We're losing the battle for diversity of life


B.C. has no law protecting species at risk of extinction, and the laws we do have aren't working


This week in Nagoya, Japan, representatives from throughout the world met to take stock of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), initiated in Rio in 1992 and aimed at protecting global biodiversity of plants, animals, and other creatures. Canada was the first industrialized nation to ratify the convention, yet two decades later it is clear that we have failed to protect species in our own country.

We are not alone. The strategic plan of the CBD, signed by Canada, aimed "to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional, and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth." But in a recent report, the executive secretary of the CBD proclaimed, "We have failed." At a global level, more than one in five vertebrate and plant species are threatened with extinction (critically endangered, endangered or threatened). Worse still, the health of many of these species continues to decline. Similar patterns are seen in Canada and, closer to home, in British Columbia.

Why have we failed? We have failed because we have not mandated protection.

Embarrassingly, we have no law in B.C. that protects species at risk of extinction.

What safety net we have within the province has holes so large that it does not protect imperilled species. Consider the following facts:

- First, the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) applies principally to federal Crown lands, yet these lands comprise only one per cent of B.C. A critically endangered animal or plant on the 94 per cent of B.C. that falls on provincial Crown lands or the five per cent on private lands requires a provincial law to mandate protection, and we (along with Alberta) do not have one.

- Second, even for species at risk that happen to live on federal Crown lands, timely action is not enforced. Of the 359 species legally listed as "at risk" under SARA, only one has an approved recovery strategy and action plan in place: the Banff spring snail, which lives entirely within a national park. Without such plans, SARA offers little protection to threatened species.

- Third, the B.C. Wildlife Act prevents the direct killing of wildlife, but this act has been spottily applied to protect endangered species. Of the 1,597 species known to be at risk of extinction in B.C., only four are legally listed under the Wildlife Act.

Importantly, there is no legal requirement to specify and preserve the critical habitat needed to prevent extinction of species at risk in our province.

Such weak legal protections are by no means the norm among developed countries: the U.S., for example, has strong and binding protections for species at risk, through their Endangered Species Act; this landmark act applies to all lands, has been enforced widely, and requires the protection of critical habitats. Canada's endangered-species legislation also pales in comparison to that of Mexico and many other nations.

B.C. is a vast and beautiful province, and its fabric is biodiversity. Our lives are sustained and fulfilled by the more than 50,000 species that make B.C. their home. These species feed us, clothe us, house us, and inspire us. In the Lower Mainland alone, the indirect benefits these species provide through clean air, water, and climate regulation were estimated by the David Suzuki Foundation at $5.4 billion annually.

Biodiversity also serves as a treasure trove of new pharmaceuticals, agricultural varieties, and evolutionary potential in the face of a changing climate. With every species that becomes extinct or is extirpated, we lose a bit of B.C.'s biodiversity capital. We don't even know what capital is being lost, as many of the values of a species are discovered only after thorough investigation. Take the Pacific yew, which was not highly valued until the cancer-fighting Taxol was found in its bark. The loss of a species is thus not only a moral tragedy -- gone, too, are potential economic and cultural benefits for all future generations.

The 200 nations meeting in Nagoya reaffirmed on Saturday their commitment to stemming the loss of biodiversity. The best place to start is at home, and now is the time to act. The premier has called together a Species at Risk Task Force to recommend a course of action with respect to protecting species within the province. Submissions are welcome until November 15, 2010 ( env.gov.bc.ca/sartaskforce/submissions.html);you need not be a scientific expert to submit. If you want and expect legislation with the guts needed to protect species in B.C., also contact your MLA and the premier.

Together, let us tell the provincial government that we care -- that we value the plants and animals that surround and sustain us. Before they are gone.

Dr. Sarah Otto is director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, CRC Chair in Theoretical and Experimental Evolution, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Dr. Kai Chan is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC.


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