B.C. chief ecologist The Narwhal illustration

B.C. is weighing the merits of appointing a ‘chief ecologist,’ internal docs show

As species disappear and ecosystems collapse, the new role could help keep B.C. accountable on forthcoming biodiversity laws and policies

As B.C. grapples with declining wildlife populations and faltering ecosystems, the province is considering creating a new job to hold the government accountable as it works to stem those losses.  

“As part of the establishment of biodiversity/ecosystem health legislation, [the] Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship is considering recommending a chief ecologist to be accountable for the policy/directives necessary to implement the legislation,” a March meeting note, obtained by The Narwhal through a freedom of information request, says.

Though B.C. is rich in biodiversity, long-standing policies that prioritize resource extraction have led to broad-scale habitat destruction. The consequences have been dire. Whole caribou herds have already been lost, as others teeter on the brink of collapse. Salmon, a critical food source for people, wildlife and even trees, continue to decline in many areas. And, as their old-growth forest habitat has been systematically cleared, the number of spotted owls in the wild has dropped to one. Overall, more than 1,950 species found in B.C. today are at some risk of disappearing.

a view of a logged valley
Logging in the Anzac valley north of Prince George threatens endangered caribou. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

For some, the role of a chief ecologist is long overdue, particularly given B.C. already has a chief forester who is responsible for setting timber harvest levels.

Whitney Lafreniere Vicente, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, told The Narwhal a chief ecologist “would be a really important role” as the province works to live up to its commitments to conserve biodiversity.

“It’s kind of crazy that we don’t have one already,” she said.

B.C. biodiversity: ‘a squandered fortune’

For years, environmental groups have raised alarm bells over gaps in B.C.’s regulatory regime, which leaves wildlife and ecosystems vulnerable. A report last year for the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club BC found the province relies on a patchwork of laws that ultimately fail to address significant threats to biodiversity. The Species at Risk Act, meanwhile, only applies automatically to federal lands, about one per cent of land in B.C. And though the federal government can enact emergency orders to protect critical habitat in other areas, it rarely does.

“When you look at how land is managed, how biodiversity protection, conservation is funded over successive governments, it’s not a very good scene,” Adam Ford, the Canada research chair in wildlife restoration ecology based at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, said in an interview. 

“A lot of populations are in decline,” he said. “It’s something of a squandered fortune.”

But Ford, who is also a member of the wildlife advisory council which advises Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen and Forests Minister Bruce Ralston, said he’s “optimistic” change is coming, though more slowly than he and many others would like.

Earlier this year, for instance, B.C. announced several new measures to increase protection of old-growth forests, including eight new forest landscape planning tables that aim for greater First Nation and community participation in forestry decisions. The government also committed to finalizing its old-growth strategic action plan by the end of this year.

At the same time, the province is working to develop a draft biodiversity and ecosystem health framework, which will set the stage for the development of new policies and, significantly, legislation.

The ‘devil is in the details’: Nathan Cullen

B.C. has faced numerous calls for standalone biodiversity legislation from several conservation groups, as well as the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and the Union of BC Municipalities.

“We are in a biodiversity crisis,” Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal. “The only thing that’s going to match the severity of the situation is a law that’s going to change the game,” she said.

New laws and policies would also be important for ensuring that any future chief ecologists can be effective.

a wide angle of Byron Charlie releasing juvenile salmon into the Bedwell River

Dawe said it’s a “great idea” for B.C. to appoint a chief ecologist, but cautioned it matters who is appointed and what powers they hold.

“The position would have to be filled by someone who is really unbiased and has shown that their work completely reflects the truth of the forests,” she said.

As it stands, wildlife and various land users, whether that’s ranchers who lease grazing land, mines, logging operations or recreational users, tend to be managed in silos, Ford said.

There’s a need for a voice in government “that brings together these different perspectives and policies and can speak for the land and wildlife,” he said. It’s a gap that could be filled by a chief ecologist, he said.

Lafreniere Vicente said a key piece for her would be having a chief ecologist who can draw western science and Indigenous Knowledge together to better manage the land.

The Narwhal reached out to both the Council of Forest Industries and the Mining Association of BC for comment on the potential for a new chief ecologist position. The Council of Forest Industries declined to comment until such a role is announced. The mining association did not respond by publication.

Cullen confirmed in an interview his ministry is considering the merits of such a role. It’s a proposal, he said, that was raised during consultations with First Nations and conservation groups on the biodiversity framework.

But Cullen warned accountability officers are “not all created equal.”

The “devil is in the details,” he said.

Nathan Cullen, B.C.'s Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, standing at a podium
B.C.’s Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, led by Nathan Cullen, is working to develop a new biodiversity and ecosystem health framework to stem nature losses in the province. Photo: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

Ultimately, he said, the ability of a chief ecologist to hold the government accountable rests on the laws and policies in place. That’s why Cullen said his main focus is delivering a draft biodiversity and ecosystem health framework in the fall.

“And then we’re going to co-develop the legislation with nations to implement the framework,” he said.

Time is of the essence for B.C. as biodiversity crisis mounts

Writing a new biodiversity law offers a prime opportunity for the province to co-develop with First Nations legislation that aligns with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, Lafreniere Vicente said.

And, like the declaration act, a biodiversity law should be overarching legislation, which aims to pull all existing laws in line with a new ecosystem-focused act, she said.

“We need to have this new legislation, but I also want to make sure that there are interim measures being put into place on the ground, so that we don’t continue to lose pieces of our ecology, pieces of our environment while we wait for this legislation,” she added.

Cullen said there is other work underway as new policies are developed. He pointed, for instance, to the $100-million watershed security fund announced earlier this year, a new conservation financing mechanism that’s being set up to leverage philanthropic funds, as well as new funding for wild salmon restoration.

But there’s still more that could be done, Dawe said. She’d like to see the government restrict industrial projects in critical habitat for endangered or threatened species as new laws and policies are being developed.

“A lot of wildlife just can’t handle two more years of a free for all,” she said.

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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