Safeguard Species At Risk, Canadians Urge Chretien

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, February 12, 2002 (ENS) - Carrying new petitions signed by nearly 60,000 people, Canadian conservationists today urged Prime Minister Jean Chretien to ensure that a strengthened version of the Species at Risk Act, supported by members of all political parties, is quickly passed.

Canada has 364 species that are recognized as endangered or at risk. Presently, there is no federal law to protect these species, although the federal government has been promising endangered species legislation since 1994. Bills to protect endangered species introduced in 1996 and 2002 never made it to the Prime Minister's desk for signature into law.

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Belugas in the St. Lawrence estuary (Photo courtesy Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS))
Twenty-seven species have gone extinct within in Canada in the past 150 years. The main threat facing endangered species is habitat destruction, and some of Canada's best loved species - the beluga whale, woodland caribou, burrowing owl, and grizzly bear - could vanish from the wild unless strong steps are taken to protect them and their habitats, conservation groups say.

Environment Minister David Anderson introduced the latest version of the Species at Risk Act in the House of Commons February 2, 2001. The act went to the House of Commons Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development where it was strengthened, conservation groups say.

Kate Smallwood, director of Sierra Legal Defence Fund's Endangered Species Program, said the committee improved the act with amendments that further protected wildlife habitat and improved science based listing of species at risk. "We urge the Prime Minister to take one more step forward and pass the amended Species at Risk Act," she said today.

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The piping plover was declared endangered in 1985. (Photo Winnifred Cairns Wake courtesy CWS)
The call by leaders of some of Canada's most influential environmental groups comes due to growing fear that key provisions in the proposed Act could be removed.

"Prime Minister Chretien, we're here today to urge you not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," said Rick Smith, national director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "The Environment Committee has reached an historic compromise on the Species at Risk Act. Supporting its work would help ensure that Canadians do not witness the extinction of cherished species including grizzlies, killer whales and swift fox," he said.

Speaking of the government's response to previous attempts at legislation to protect endangered species, attorney Elizabeth May, who is executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, said, "The litmus test of democracy is the response of central power to the voices of democratically elected MPs."

The Sierra Club of Canada was a member of the industry-environment coalition, the Species at Risk Working Group, which contributed to discussions on the legislation.

"Twice before, the committee's work has been rejected," May said. "Parliamentarians put partisan politics aside to create a stronger law, based on a foundation of broad stakeholder support. They have improved the bill. The Prime Minister must not strike out their improvements a third time."

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Endangered narwhales, with their distinctive single tusks, swim in Admiralty Inlet, Baffin Island (Photo by Pierre Dupuis courtesy Canadian Wildlife Service)
Environment Minister David Anderson says the Act complements the roles of the provinces and territories, and involves landowners, land users, Aboriginal peoples and citizens in the recovery process. Other features include use of the best available scientific, Aboriginal traditional and community knowledge in the assessment process and in the design of recovery planning, as well as incentives for conservation measures and compensation provisions.

"Canadians from coast to coast have written to the Prime Minister in support of an effective endangered species law. Thanks to the Environment Committee, we now have a better law. Let's get on with the job of implementing it urged Julie Gelfand," executive director of the Canadian Nature Federation.

Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said, "We're eager to commence the important work of protecting endangered species across Canada. This is the government's third attempt to pass endangered species legislation, and it should be their last. Let's pass the law as amended by the Committee and get to work," he said.

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Canadian grizzly bear range no longer includes the prairies. (Photo courtesy CWS)
The Species at Risk Act is complemented by a Habitat Stewardship Program that empowers Canadians to take voluntary actions to protect habitat, and the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk that unifies the efforts of provinces, territories and the Government of Canada on this issue.

"Our approach is already producing results through voluntary activities by Canadians who are taking action to help protect species, protect habitat and conserve biodiversity where it matters most - on the land and in our streams, oceans and forests," said Anderson.

Budget 2000 contained a government of Canada commitment of C$90 million over three years, and stabilized funding of $45 million in subsequent years for the protection of species at risk.

But the Sierra Legal Defence Fund says the amount provided - about C$15 million a year - is only "a fraction of what is needed" to help recover existing species at risk, a figure the group puts at about C$50 million a year for on the ground conservation, not funds for bureaucratic costs.

Through the Habitat Stewardship Program, the Canadian government has contributed at least five million dollars to over 60 partnership projects with local and regional organizations and communities.

Budget 2000 also made it easier for Canadians to donate ecologically sensitive lands and easements by reducing the capital gains arising from such donations through the EcoGifts Program, Anderson said. These partnership and incentives programs are expected to extend habitat protection in all parts of Canada.