The Right Honourable Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister, House of Commons,
Ottawa ON K1A 0H6, Canada

Dear Prime Minister,

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA).  SARA’s first decade has produced mixed results for Canadian species at risk.  Despite some encouraging signs, several chronic problems persist, but we are convinced that these can be resolved through better implementation of SARA’s existing provisions.  As there is no evidence that the documented problems derive from the Act itself, we oppose re-opening this legislation.

Habitat loss is the primary cause of decline for more than 80% of Canadian species at risk.  Consistent with this scientific evidence, SARA requires adequate habitat protection, and provides tools and incentives for defining and protecting the habitat necessary for species recovery.  It is clear that the tools are vastly under-utilized: SARA has provided legal habitat protection for only 24 of the 381 threatened, endangered, or extirpated but feasible-to-recover species currently listed under the Act. On the other hand, some incentive mechanisms, such as the federal Habitat Stewardship Program that was created alongside SARA, have made a substantial difference by providing on-the-ground capacity for species recovery and conservation incentives for landowners. 

Under SARA, whether a species is at risk is determined on the basis of scientific evidence evaluated by a highly credible, independent scientific body, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.  The government then decides whether to follow the scientific advice of the committee. This structure provides some assurance that Cabinet will be provided with the best available scientific information on which to base a decision.  The law also includes a requirement to identify the critical habitat of species at risk scientifically, again with decisions about how much to protect and how to do so made separately. This clear separation of the science that informs decision from the decision itself is crucial for both public accountability and transparency, and is one of the critical strengths of SARA.

As such, we are especially concerned with any contemplated amendments to the Act that would blur the scientific and non-scientific elements of decision-making by introducing socioeconomic factors into clear, scientific determinations.  The Act provides ample opportunity to weigh issues such as jobs and the economy at various stages.  Most notably, Cabinet can (and regularly does) decline to list a species, which denies any protections under SARA for a particular species.  Socio-economic factors are also explicitly included in the Action Plan stage, where the government decides how to protect a species at risk.  However, the question of whether a species is at risk (determined at the Listing stage) and what defines a species’ known critical habitat (determined at the Recovery stage) are strictly scientific questions.  Public accountability demands that when decisions are made on the basis of considerations that override the scientific evidence, these considerations, the scientific evidence itself, and the nature of the override be presented in a clear and transparent manner.

As outlined in the recent letter to you from the president of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, most of SARA’s problems can be attributed directly to the government’s failure to comply with several of the Act’s legal requirements.  Successive governments have failed to adhere to the Act’s requirements to decide whether to list scientifically designated species for protection. They have delayed listing decisions and ignored timelines for completing Recovery Strategies, and they have ignored the requirement to identify critical habitat based on the best available information.  In a last resort to force compliance with its own law, civil society has turned to litigation; the government has lost decisively in every case. As the judge in a 2009 case concerning the Nooksack Dace noted, “This is a story about the creation and application of policy by the Minister in clear contravention of the law, and a reluctance to be held accountable for failure to follow the law.”  

This failure of implementation threatens the very survival of many species in Canada, exactly the opposite of what SARA is intended to do.  For example:

•    Northern Spotted Owl, one of the first species listed under SARA, has declined from an historic population of some 500 pairs to 12 wild birds, due to logging of the species’ old growth forest habitat. Provisions under SARA allow the government to issue an emergency order to prevent further loss of habitat, but the government has declined to act.

•    The Greater Sage-Grouse, once so abundant that it was a popular game bird, has been declining by about 50% per year for at least 6 years, and now numbers fewer than 100 individuals.  The decline has occurred largely as a result of habitat loss through oil and gas development.  Despite this dire situation, the federal government has identified only a small fraction of its critical habitat for protection, and no emergency protection has been ordered.

•    In the case of the Nooksack Dace – a small minnow affected by commercial agriculture in BC’s Fraser Valley – the government unlawfully deleted the species’ known critical habitat from the dace’s recovery strategy, reinstating it only after being ordered to do so by the courts.  Even so, years past the legal deadline specified in SARA, this species’ critical habitat is still not protected.

SARA was enacted because Canadians cherish Canada’s biological heritage.  The failure of the government to discharge its legal obligations under SARA has increased the risk that important elements of this heritage will be lost – forever. The government must implement SARA in the manner intended by its architects and expected by Canadians: by crafting solutions that meet the concerns of stakeholders while ensuring the Canada’s rich biological heritage is preserved.


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