These tools can be used to promote the protection of species and their critical habitat and are an important aspect of SARA that has been entirely underutilized — and underfunded — to date.

Without these tools, SARA will be hard-pressed to be truly effective on the ground.

We need to act now
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 — mining in Ontario’s Ring of Fire, Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, and Labrador’s massive Muskrat Falls hydro dam — this threat is more present than ever.

We need federal leadership to ensure that Canada’s at-risk wildlife can survive and recover. We already have the tools we need — now we require a meaningful financial investment to turn a strong law on paper into strong on-the-ground protection.

By Pierre Sadik, Manager of Legislative Affairs

Piping Plover photo via Shutterstock