Posted on January 18, 2010 (updated: January 18, 2010)

Species at Risk Act only working for the Banff Springs snail

OTTAWA – When it comes to saving Canada’s most vulnerable plants and animals from extinction, a new report card by conservation groups shows the federal government has failed miserably – ducking its own laws and ignoring scientific evidence to avoid protecting habitat essential for species’ survival. Unless significant changes are made to the implementation of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), it will have a legacy of protecting little more than the diminutive Banff Springs Snail.

The report card, produced by Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund), David Suzuki Foundation, Nature Canada and Environmental Defence coincides with the mandatory five-year review of the Act. It exposes a federal government that is dodging its legal responsibilities. A grade of ‘F’ is doled out twice in the report: first for failing to take Measures to protect the habitat of at-risk species, and again for refusing to ever employ the federal “safety net,” which is meant to protect SARA-listed species under provincial jurisdiction when provincial governments fail to protect them.

“There are 449 species listed under SARA and next to none are receiving adequate protection. Instead of working to protect Canada’s endangered species, the federal government is working to evade the law intended to protect them,” said Susan Pinkus, Ecojustice conservation biologist.

Indeed, resident killer whales are the only species to have been given habitat protection outside of existing parks, and only following litigation by environmental organizations.

So far, the Banff Springs Snail, which exists only in Banff National Park, is the sole species to be given an action plan in the Act’s six-year history. Countless other species like the Boreal woodland caribou, Northern spotted owl and polar bear continue to disappear with no effective help from the federal government.

“The Act itself actually has strong components, such as the required identification and protection of habitat that species need to survive and recover, based on the best available science,” said Rachel Plotkin, biodiversity policy analyst, David Suzuki Foundation.

The report card singles out the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as the worst offender for routinely failing to even acknowledge that marine fish need SARA’s protection. The federal government receives listing recommendations from COSEWIC, a body of independent scientists. While 77 per cent of COSEWIC species have been listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, a mere 35 per cent of the marine fish species assessed by COSEWIC have been listed, and none of these were in categories that lead to any protection from harm.

“We’re seeing a consistent pattern of failure,” said Aaron Freeman, policy director for Environmental Defence. “For seven years, scientists have been presenting clear data on how to save endangered plants and animals, but bureaucrats are ignoring this evidence, pretending they don’t know which species are endangered, where these species live, or how to help them.”

“Our hope is that the five-year review will put a stop to government noncompliance so the Act can reach its full potential and finally give species and their habitats real protection,” said Sarah Wren, Nature Canada conservation biologist.

The announcement comes as environmental groups represented by Ecojustice are preparing for a week in court (May 4 to 7) in an effort to prove what the report card uncovers: that the federal government is unlawfully avoiding the identification of critical habitat for endangered species. The case, centering on an endangered BC minnow, the Nooksack dace, could set an important precedent requiring the government to obey the law when it comes to identifying critical habitat.

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