By Aaron Freeman
Last year, the federal government refused a request from Canadian environmental groups to protect the spotted owl in B.C. The owl is one of the most endangered animals in Canada, its decline almost entirely due to clear-cut logging in their habitat. The federal government declined to use the Species At Risk Act (SARA) to protect the owl, arguing that federal protection is unnecessary because the B.C. government has its own management plan in place.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that the province’s plan to save the owls is actually to capture the remaining birds, place them in captivity, and continue to allow logging in the habitat. Together, the federal and provincial governments have just made an extinction decision—exactly the circumstance an effective law should prevent.
Within days of the B.C.’s spotted owl internment program coming to light, Ontario passed North America’s strongest endangered species law, one that likely would have prevented the imminent spotted owl extinction. Ontario’s new law provides valuable lessons for those on the federal environmental scene. The province’s antiquated Endangered Species Act, brought in at the dawn of disco in 1971, was an inflexible and ineffective law reviled by both landowners and environmentalists alike. A blue-ribbon task force appointed by the province recommended a new law that would more effectively protect endangered plants and animals and the places they need to survive. The new law follows nearly all of the panel’s prescriptions.
In the lead-up to the bill’s passage, media stories from the province’s hinterland gave the appearance of a groundswell of public opposition. A chainsaw-wielding Randy Hillier, former president of the anti-government Ontario Landowners Association and now a Conservative candidate for the legislature, scowled for the cameras as he threatened to bulldoze endangered species habitat before the province could enact protections. Voices in the forest industry seemed to suggest that their long-term trend of laying off workers would now be blamed (retroactively, one supposes) on the new law.
Predictions were that many opposition members, and maybe even some Liberals, might vote against the bill.
In the end, just five MPPs voted against the bill. While the bill’s critics put on an impressive show, they were shown to be resolutely fringe.
If only federal leaders had adopted Ontario’s approach five years ago when the Species At Risk Act (SARA) was passed. In their fourth and final attempt to pass an endangered species bill, the then-governing Liberals introduced a weak bill that left listing decisions solely up to politicians, and barely protected endangered species habitat on the five per cent of Canada that comprises federal lands. A parliamentary committee strengthened the bill considerably, but many of the changes were rolled back by the government at Third Reading.
In a patronizing tone, the government labeled environmentalists naïve for proposing exactly what is now enshrined into law in Canada’s largest province. The feds’ strategy was to try to placate every landowner group in the country. In catering to this lowest common denominator, they offered a level of protection that was weaker than what was being advocated by not only environmentalists, but even the forestry and mining industries. It didn’t work. Landowner groups still slammed the government, using the same extreme words used to flay Ontario’s new law. It seems the critics use the same tone for effective laws as they do for ineffective ones.
Since SARA came into force in 2003, bureaucrats have found creative ways to weaken it further. Listing decisions are delayed indefinitely through “extended consultations”— in flagrant disregard for the timelines set out in the Act. Bureaucratic failures to identify critical habitat— since you can’t save what you can’t locate—has landed the government in court with environmental groups. And there are still few policies governing enforcement and action plans for protecting and recovering species.
One year from now, Parliament is required to review the effectiveness of SARA. Bureaucrats are now beginning work on the file. They will be hard-pressed to spin this law as a success story. Ontario’s new law gives lie to the can’tbe- done excuses offered during the SARA debate. In the upcoming review, the federal government should close SARA’s loopholes and provide real protections for endangered animals and plants.
Aaron Freeman is the policy director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.