Act to save species at risk

We are ignoring scientists at our own peril.

We are ignoring scientists at our own peril.

And it’s time the federal government started paying attention.

Several environmental groups have formed a chorus to denounce the federal government for shrugging off the voices of experts when it comes to the earth science. The result, the say, are natural calamities that include inviting extinction for a number of wildlife species.

The once-abundant Atlantic cod schools that gave birth to East Coast fishing settlements, for example, are on the brink of extinction.

In Alberta, the woodland caribou is fighting a losing battle to sustain its numbers. And the sage grouse, whose courting ritual dances are a marvel of nature, is dancing its way to extinction.

The federal government remains inexcusably obtuse to the plight of these three species, despite scientific evidence that extinction is a dire possibility — all in the name of accommodating industry.

In a recent report by the Royal Society of Canada, representing some of Canada’s most distinguished scientists, takes the federal fisheries minister to task for his handling of the cod industry.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield is acting fully within his power according to legislation written in 1868, when the Fisheries Act was born. Climate change and over-fishing weren’t concerns then and the federal government assumed full control of fisheries management. “At that time, ministers were, in effect like czars,” said Jeffery Hutchings, a marine conservationist at Dalhousie University and chairman of the Royal Society of Canada.

Today, 20 years after the Atlantic cod fishery collapsed, nothing has changed. Ashfield allows cod fishing at his discretion — refusing to listen to science, say his critics. “Now we find cod and some other species in a position where they are headed for extirpation,” said Hutchings, noting that cod stocks are now only one-10th their former size.

In Alberta, court action is seen as a last resort to save the woodland caribou and sage grouse. Environmental lawyers are telling the Federal Court that Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is failing in his duties by law to comply with the Species At Risk Act. The legislation obliges immediate protection of a species in danger of extinction. And the Federal Court is being urged to get involved.

Despite a court order in July asking Kent to justify his inaction to protect the woodland caribou, the minister failed to act. He concluded that the caribou weren’t under imminent danger.

But scientists insist that the caribou faces extinction in large parts of their range, especially in Alberta’s oilsands region.

In Southern Alberta, where Federal Court action is being urged to save the sage grouse, scientists are losing hope.

“Both provincial and federal governments have failed to respond to the impending crisis,” said Madeline Wilson, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. “Sage-grouse populations have reached such extreme lows that without urgent and drastic measures, the question is not if the sage grouse will be extirpated from Canada, but when.”

Last November, the group Ecojustice filed a legal petition, on behalf of the wilderness association and 11 other national and international environmental groups, asking Kent to take immediate measures under the Species at Risk Act to prevent “the imminent extinction of the sage grouse.”

No action was taken, despite studies last year that showed only 13 male sage grouse were recorded on traditional mating grounds in Southern Alberta.

Sage groups populations have suffered as the result of habitat fragmentation caused by oil and gas development, among other things.

“Without meaningful protection of the habitat these birds need to feed, mate and nest, they will go extinct in Canada,” said Ecojustice staff lawyer Melissa Gorrie. “By law (under the Species at Risk Act), the minister has an obligation to take immediate steps to protect the sage grouse.”

It’s not reasonable to shut down longstanding industry to protect species, but some compromises can be reached. At very least, some prudent planning for future development should be on the books now. To do any less, and ignore the science, means ever more irreparable damage to the natural world.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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