Caribou David Moskowitz

It’s time for B.C. to start legally protecting endangered species

Caribou, and other endangered and threatened species, are not actually legally protected in British Columbia — much to the surprise of many
By Dr. Sarah Otto, Professor, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia Dr. Brian Starzomski, Ian McTaggart Cowan Professor, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria.

Southern mountain caribou, most of which live in British Columbia, have been plummeting in numbers.

In the past year, they’ve dropped from 4500 to 3800 individuals, according to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

Only three individuals remain in the South Selkirk herd (all female), making that herd functionally extinct. Such rapid declines concern biologists, like us.

Many of Canada’s other endangered and threatened species are also declining, at an average rate of 2.7 per cent per year, according to the Living Planet Report Canada.

On May 4, Minister McKenna of Environment and Climate Change Canada announced that there is an imminent threat to the recovery of the southern mountain caribou.

This announcement is a warning flag that if British Columbia doesn’t take action soon, the federal minister is legally obliged to step in with an emergency order to protect the species.

How did this happen?

In part, it’s because caribou, and other endangered and threatened species, are not actually legally protected in British Columbia — much to the surprise of many.

While they are protected federally by the Species at Risk Act (SARA), this protection applies only to the 1 per cent of B.C. that falls under federal jurisdiction, such as national parks (and post offices).

Provincial Crown land and private land isn’t covered unless the situation gets so dire that the federal minister issues an emergency order.

Waiting until a crisis happens reduces our options for protecting Canada’s endangered species.

It’s like ignoring a flesh wound until it’s festering and systemic — treating the problem early is much easier, cheaper, and more effective.

It’s also much less painful.

How do we treat the problem earlier?

Having studied endangered species declines and legislation, we would argue that one of the most important thing British Columbians can do is insist that the B.C. government create an effective endangered species act for our province.

Premier Horgan has initiated the process, and the Government has asked for public input. Please consider adding your voice.

With our research colleagues we have tracked what is and is not working to protect species across the country.

Key elements of an effective endangered species act are:

  • Avoid delays: Immediately list species known to be at risk and place them under protection
  • Require habitat protection: On provincial Crown land, mandate habitat protection in the places needed by endangered species
  • Incentivize landowners: On private land, provide benefits for owners who take actions to protect B.C.’s endangered species, such as tax incentives, recognition and awards, and habitat restoration grants
  • Periodic review: Require that the government track actions and impacts to measure progress

The last component is really important.

We need to focus money, conservation action, and habitat protection where they are most needed. To do this, we need to track which actions are effective, reinvesting where we see success and avoiding costly actions that don’t work.

What can we protect?

British Columbia is home to almost half of all Canadian species, and some of the most wonderful and inspiring wildlife and natural landscapes on the planet.

Strong provincial legislation can help us protect enough of this wilderness that endangered species can survive — and hopefully thrive.

Let us, as a province, identify and pursue the most cost-effective actions to protect the more than 200 species at risk in B.C. (at the very least, those listed under the federal Species at Risk Act).

Let us commit to shifting logging, road construction, and development away from the forests where the few mountain caribou, marbled murrelet, and northern spotted owl remain.

Let us commit to altering how and when pesticides are used to leave enough insects for the grassland birds, like barn swallows and bobolink, that have declined in numbers by more than 90 per cent.

Our endangered species are wounded, it is time to heal them.

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