Nature heals us; we need to reciprocate

Nature heals us; we need to reciprocate

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

Nature heals us; we need to reciprocate

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

By Dr Sarah (Sally) Otto, Professor, Zoology & Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 3.5

Implement and enforce Canada’s Species at Risk Legislation (SARA).

A pandemic reminds us of what matters. Health, family and friends, and our connection with the world around us. Many of us have spent the last two months indoors, craving a walk in the park, a hike through the forest, and a connection with nature. While we have had to socially distance and many parks have been off limits, even walks along neighborhood gardens have provided enormous mental health benefits as we struggle to handle the stresses of this disease.

Maybe you, like me, have been hyperattentive to the return of birds from their wintering grounds and the cycle of flowers in bloom. Maybe you, like me, have appreciated our friends trying to bring more nature back into our lives with photos of animals, plants, and insects on Twitter and Facebook, perhaps with a bit of jealousy for those whose backyards provide glances of warblers and woodchucks.

Sketch of robin nestling by Leanne Cadden
'Robin Nestling', by Leanne Cadden, ink and watercolour wash.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and COVID-19 has made our hearts grow even fonder for nature.

Nature needs us to hold onto that feeling. As we ramp up our activities and economy, wildlife need our help to rebalance our priorities. We haven’t been doing a great job making sure that the world’s biological diversity can thrive alongside us.

Scientific surveys have shown that, since 1970, the abundance of wild vertebrates has declined by 60% (the Living Planet Index).  A 2019 analysis of bird surveys and radar images found that there are 2.9 billion fewer birds alive today in the United States and Canada than in 1970.  Grassland birds have been particularly hard hit, declining by over 50%.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) convened to assess the health of biodiversity concluded that, due to the cumulative human impacts from fragmenting habitat, overharvesting, pollution, and introducing invasive species, an estimated one million species are at risk of extinction. Over one in five species of vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants are at risk of extinction.

Species at Risk in Canada

Here in Canada, 829 wildlife species are at risk of extinction or have gone extinct, according to the independent scientific body charged with evaluating the data (COSEWIC – Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). 622 of these species are legally protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

SARA came into force in 2002 with the stated purpose “to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity.” Has the Act served this purpose?

Unfortunately, we lack strong biodiversity monitoring programs in Canada that would allow us to answer this question, but the evidence that we do have is worrying.

Grizzly bear in forest
Grizzly Bear (species of Special Concern). Photo by Piotr Krzeslak via Getty Images Pro/Canva

Every ten years, COSEWIC reassesses species at risk, and in the majority of cases species have remained in the same risk category (65%) or are now in a worse category (17%, moving from threatened to endangered or special concern to threatened). Of those species that have moved into a better category, most moves are not genuine improvements but reflect changes in our understanding (e.g., discovery of previously unknown populations or changes to our understanding of the interrelatedness of populations).

For those vertebrates tracked in The Living Planet Index and that are SARA-listed, annual rates of decline are even steeper after SARA came into force (2.7%) than before (1.7%).  That’s not the right direction!

Why isn’t Canada effectively protecting its species at risk?

Across the country, we’re watching as ranges contract, populations decline in size, and species teeter on the edge of extinction due to expanding human activities, from the beautiful wildflowers of the Garry oak meadows on the west coast to the Northern right whales on our east coast.

Why aren’t we seeing more improvements? Having worked with colleagues across the nation on species at risk issues for years, Figure 1 illustrates my overall assessment and how it has changed over the past five years.

SARA Report Card

Figure 1: Report card for why SARA hasn’t worked, reflecting my overall evaluation in 2015 and now, with red indicating major problems, yellow improvements, and green major improvements.

The number one problem is jurisdictional. The automatic provisions of SARA that protect species at risk and their habitats from harm apply only on Federal crown lands and waters (additional protections for aquatic species and birds are provided, e.g., by the Migratory Birds Act). But federal crown land represents a tiny sliver of this country. Here in British Columbia, for example, only 1% of the province is federal crown land, and the vast majority of that is in our national parks. Essentially, SARA protects species where they are already well protected.

Figure 2: SARA applies automatically only on federal crown land (dark brown), primarily in the National Parks of British Columbia.

