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Provinces must up their game on species protection: federal report

Piping plovers live in every province from Quebec east. They’ve been listed as an endangered species since 1985. - June Swift

“Provincial laws are supposed to be strong enough to stand on their own, but they’re not.”

            - Florence Daviet, National Forest Program Director at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

Provincial governments are dropping the ball on species at risk protection, according to a new federal report.

As part of the federal government’s 2018 commitment to track and report on habitat protection for species at risk, the Department of Environment and Climate Change released its initial report last week, the first of a series of twice-yearly reports. The assessment reviews the provincial and territorial laws across the country, impacting the habitat of more than 200 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, from moss and flowers to turtles, snakes, and mammals.

“What we see today is that there are still big gaping holes across the country when it comes to protecting the homes of our species at risk,” said Florence Daviet, national forest program director at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

The responsibility for the conservation of species at risk is shared by both levels of government in Canada. The federal government is responsible for critical habitat protection for all species on federal lands, which includes migratory birds as well as aquatic species, while the provinces and territories are responsible for the protection of the habitat of terrestrial species on non-federally administered lands. The federal government can, however, use the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) to put in place protection of critical habitat on non-federally administered lands in emergency situations.

The wood turtle is listed as a threatened species. It resides in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. - File
The wood turtle is listed as a threatened species. It resides in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. - File

“The federal government can step in and they have stepped in, but they can’t do everything. (SARA) is not meant to carry all species at risk all the way across the country,” Daviet said.

“Because the provinces haven’t done their job, people are expecting the federal government to step in all the way across the country which is not reasonable, because that’s not their job... Provincial laws are supposed to be strong enough to stand on their own, but they’re not.”

The federal report, released last week, reviews how the current patchwork of existing provincial legislation can be used to prevent the destruction of critical habitat on non-federal lands and examines the steps already taken.

Daviet said the provinces and territories committed back in 1996 to create their own legislation, and while some have laws that offer some wildlife and habitat protection they are not as strong as SARA when it comes to putting a stop to actions that could destroy habitats, such as project permits for industrial activities.

The report found this to be true in the Atlantic region, where more than 30 different provincial acts govern the protection of habitats.

A large number of sub-groups of Caribou are listed as either endangered or threatened by the Government of Canada. They live in the farther north regions of the country from Atlantic to Pacific oceans, including Newfoundland. - Hugo Brizard
A large number of sub-groups of caribou are listed by the federal government as either endangered or threatened. They live in the far north regions of the country, from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans, including Newfoundland. - Hugo Brizard

“In the Species At Risk Act, if you’re going to have a project on federal land that’s going to impact the critical habitat of a specific species you have to apply for a permit from the federal government, and you have to prove you would not be harming the species... or that you have the mitigation measures in place,” Daviet said. “That permitting process is not well replicated if at all in other legislation that the provinces are using to manage their species at risk. There’s more discretion allowed at the provincial level than would be under the federal law, so it’s not considered equivalent.”

John Jacobs, a professor of geography and climatology who is involved with the CPAWS Newfoundland and Labrador chapter, said his province has been waiting for a new plan for protected ecological areas for more than two decades.

“The government professes to be doing stuff about it, but there’s been really no progress that we can see,” Jacobs said

“The priorities seem to be for economic activities... that are in competition with or don’t support protected areas and species.”

Daviet said the bottom line is the provinces must get their act together and develop laws with strong environmental protection to save species at risk. She said she hopes regular reports from Ottawa will begin to move things in that direction.

“The best-case scenario is that every six months we start seeing the provinces and territories developing a habit of protection, taking real steps to address these gaps until we have protected the homes of these threatened plants and animals,” Daviet said. “The current report, however, doesn’t make any promises about future actions to be taken, leaving the reader to wonder how long this habitat will continue to remain unprotected.”

The monarch butterfly is an endangered species that lives in every mainland province in Canada, although it migrates a great distance during its life. - File
The monarch butterfly is an endangered species that lives in every mainland province in Canada, although it migrates a great distance during its life. - File

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