Species at Risk Management
- Species-at-risk in Alberta are addressed through formal processes in both the provincial and federal governments. Processes in both jurisdictions function similarly (see Features) beginning with an overview of a species to determine if the species needs further attention. This “coarse filter” separates common species, such as ravens, from species that may be at risk. This second stage is scientific in nature, with the committee responsible comprising of biologists.
- Next, a decision-making body examines the broader socio-economic implications of species protection.
- A decision is then made on the status of a species, such as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern. These categories are based on current and projected threats to the species.
- Once listed, governments work with corporate stakeholders, other government agencies and some members of the public to create a recovery plan. Normally, a recovery plan will spell out the threats and necessary corrective actions needed to enable species recovery.
Species-at-risk are implicitly addressed in Alberta’s Wildlife Act and provisions for species recovery are scarce. A few sections deal with trafficking in endangered species, consistent with the CITES treaty, to which Canada is a signatory. However, meaningful protection of habitat or the mandatory implementation of a recovery plan is absent. The only section that approximately addresses these significant concerns is Section 6(3), which states:
“Endangered species recovery plans may include population goals and identification of critical habitats and of strategies to enable populations to recover.”
There are at least four major problems with this legal structure:
- The use of the word “may” allows ministerial discretion instead of mandatory action. How can species recovery be expected without population goals, identification of critical habitat or recovery strategies? Given the history of apathy in the provincial government for dealing with environmental issues, this clause is very dangerous as it essentially allows the government power to apply this law or not.
- There is no definition of critical habitat, even though SARA explicitly sets out provisions to quantify and map critical habitat.
- There is no suggestion, mandatory or discretionary, to protect critical habitat.
- There is no definition of what a “recovered” population looks like. Although one would expect this value to change among species, there are no provisions mandating this definition, leaving it a nebulous term subject to the discretion of government and industry.
SARA, COSEWIC and the Federal Response to Endangered Species
The essence of SARA is that the federal government would rather not deal with endangered species protection if the province can adequately do so. Except for a few emergency or “safety net” provisions, SARA only applies to federal land (e.g., military bases and national parks). In this way, most of the habitat affecting species-at-risk in Alberta is not subject to the strongest provisions in SARA. One notable exception is the case of proposed drilling by Encana in the Suffield National Wildlife Area. In this case, Encana plans to expand industrial activities in an area with high numbers of federally protected species.
Recent legal action by AWA and other leading conservation organizations has brought to light the “safety net” clauses in SARA, especially with respect to habitat protection. SARA explicitly addresses the identification and protection of habitat protection, especially, as mentioned, on federal land. However, if a provincial government fails to address habitat protection of a Threatened or Endangered species, the federal government may be forced to respond. Section 80 of SARA states (note the use of the words MAY and MUST):
- The Governor in Council may, on the recommendation of the competent minister, make an emergency order to provide for the protection of a listed wildlife species.
- The competent minister must make the recommendation if he or she is of the opinion that the species faces imminent threats to its survival or recovery.
- The emergency order may:
identify habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of the species in the area to which the emergency order relates, and
include provisions prohibiting activities that may adversely affect the species and that habitat.
The action by AWA and others calls on the government to order the cessation of industrial activity in woodland caribou habitat, as well as critical habitat for the spotted owl in B.C.
This legal action was in response to the government’s failure to enact the safety clause mechanism in SARA despite clear evidence that industrial operators were hampering recovery efforts and provincial governments were absent from meaningful leadership on these issues. Indeed, an Environment Canada internal audit of the species-at-risk process clearly points out this fact:
- “Federal and provincial/territorial authorities continue to cooperate well in support of the Accord, but cooperation to date has been insufficient to ensure that the federal government can address its obligations under the Act without recourse to more unilateral action or the Act's safety net provisions.
- The SARA Assistant Deputy Ministers Committee should proceed, on an urgent basis, with development of a policy/guidance framework to support the Act's ‘safety net’ provisions. (High priority)”
The need to protect habitat is clearly recognized by the federal government. SARA explicitly documents the manner in which the government must act, through a Government-in-Council order (GIC). A 2004 internal discussion paper (pdf 115KB) on the role of critical habitat in the recovery process describes the government’s policy:
“The policy is that the Minister will recommend a GIC order protecting the habitat
of provincially/territorially listed species if:
- The province/territorial Minister requests that this be done;
- The province/territory has supplied habitat identification consistent with that outlined in this Manual for Critical Habitat; and
- The Minister is satisfied that all the appropriate consultations have been carried out by the province/territory.
The department will formally notify the Province or Territory that the federal
government is considering the use of a Safety Net order, and indicate that the
federal government is willing to work with the province/territory to put a practical
plan in place to effectively protect the Critical Habitat. A period of no more than
90 days will be allocated to this planning effort.
If after that consultation/effort the issue is still unresolved, the Minister of
Environment will recommend to the GIC that the safety net be invoked.”
The discussion paper on critical habitat goes on to describe how critical habitat should be evaluated and brought into the recovery process. There is a marked absence of anything resembling this critical habitat evaluation in provincial documents. Despite assurances from Federal lawmakers that a ‘cooperative’ approach between Ottawa and the Provinces would suffice to protect endangered species, after decades of deliberations, provincial legislators have chosen not to fulfill their international, national and provincial obligations to species-at-risk recovery.