Figure 2: SARA applies automatically only on federal crown land (dark brown), primarily in the National Parks of British Columbia. Image via The Nature Trust of British Columbia.

The preamble to SARA emphasizes that the “responsibility for the conservation of wildlife in Canada is shared among the governments in this country and that it is important for them to work cooperatively to pursue the establishment of complementary legislation and programs for the protection and recovery of species at risk in Canada.”

Herein lies the rub. To speak frankly, many provinces have shirked their responsibilities for protecting species at risk. In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island, there is no dedicated provincial law that complements SARA and ensures that we do save the most vulnerable species from disappearing altogether.

It is too easy for the provinces to refer to SARA as providing the protection that species need, while knowing full well that most land use decisions are made provincially. Without provincial species at risk laws, we do not have the checks and balances that ensure that we build a robust economy without driving wildlife extinct.

Western chorus frog
Western Chorus Frog. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (CC BY 2.0).

SARA does allow the Federal government to issue orders for protection on provincial land where the provinces have failed to protect (the so-called safety net provisions in sections 34 and 61 and the emergency order provisions in section 80 of the Act), but this is a political hot potato. Emergency orders have been issued only twice, protecting the western chorus frog and the greater sage-grouse. These orders are a heavy political stick that the federal government has been cautious to wield.

Figure 1 also illustrates that I am more hopeful than I was five years ago because of major strides that the current government has made. Previously, COSEWIC’s recommendations for listing under SARA suffered delays for years, and often failed to list the critical habitat needs for species, without which we didn’t know what we needed to protect. The current government has accelerated legal listings, now promises to list within two years, and has been slowly filling in the gaps on critical habitat listings.

Recent progress in protecting species at risk

Another positive step has been an initiative, called the “Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada”, aimed at identifying and prioritizing efforts to protect species at risk, backed by the 2018 federal Nature Fund with an investment of 1.3 billion over five years. We need to focus efforts on the places and actions that make a difference, and the federal government is shifting gears to do so.

1.3 billion is a major investment and it has already been used to partner with land trusts to identify and protect critical pieces of private property for biodiversity*, to work with private land owners on innovative stewardship initiatives, and to restore degraded habitats including wetlands. As a side note, protecting land where species are most endangered is important to me. I volunteer with The Nature Trust of British Columbia and serve as its Chair to help identify land that is important to biodiversity and to buy and protect this land together.

But let’s put that investment in perspective. 1.3 billion amounts to about $7 per person per year to protect the lands and waters that species need to thrive. That’s not enough. We need provinces and citizens to shore up these funds, or we will never see species at risk recovery in this country.

From the food that we eat, the paper that we write on, the transport and energy that we use, we each benefit every day in ways that are reducing and degrading the habitat that other species need to move, reproduce, and thrive in this country.

As our lives and economy return to normal following COVID-19, we need to strive for a new normal. One that places more land aside from our activities. One that diversifies our agricultural fields with hedgerows and intercropping that allow other species to thrive. One that allows natural resource extraction, but in places and at levels that do not drive species extinct.

Wood in wetland
Photo by Jim Hamilton.

These are not easy problems to solve, especially given the many jobs that rely on the old normal.

* As a side note, protecting land where species are most endangered is important to me. I volunteer with The Nature Trust of British Columbia and serve as its Chair to help identify land that is important to biodiversity and to buy and protect this land together.

What can you do to make biodiversity count?

Ultimately, to protect Canada’s endangered biodiversity, we have to work together. We have to be willing to integrate wild animals and plants alongside our farms. We have to be willing to reduce harvests where risks are too high, whether to protect endangered steelhead trout trapped in fishing nets or southern mountain caribou exposed to predation now that much of their old growth forests are gone.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the opportunity to revitalize our economy and develop job training programs that are innovative and proactive in planning for the protection of wilderness and wild species, alongside economic development to ensure healthy and vibrant communities over the long term. Governments of all jurisdictions will act to do so, however, only if our many voices are loud and clear that we want them to.

Contact your MLA, the environment Minister, or the Premier to say that protecting species at risk matters to you and that we need them to step up to the plate – enacting laws where needed and prioritizing and investing in actions to protect Canada’s biodiversity, especially its most vulnerable species at risk.

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for bi-weekly posts exploring each action.