1999 Scientists' Letter


February 24, 1999

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien
80 Wellington St Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister,

It has been nearly three years since many of us first wrote to the Minister of the Environment to express support for strong federal legislation to protect endangered species and their habitats, and to ask that the Liberal government fulfill its campaign promise to deliver this legislation. While we commend your government for tabling an endangered species bill in the previous Parliament (Bill C- 65, which died on the Order Paper), it is with deep concern that we note scientifically important principles for species preservation were not followed in that bill. As your government prepares its new endangered species bill, we are writing again to reiterate our recommendations, and to emphasize that the bill will require significant strengthening to ensure the survival of Canada's endangered species.


Identifying and listing of species at risk is the foundation of endangered species protection. Your government recognized this in its 1995 legislative proposal, and agreed that species at risk should be identified and listed by COSEWIC -- an independent committee of scientists drawn mainly from government and academia -- and that mandatory legal listing should follow COSEWIC's determinations.

Since then, your government has abandoned this principle in two ways. First, the federal Environment Minister recently decided to strip most of COSEWIC's non-governmental scientists of their voting rights. This change (which was made without public notice) weakens COSEWIC's independence by opening the door to political interference in species listings. In our view, there is a danger that governments will pressure their staff scientists to vote the "right" way.

Second, the former Bill C-65 gave Cabinet the power to override COSEWIC's list of species at risk. This would reduce COSEWIC to merely recommending that a species be listed, and would mean that species which are scientifically known to be at risk could be legally neglected.

This is unacceptable. It is scientific findings -- and scientific findings alone -- that should determine if a species needs to be listed as endangered. Scientists, by their expertise and independence, are better situated than politicians to judge the state of a species. Canada's endangered species are too imperiled, too close to extinction, and too precious to be held hostage to lobbyists, political manipulation, or simple ignorance.


Two previous letters from the scientific community (dated February 1997 and October 1995) stated explicitly that one cannot protect species at risk without protecting their habitats -- places where species feed, breed, rear their young, and so on -- that are critical to their survival and recovery. These habitats can be geographically dispersed and are not confined within political boundaries, but must each be effectively protected to ensure a species' well being. The effect of failing to protect habitat is very well understood: over 80% of the species listed by COSEWIC are at risk because their habitats are threatened, and more species are being listed yearly (from 291 to 307 this year alone).

The new bill must significantly improve on the former Bill C-65, which protected the habitats of fewer than half of Canada's endangered species. That bill protected habitats of only aquatic species and species on federal lands -- lands amounting to under five percent of Canada's land mass south of sixty degrees. Of particular concern, it did not protect the habitats of most species that range or migrate over Canada's international borders, an omission that is radically at odds with Canada's treaty obligations and which guarantees Canada would contribute to the decline of species elsewhere. To be effective the new bill must create a national legal standard for habitat protection for all species; not fragments of protection for a few species.

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We regret that although these same weaknesses were identified in earlier recommendations from the scientific community, your government has failed to address them. Legal listing of species for protection must be done by COSEWIC and be based solely on scientific considerations. Transboundary species of all kinds require federal protection in a manner that ensures Canada meets its international obligations. And without nationwide, comprehensive habitat conservation -- an essential part of species protection -- the endangered species bill will be meaningless. Can you assure us that your government's new bill will include mandatory protection for all scientifically listed species, and nationwide habitat protection? Anything less will be scientifically unacceptable.


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