Caribou

B.C. stalls on promise to enact endangered species law

The province is home to more species at risk than any other and is one of only three provinces that lacks stand-alone legislation to protect endangered species

The B.C. government is backpedalling on a commitment to enact an endangered species law in 2020, sparking concern from scientists who say time is running out to save the province’s 1,800 species at risk.

“There’s no significant species at risk legislation on the docket for the foreseeable future here in B.C. … ,” Premier John Horgan told reporters this week, nearly two years after his mandate letter to Environment Minister George Heyman included instructions to “enact an endangered species law.”

The environment ministry confirmed that a plan to introduce legislation in 2020 — already pushed back from 2019 — is off the table but provided no details about why.

UBC biologist Sally Otto, who sits on the federal species at risk advisory committee, called Horgan’s comments “a troubling sign from government.”

“It’s like being a doctor and having a patient come in and knowing that they’re not well but not doing anything about it,” Otto told The Narwhal.

“The sooner we act the sooner the patient will recover and the more options we will have. We won’t have to go to the hard-core medicines.”

Otto pointed to the recent local extinction of the South Selkirk and South Purcell caribou herds and to the functional extinction of the northern spotted owl in B.C. as examples of what could happen to more at-risk species in B.C. if legislation to protect them is further delayed.

“As a scientist, it’s very hard for me to watch as populations blip out, to see these declines year after year and think that we as a society are not taking responsibility to prevent that from happening,” she said. “We’re the ones on watch. And we are watching as species decline.”

“As a scientist, it’s very hard for me to watch as populations blip out.”

Scientists say our planet is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals and is experiencing the most rapid loss of species since the elimination of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Scientists estimate as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species may be headed toward extinction by 2050.

Horgan made the comment about B.C.’s species at risk legislation as he announced a one-month extension to community consultations about draft conservation plans to protect highly endangered southern mountain caribou.

The plans have engendered widespread misinformation and racist comments about First Nations who are leading complex and expensive efforts to try to pull Peace region caribou herds back from the brink of extinction.

Horgan implied that controversy around the caribou conservation plans may influence the timing of stand-alone provincial species legislation.

After decades of inaction, the B.C. government was compelled to work on the conservation plans or risk a federal emergency protection order for caribou that would allow Ottawa to make decisions normally within the jurisdiction of the province, such as whether or not to grant logging permits.

“Now as we’re feeling the consequences of the federal legislation, that will help inform us going forward in terms of our legislative timetable and what we’re going to be bringing forward,” the premier said.

Asked if the government still plans to introduce endangered species legislation during its current mandate, the environment ministry did not commit to any firm timeline. In an emailed statement, the ministry said only that “B.C. is committed to getting it right by fulfilling all due diligence and delivering on the mandate commitment.”

B.C. has more species at risk than any other province and is one of only three provinces that lacks stand-alone legislation to protect endangered species.

University of Victoria conservation biologist Brian Starzomski said some of the largest concentrations of endangered species in Canada are found around Victoria, where 95 per cent of the habitat for species associated with Garry oak ecosystems has been lost.

Those species include golden paintbrush and Victoria’s owl-clover, a spiky yellow and green plant whose remaining habitat is smaller than the size of a building lot, said Starzomski.

“A lot of these species that are really special to southern Vancouver Island are critically threatened because of how much habitat’s been lost.”

Endangered species legislation would also help insect-eating species like little brown myotis bats, whose B.C. populations are at risk from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome, Starzomski said. The fungus grows on the noses, wings and bodies of bats, waking them from hibernation so they often starve to death by spring.

According to a B.C. government press release issued Thursday, on “Bat Appreciation Day,” the disease has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada and could be “catastrophic to bat populations” in B.C. if it moves north from Washington state, where it was first detected in 2016.

Starzomski said little brown myotis has been saved from local extinction in Nova Scotia because of the province’s species at risk legislation.

“Nova Scotia, under its endangered species act, created these emergency listings for little brown bats, or little brown myotis, that helped to manage them and kept them from being completely extirpated by white nose,” he said.

“So with this threat, which is just about to arrive in B.C. potentially, a species at risk act could help to get resources together to keep that threat from causing real problems for bats throughout B.C., and it’s a real shame that that sort of thing doesn’t exist.”

UBC scientist Tara Martin said there is ample global scientific evidence that postponing decisions leads to species extinction.

“We have documented cases from around that world that when you delay decisions to protect species you lose the opportunity to act,” said Martin, a professor of conservation decision science in UBC’s forestry faculty who is at the forefront of a new approach to saving at-risk species.

“Populations drop to a level that is so low it becomes unlikely that we can recover them and it also becomes exceptionally expensive. Aside from the cost, we lose the opportunity for success. The sooner we act the more likely we are going to be able to recover a species.”

Martin pointed to the critical state of B.C.’s southern mountain caribou as an example of what happens when there is no clear direction about how to protect essential habitat.

“If we don’t get legislation in place to protect species that are declining we will end up in the same position for many more species,” she cautioned.

Ecojustice lawyer Sean Nixon said he would have “very strong concerns” if introduction of an endangered species act is “pushed beyond the next election date.”

“Until government actually sets down the rules for companies to follow, and sets down the rules that will ensure that our economy fits within nature’s limits, it’s just going to get more expensive and take that much longer to turn that ship around.”

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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