Scientists Want Tougher Endangered Species Law

From Science (24 Aug., v. 293, p. 1417)

by Jay Withgott

Canadian biologists are trying to toughen proposed legislation designed to protect endangered species in Canada. Their stance puts them in the awkward position of resisting government efforts, almost a decade in the making, to pass the nation's first federal law on the issue.

After changes in government derailed two previous attempts (Science, 13 December 1996, p. 1827), the chances of passage of the proposed Species at Risk Act (SARA) this fall appear good. But many scientists believe that it doesn't do enough to protect species' habitat, and they want a scientific panel, not politicians, to have the final say in deciding which species are listed.

SARA differs from the equivalent U.S. Endangered Species Act in seeking first to work cooperatively with landowners and industry, offering incentives and financial compensation; enforcement of yet-to-be written regulations would be used only as a last resort. "We do not want to hamstring our own efforts to recover species with a confrontational and immediately prohibitive approach," Environment Minister David Anderson told Science. "We want to promote voluntary action, individual responsibility, and cooperative, community-based solutions." The goal, Anderson adds, is to produce "legislation that is effective on the ground, not just 'strong' on paper."

But a number of scientists say that this particular carrot-and-stick approach is too much carrot and not enough stick. The bill provides no mandatory protection for species' habitats, they say, safeguarding "residences" such as dens or nest sites but leaving the designation of habitat and enforcement mechanisms open to influence from local and regional officials, landowners, and industry. "Anyone with Ecology 101 knows that without habitat, it is impossible for species to survive," says ecologist David Schindler of the University of Alberta, one of the organizers of a letter being drafted to Prime Minister Jean Chretien ( that lays out their arguments. Scientists also find fault with the proposed listing process. A panel of experts, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), has long maintained a list of species recommended for protection under the act (see graph), and scientists would like to see COSEWIC have the legal authority for listing species. But the bill leaves the decision on listing to Cabinet ministers. Scientists also worry that the federal government will defer to provincial governments in enforcing the act. "Appeasing the provinces seems to be in vogue in Canada, so when the provincial bullies snarl, federal ministers turn and run," Schindler says. He and others say that federal control is key for the 70% of threatened and endangered species, such as grizzly bears, wolves, and migratory birds, whose ranges extend into the United States. "It's really embarrassing that both Mexico and the United States have stronger laws," says environmental lawyer Kate Smallwood of Sierra Legal Defense Fund, who is working with the scientists.

Not all of Canada's scientists oppose the bill, however, and many fear that too much criticism from biologists may derail it. "Anderson has gone an awful long way for this and is really doing a lot to make it happen," says Fred Cooke, an ornithologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Canada's collaboration with industry, he adds, seems to be working better than the U.S. approach in helping such species as the marbled murrelet.

In contrast, a prominent legislator suggests that scientists might want to make an even bigger fuss. Charles Caccia, a longtime proponent of strong endangered species legislation and chair of Parliament's Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, says that some members of his committee "wish that scientists would be more forthcoming, more politically explicit" in explaining what changes are needed. Caccia's committee will consider amendments to the bill next month before forwarding it to the House of Commons.

Jay Withgott writes from San Francisco.

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