Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

International Commission asked to review Canada’s SARA enforcement

A coalition of Canadian and American environmental groups has filed a formal complaint to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America (CEC), alleging that Canada is failing to enforce its Species at Risk Act.

The CEC is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States under a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Canada’s failure to protect species at risk has international significance, as many species migrate to the U.S., Mexico and other countries.

“Canada is failing its duty of care toward the nation’s wildlife,” said Julie Gelfand, Nature Canada’s President. “We want Canada to take the Species at Risk Act seriously. Canadians don’t want species to become extinct.”

The groups allege that failure by the federal government to enforce the Species at Risk Act (SARA) has led to delays in listing critically endangered species, denial of listing for some species scientifically proven to be at risk, failure to identify and protect habitat needed for survival and recovery and a complete lack of protection for species at risk in some provinces. These failures significantly jeopardize the potential of the Act to bring about species recovery, instead leading to an increased risk of extinction for Canadian species at risk.

“When is a law not a law,” asked Sierra Legal lawyer, Devon Page. “When it’s a national law to protect the environment.” Page referred to the fact that Canada has had legislation for over 35 years allowing the federal government to protect the environment where provincial actions are insufficient, but has never used this power.

Environmental groups in the U.S. also participated in the complaint: “From where we’re standing, it looks like trade agreements are failing the environment,” said Joe Scott of Washington-based Conservation Northwest. “Most Americans see Canada as a vast wilderness teaming with wildlife, but unless Canada protects its wilderness areas, this perspective is going to change,” he added.

“Both the past and current governments have failed to use SARA to protect our country’s species at risk,” said Rachel Plotkin of the Sierra Club of Canada. One grave example is the failure to protect the spotted owl–the most endangered bird in Canada. At last survey, only seventeen were counted. Conservationists petitioned the federal government to intervene to protect it in the spring of 2004. The federal Liberal government stalled for two years, and the Conservative Minister of Environment recently stated that the owls don’t face a threat to their survival in Canada.

“The current government talks about replacing talk with action, but the only action that we’re seeing is them walk away from the owl and other wildlife species,” added Plotkin.

The petition comes on the eve of a Ministers’ meeting in Yellowknife where species at risk will be addressed. The groups are concerned that the federal and provincial governments of Canada are moving towards weakening, not strengthening, implementation of the Act.

Sierra Legal submitted the complaint on behalf of the Sierra Club (U.S. and Canada), Nature Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, Conservation Northwest, Environmental Defence Canada, BC Nature (formerly Federation of BC Naturalists), Federation of Alberta Naturalists, the Natural History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nature Nova Scotia, ForestEthics, Ontario Nature, Nature Quebec, and Western Canada Wilderness Committee. The groups are seeking a response from Canada to their allegations and, ultimately, a report from the Secretariat that spotlights Canada’s failure to effectively protect endangered wildlife.

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