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Monique Keiran: Feds disrespect their own Species at Risk Act

Among groups of people, ignoring somebody is often considered a sign of disrespect. The word disrespect itself means disregard, overlook, not acknowledge or not look at something.

Among groups of people, ignoring somebody is often considered a sign of disrespect. The word disrespect itself means disregard, overlook, not acknowledge or not look at something.

Over the past dozen years, we have seen disrespect for federal legislation. The Species at Risk Act became law in December 2002, but for most of its existence it has been largely disregarded by the government responsible for enacting the law.

No wonder citizen groups are striking out independently. For example, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the Dogwood Initiative, Northwest Wildlife Preservation Society and South Vancouver Island Anglers Association recently announced they would start taking their own action to save the region’s orcas.

The feds declared southern resident orcas endangered 12 years ago. The Species at Risk Act requires the government to develop recovery strategies and action plans for the species within a set period.

However, the required federal action plan to protect orcas remains incomplete.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials say they hope to improve the current draft plan with input from those who want to see the orcas protected. The orca action plan will be the first protection strategy for an endangered marine species. When it’s finished, it could become the template for plans to protect other species.

Drafting effective recovery plans for species at risk is complex. Bringing communities and other stakeholders on board is essential. Including the best-available science is also important.

But let’s not fail to acknowledge that drafting these plans requires resources.

Since 2006, federal funding for issues such as species at risk has been drained. Research at federal labs and in universities has lost funding. Some key federal scientists were laid off. Labs were closed.

Fewer people must now make do with much less to meet statute requirements.

It’s not going well.

In 2013, the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development reported that Environment Canada, Parks Canada and the DFO are years behind in developing the recovery strategies, action plans and management plans they’re responsible for under the Species at Risk Act. Almost half of the 360 recovery strategies for species at risk were overdue — many by more than three years.

The commissioner also found that, of the recovery strategies that have been completed, almost half failed to identify the critical habitat of the species at risk.

Without that information, effective recovery and management are nearly impossible.

Then, last year, the Federal Court declared the failure by the departments’ ministers to provide recovery strategies for species listed under the act by statute deadline is unlawful. The judge stated: “It is simply not acceptable for the responsible ministers to continue to miss the mandatory deadlines that have been established by Parliament.” She also stated that lack of resources is no excuse. The case was brought to court by several B.C. organizations.

Disrespect for the Species at Risk Act occurs in a more insidious way. Under the law, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assesses the population health of species in Canada. It weighs available evidence to determine if a species should be added to the protected list, or whether a listed species should have its status up- or downgraded.

The committee presents its recommendations to the federal environment minister. She has 90 days to approve or turn down each recommendation. If she approves, the species goes on the protected list, and the clock starts ticking to the legislated deadlines for recovery strategies and action plans. If she turns a recommendation down, no action is taken.

However, a loophole exists in the legislation that the minister has been using recently to sidestep the whole messy business. If she simply ignores/disregards/doesn’t acknowledge the recommendations and overlooks the 90-day deadline, the recommendations might as well never have occurred. The omission — a decision by omission — means no clock starts ticking, no obligations result and minimal negative public reaction occurs. The issue fades — until somebody makes a ruckus.

As a result, many species in need of protection face being sucked into a black hole of politics and ideology.

What kind of society is it when a government disrespects its own laws?

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