For years the B.C. government has faced criticism over significant gaps in legislation and policy that leave nature vulnerable to exploitation. Now, in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, the province is developing new ways to protect species.
But B.C.’s forestry watchdog says the province should make better use of the tools it already has under the Forest and Range Practices Act to stem the habitat losses driving species decline.
“Although government has a range of flexible and adaptive tools, its overall approach has not achieved a reduction in the number of species at risk. Instead, many species like the northern goshawk have become more imperiled as threats to habitat availability increase,” the Forest Practices Board wrote in a recent report.
In a statement to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests said the “government is working on a variety of initiatives related to managing habitat for species at risk.” That includes an internal review of the current policies guiding habitat stewardship, the spokesperson said. The goal of the review is to ensure the province is meeting its responsibilities to First Nations and to ensure threats to wildlife are managed effectively, the statement said.
B.C. has long prioritized resource development over the protection of nature, a policy approach that’s led to an extensive number of at-risk species across the province. Destructive logging practices, where vast expanses of old forests are clear cut, have contributed to — and in some cases driven — the decline of high profile species such as caribou, salmon and the spotted owl.
The Forest and Range Practices Act governs logging, related road building, reforestation and grazing on public lands as well as private woodlots and tree farms in B.C. Several tools under the act could restrict logging or grazing in certain areas to protect habitat for at-risk species. The province can, for instance, set aside wildlife habitat areas where logging is limited or banned. It can also establish objectives for wildlife conservation that forestry companies are required to address when they create stewardship plans for managing forests in which they operate.
“There’s all these different aspects where they can influence what the licensees do on the ground,” said Bruce Larson, vice-chair of the Forest Practices Board. And, “when there are specific regulations, we found the licensees were following them,” he said.
The Council of Forest Industries did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment by publication.
The catch is that these tools can only be used to protect species that are categorized as at-risk under the act — a list that hasn’t been updated since 2006 despite a growing number of threatened and endangered species in B.C. Today, more than 1,950 species are at-risk of disappearing in the province, according to the B.C. Conservation Data Centre, but just 85 species are recognized as at-risk under the Forest and Range Practices Act.
“It’s incredibly problematic that the list doesn’t get updated,” Sarah Korpan, a legislative affairs specialist with the environmental law charity Ecojustice, said in an interview.
B.C. has no standalone species at risk legislation. Instead, it takes a piecemeal approach relying on various laws and policies, such as the Forest and Range Practices Act, to protect biodiversity.
The Ministry of Forests is working to update the list of at-risk species under the Forest and Range Practices Act, according to a ministry spokesperson, though it’s not clear from the statement when those updates will be finalized or how many additional species will be added.
Putting wildlife onto the act’s at-risk species list doesn’t guarantee the province will use its powers to protect its habitat. “The species that are currently on that list still aren’t afforded the effective protection that they need in order to not just survive, but to actually recover,” Korpan said.
Michelle Connolly, a forest ecologist and director of the non-profit Conservation North, said the way B.C. manages wildlife “is an objective disaster.”
She pointed to the fisher as just one example. A member of the weasel family, fishers are small, forest-dwelling carnivores. The Columbia population, found in interior B.C. was red-listed by the Conservation Data Centre in March 2020. In B.C. a species is red-listed when it’s either threatened, endangered or locally extinct and blue-listed when there’s a special concern about its status. Loss of forest habitat is a major threat for the imperiled Columbia fisher, which has already disappeared from some regions.
The B.C. government has established 12 wildlife habitat areas for fishers — but combined they only cover 4,645 hectares, an area smaller than Bowen Island. This leaves vast areas of the animal’s remaining habitat vulnerable to further losses from logging and other development that destroys its forest home.
Fishers aren’t alone. The coastal subspecies of northern goshawk, a large hawk adept at hunting below the tree canopy in old-growth forests, is also red-listed by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre. It’s also actually recognized under the Forest and Range Practices Act as an at-risk species, giving the province legal tools to protect vital forest habitat.
As with many other at-risk species, habitat loss and fragmentation is a major threat to northern goshawk survival, according to the Forest Practices Board’s report, which investigated management of the raptor’s habitat.
Northern goshawks rely on vast stretches of old forest. Their home ranges vary from 2,400 hectares in interior B.C. to 8,500 hectares on Haida Gwaii. Within that annual range is a smaller breeding area, which hawk pairs will return to annually for more than a decade, according to the Forest Practices Board report.
