How Stephen Harper’s Government Screwed Over Canadian Wildlife

Scientists say Stephen Harper and co. treated the endangered animals file 'with neglect.'

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Jan 4 2016, 11:30pm

In the spring of 2010, the bobolink—an adorable little bird that was once widespread in many parts of Canada—was found to be threatened, and the committee in charge of evaluating the status of Canadian wildlife flagged the issue to government.

But by the end of their mandate, years after the dwindling creature's plight was first brought to their attention, the former Conservative government had yet to react.

This inaction was part of a bigger trend for the Harper Tories: During the party's majority rule, the protection of dozens of at-risk organisms—various plants, marine life, insects, and mammals—was put on hold.

According to information compiled by University of Ottawa researchers and obtained by VICE, between May 2011 and November 2015, less than seven percent of potentially at-risk species received government protection.

In contrast, between 2003 and May 2011 (before Harper was in office, during his minority years) an average of 88 percent of species deemed at-risk were properly evaluated and added to the endangered species list. That's a 81 percentage point drop.

So what happened?

Eric Taylor is the current chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the arms-length expert organization mandated with assessing which species are at risk of disappearing.

COSEWIC has been around since 1977, and Taylor, a professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia, has been involved since 2001. A decade later, he says the group's work suddenly became much more difficult. "The perception was that once Harper gained a majority, his somewhat tepid enthusiasm for species at risk cooled off even more so, because of course he had the parliamentary power to do that."

Here's how the process is supposed to work, according to the government's Species At Risk Act (SARA): first, COSEWIC prepares a list of species it judges to require some form of protection, which is then sent to the federal environment minister. From there, the minister has three months to agree or disagree with the assessment. If they think the species or the context require more analysis, the case is sent for further examination. Otherwise, they send the whole file for consultations after which a recommendation on whether or not to list is sent to the Governor in Council (GIC, a cabinet committee) which has nine months to make a final decision.

Legally, if the government doesn't respect those deadlines, the species are (supposed to be) automatically added to the endangered species list. Sadly, there's a loophole, and the Tories found it.

"There is a bit of a glitch in [the system]," Taylor told VICE. "Once COSEWIC passes the assessment to the minister, he or she has 90 days to issue a response statement. But once all that happens, when the minister passes the government's recommendations to the GIC, there's no timeline associated with that. Which means that before getting any kind of response, a species can sit on a shelf for years."

So the issue isn't that the creatures and plants evaluated during Harper's majority tenure were outright rejected—only three species got a definite "no," which is pretty average. Rather, the problem is that nearly 90 percent of these organisms were never sent to the GIC and thus placed in an administrative limbo, to be dealt with at a much later date.

The whole process is very complicated, and VICE reached out to University of Ottawa researcher Sue McKee to help crunch the numbers. She analyzed the data to remove duplicates (species that had been divided into different populations or combined to form a single species) as well as any files sent back for further studies.

Beyond this slowdown, Taylor says COSEWIC's very structure was also rattled by what was perceived as a form of government meddling.

"All the members of COSEWIC are appointed by the federal minister of the environment and unless those appointments come through, people cannot participate in the process." Taylor says. "Sometimes the [former] ministers didn't make the appointment—didn't not make the appointment, just never came to a decision—or sometimes they picked people we'd argued were not the most highly qualified.

"It clearly wasn't a priority for them."

Environment Canada told VICE that the whole process is just more extensive than it used to be and avoided laying blame on any political party.

"The listing of wildlife species is now more complicated than it was previously, in order to ensure that the impacts of listing on the activities of Canadians are more fully understood (at the time the decision to list is made)," Barbara Harvey, spokesperson for Environment Canada, said in an email. "It takes additional time to make sure there is a balance between species at risk conservation and analyzing the implications of listing on Canadians."

But Taylor says the Conservatives' lack of focus on biodiversity was also evident in other legislative decisions. "They devalued the protections of the Fisheries Act, they devalued the protections of the Inland Waters Protection Act, they changed the Environmental Assessment Act, and these are other pieces of legislation that are directly related to the protection of biodiversity," he said. "So it's not an unreasonable conclusion."

Even the endangered Silver Lamprey needs the government's love and protection. Photo via Flickr user USFWSmidwest

Scott Findlay, a University of Ottawa biologist who has been scrutinizing the Species at Risk program since its inception, estimates it now takes about five years for an organism to make it on to the protected species list. "The average time for species that have been in extended consultation is about 1,750 days," he says. During this period, he adds, potentially at-risk animals receive no protection.

"It's simply not on that you have species hanging in listing purgatory for years and years and years and years," Findlay says. "It's not consistent with the spirit and the intention of the [Species at Risk] Act."

The Shortnose Sturgeon was in administrative 'purgatory' for 1,035 days, so close to three years. Photo via Flickr user e_monk

For some of these organisms, the government's reaction time can be the difference between life and death, Findlay explains. "The lower a species sinks, the closer it gets to the extinction threshold, the more difficult it is to get back," he said. If the species is listed at a later date, under a more serious status ("endangered" instead of simply "special concern," for instance), the government's now-statutory obligation to recover it becomes that much more expensive. "So in my view there is a significant resource implication here."

But financial considerations can also be the impetus to not protect a species. When COSEWIC's assessments are turned down, the (publicly listed) reasons behind the refusal to protect a species are occasionally socio-economic. The porbeagle shark, for instance, wasn't added to the list because its protection could negatively affect the fishing industry.

"If listed porbeagle shark cannot be sold, costs to the fishing industry would range from $0.8 million to $1.8 million [$0.57 million USD to $1.29 million USD], with an additional potential loss of $0.7 million [$0.5 million USD] in regional spin off effects," the decision explains.

Findlay calls this specific example "ridiculous."

"There were only a few [people] that were fishing this species, and so the economic impact of listing [the porbeagle shark] would have been minuscule," he said.

At COSEWIC, Taylor deplores the lack of transparency behind the [former] government's decisions. "There may be very, very compelling socio-economic reasons as to why a species perhaps should not be listed," he said. "The problem with the reasons that the government uses to say whether a species should be listed or not is that those are very often not open to public scrutiny, they're not open to peer review like all our COSEWIC assessments."

These adorable prairie chickens are thought to no longer exists in Canada. Photo via Flickr user USFWmtnprairie

But why protect these species? Findlay calls it our "fiduciary stewardship responsibility."

"We do have all sorts of examples of species that were lost from ecosystems and communities where the loss has had a big impact, but we also have examples of species that were lost and as far as we can tell there hasn't been much impact, or maybe we just don't know about it, it's difficult to tell," he says.

"I think the most important issue is that we have this library of life on this planet and I think we're kind of obliged to keep as many of the books as we can and not burn them up by letting them go extinct," he adds.

Taylor says he's hopeful the new government will bring about change. "I think vibes coming out of Ottawa and the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change are quite positive, and I think things are going to get better in terms of commitment to species at risk issues."

In his mandate letter to the Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listed this as one of the priorities. "Enhance protection of Canada's endangered species by responding quickly to the advice of scientists and completing robust species-at-risk recovery plans in a timely way," he wrote.

Yet the new administration will need time to deal with the species backlog, Taylor warns.

"This is a legacy of the Harper government that unfortunately the Trudeau government is going to have to clean up, and we're going to have to be patient," he says. "I can't imagine how busy Catherine McKenna must be right now, quite justifiably."

Follow Brigitte Noël on Twitter.

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