1997 Scientists' Letter


February 3, 1997

The Right Honourable Jean Chretien
Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa ON K1A 0A6

Dear Prime Minister,

The federal government has introduced in Parliament an Act to protect Canada's endangered species. Such a law is long overdue in Canada, and is much needed to address the growing array of threats to Canada's wild species and to fulfill our commitment under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. While the new Act is a step forward from the 1995 legislative proposal in some areas (such as the automatic prohibition against directly harming a listed endangered species), it contains several significant deficiencies which must be addressed to make it an effective law.

First and foremost, the proposed Act does not ensure protection of the habitats of endangered species. This is a critical omission. There is widespread agreement among biologists that habitat loss is the leading cause of species extinction. While the Act does require that threats to a species' habitat be addressed in a recovery plan, these plans have no legal force and the Act does not require that they be implemented. For the Act to have any real impact on endangered species conservation, it must require legal protection of endangered species' habitats in all cases.

Second, the Act only applies to a limited number of species, namely species living on federal lands, aquatic species, and most migratory birds (i.e., excluding raptors). Less than half of Canada's endangered species will receive significant legal protection under the Act. Less than one quarter of Canada's plant species at risk will receive any protection at all under the Act. All species play an important role in the functioning of ecosystems upon which human life depends, and all must be protected. It is particularly important that the federal Act ensure protection of endangered species that range or migrate across provincial or international borders; such species need cross-border protection that only the federal government can provide. The Act currently offers only the option of future regulations to protect international cross-border animal species at risk.

Third, the Act does not even allow the government to protect the habitat of cross-border species or migratory birds at risk. As indicated above, for the Act to effectively protect such species, habitat protection must not only be allowed, it must be required.

Fourth, the Act allows the federal Cabinet, not the scientific committee (COSEWIC), to make decisions about the listing of species at risk. This aspect of the Act is a step backwards from the 1995 proposal. The identification of species at risk should be made purely on considerations of conservation biology, not politics. Allowing political interference with the listing process threatens to undermine the credibility of the entire Act.

Canada's rich biological heritage is at risk as never before. The adoption of a strong endangered species law could represent an important step towards preserving biological diversity in Canada. The new Act offers some improvements over the 1995 legislative proposal but on the whole it still does not provide adequate protection to ensure the survival of most endangered species in Canada. We urge the federal government to strengthen the Act by addressing the problems we have outlined above. Provincial governments should quickly follow suit.



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