2001 Scientists' Letter


From: Scientists for Species

To: The Right Honourable Jean Chretien,
Prime Minister, House of Commons,
Ottawa ON K1A 0H6, Canada

Dear Sir:

Canada has a growing and neglected endangered species problem. Already 352 species of animals and plants are known to be 'at risk' of being lost, and dozens more are added to the list each year. Without effective protection, many of these species will vanish from the wild or go extinct in our lifetimes, with potentially serious effects on the ecosystems on which human life depends. Conserving the Earth's biological diversity is one of the major challenges of our time.

We are encouraged to see that the Government of Canada, after two earlier failures, has introduced a bill to protect endangered species, the Species At Risk Act (SARA). Were it meaningfully strong, SARA could both meet the needs of species and fill a void in Canada's environmental laws: one that Canada must fill to meet its international obligations under the Biological Diversity Convention.

Though SARA does have some positive features, it falls far short of providing the protection needed to safeguard our endangered wildlife. In key areas, such as habitat protection, it is not as strong as existing laws in the U.S. and Mexico. For SARA to be effective, there are several critical shortcomings that must be addressed before the Bill is passed into law.

Scientists worldwide recognize that the key to saving species is preserving and restoring their habitats -- the places where they feed, breed, and raise their young. Species protection without habitat protection is nearly always a scientific impossibility. A homeless species is a doomed one.

Remarkably, the proposed SARA still fails to require habitat protection. It prohibits the destruction of an animal's nest or den, but not the rest of its habitat -- which is comparable to protecting a person's bedroom, but not the rest of their house or neighbourhood. The Bill says that a species' critical habitat "may" -- not "will" -- be protected. This is deeply disappointing. For the Act to have a real impact on endangered species conservation, habitat protection must be a requirement, not a political option.

The proposed Bill does not even require habitat protection on federal lands and in areas of federal responsibility, which is a step backwards from the 1997 federal Bill (C-65). It is particularly important that the federal government take the lead in protecting the habitat of the many species that migrate or range across Canada's national borders. Such shared species require cross-border protection that only the federal government can provide. The U.S. and Mexican endangered species laws make habitat protection mandatory for cross-border species, and the absence of similar protection in Canada could seriously undermine these international efforts.

Mandatory habitat protection must be combined with on-the-ground conservation work, and Minister Anderson's recent funding announcements are a generous step towards this. But all funding and habitat conservation efforts must be built on a law that ensures endangered species and their habitats _will_ be protected in all cases -- which the current Bill does not do.

Determining when a species is endangered is an inherently scientific exercise that should not involve politics. To be credible, the law must have an independent, science-based process for assessing and listing species at risk. Regrettably, the proposed SARA gives science a back seat to politics in the listing process. To correct this fundamental flaw, four basic changes are needed.

First, the existing, science-based list of species at risk should be used as the starting list in the new Act, as was done in the 1997 Bill. This list has been developed and updated over 22 years by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada ("COSEWIC"), a respected body of federal, provincial and independent wildlife experts. COSEWIC's recent review (using IUCN criteria) confirms the veracity of this list. SARA's current approach of starting without any species listed is illogical, since a credible list is readily available.

Second, it is critical to safeguard COSEWIC's independence and expertise. This can be accomplished by
(i) mandating that respected scientific bodies, such as the Royal Society of Canada, be consulted on all COSEWIC appointments, and
(ii) requiring that at least half of COSEWIC's members come from outside government. These changes will help ensure that COSEWIC remains a scientific body, free from political interference.

Third, COSEWIC scientists, not politicians, should decide which species to list as endangered. As proposed, SARA will allow Cabinet to pick and choose from among COSEWIC's listings. This is a formula for political meddling that will no doubt result in many species being omitted from the legal list. It is appropriate for politicians to make decisions about the protection of endangered species, but decisions about the assessment and listing of species should be made by scientists. At the very least, COSEWIC's listing decisions should take effect within a fixed time (say 60 days) unless Cabinet exercises a 'veto' and provides reasons.

Finally, the original definition of "wildlife species" from the 1997 Bill should be reinstated: for the purposes of listing, "species" should include "geographically or genetically distinct populations". The proposed Bill uses the term "biologically distinct population", which is scientifically vague and inconsistent with COSEWIC's current approach.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

We commend the government for bringing forward legislation to protect species at risk. We do recognize that SARA has some good features for instance, it requires recovery plans for listed species at risk. However, the Bill has several critical flaws that must be addressed if it is to be effective at saving species. We urge you to:
(i) ensure mandatory habitat protection for endangered species within federal jurisdiction, including ones that migrate across Canada's borders;
(ii) adopt the current COSEWIC list as the starting list in the Act;
(iii) add measures to safeguard COSEWIC's independence and expertise;
(iv) respect COSEWIC's future listing decisions; and
(v) return to the original definition of "wildlife species".

These changes are required to make the Act scientifically sound. Without them, many more of Canada's wild species will continue to decline towards extinction.

Canada's diversity of wild species is more than just a source of national pride; biodiversity is critical to the country's ecological and economic well-being. If the above improvements are made, this law will make an important contribution towards preserving the ecological health of Canada, and North America, for many generations to come.

Signed by 1331 Scientists

- Back to Letter Campaign -