Since listing the coastal northern goshawk as an at-risk species under the Forest and Range Practices Act in 2004, the province has established 95 wildlife habitat areas, short of its goal to establish 123 wildlife habitat areas by 2020, according to the Forest Practices Board report.
A ministry spokesperson said there are currently 102 wildlife habitat areas or other equivalent reserves for northern goshawk.
The board found that licensees complied with the legal requirements in place, for instance, by not logging in ‘no harvest’ zones within the wildlife habitat areas established for coastal northern goshawk. But existing protections have fallen short of what’s needed to protect the species, the board found.
“Development and approval of [wildlife habitat areas] is a lengthy process and, in the Board’s opinion, is not meeting the needs for habitat protection of northern goshawk in a timely way,” the report says.
The board also noted that most of the wildlife habitat areas only protect the portion of goshawk habitat used for breeding, rather than the bird’s broader foraging habitat, to limit the impact on the timber supply.
That’s a concern for Larson, who said “we have to be thinking much broader about the entire habitat.”
A government spokesperson said the ministry is looking at options to protect additional foraging habitat for northern goshawk based on further research into the hawk’s use of habitat.
Over the last several years, the B.C. government has been working to modernize its forestry policies, including through updates to the Forest and Range Practices Act and associated regulations. Two significant shifts include a move towards forest landscape planning, which will identify where and how forestry activities can take place in a certain region, and the removal of what’s known as the “unduly” clause from regulations. That clause limited what the government could do to protect at-risk species to avoid “unduly reducing the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.”
While the board commended the government’s move to repeal the unduly clause in its report, it said it remains concerned there is still no transparent process for deciding whether to protect an area or allow it to be logged.
A spokesperson for the ministry said “the province is making progress incorporating socio-economic considerations other than the timber supply into habitat management decisions, including climate change mitigation, and biodiversity conservation goals.”
Similarly, the board said it is encouraged by the move towards forest landscape planning, but Larson said they are “concerned about how long it’s taking.”
“A move away from a static reserve, single-species approach to an integrated, multi-species landscape-level approach that can adapt to natural disturbance and habitat changes over time may prove more successful in a changing climate,” the board said of the government’s shift to forest landscape planning.
In its report, the board raised concerns that a system of wildlife habitat areas with fixed locations is too rigid in an era when more frequent and intense wildfires can affect habitat quality. The board suggests a more flexible, landscape level approach that can adapt to habitat changes over time may ultimately be more effective.
But this suggestion raised a red flag for Connolly, who worries a more flexible approach to managing the landscape could in practice open more areas to logging.
In her view, people say static protected areas don’t work “because we still have species on the brink of extinction,” she said. “That does not mean that they don’t work, it simply means that we don’t have enough of them.”
“We need to stop messing around,” Connolly said. “We need to act and protect this habitat now.”
Ultimately, the Forest Practices Board said, the “government needs to update its policy framework for managing habitat of species at risk — this includes setting clear objectives for habitat management and intended outcomes for species recovery.”
While the board’s report focuses on the Forest and Range Practice Act, Korpan said B.C. needs comprehensive biodiversity legislation that applies to all the various activities that impact the land base, beyond just forestry and grazing.
That’s something the B.C. government itself has acknowledged. The province is currently developing a new biodiversity and ecosystem health policy framework that’s expected to lead to new legislation, though Korpan and others have raised concerns about the pace.
Until new policies and laws are in place, interim measures to stem nature losses are crucial, Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal.
“We’re in the midst of an extinction crisis in B.C. and the wildfires are not going to help that situation,” she said.
One option would be to establish new wildlife habitat areas that specifically include no harvest zones, Dawe said, noting that many existing wildlife habitat areas allow conditional timber harvesting.
“I’ve stood in wildlife habitat areas that have been clear cut even though they were made for the protection of the spotted owl,” she noted.
But the Forest Practices Board warns it can be a slow process to establish geographically-defined wildlife habitat areas. A quicker option might be for the government to set broader legal objectives, through what are known as section 7 notices, for the protection of key habitat.
These objectives may not establish specific areas where forestry companies are restricted from operating. But they can identify the type, amount and distribution of habitat companies must identify and set aside for wildlife in their forest stewardship plans.
As pressures on the landscape grow, Korpan warned it’s not enough to wait until species are critically endangered to act.
“We also need to be thinking about this from a more proactive perspective,” she said. “We need to be protecting species and ecosystems before they become endangered or at risk in the first place.”
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