Recovering the Species at Risk Act.


By Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP)

Wildlife is central to the Canadian identity. From Indigenous communities to the urbanites of our largest cities, an overwhelming majority of Canadians want the federal government to protect and restore species at risk of extinction.

The principal federal instrument that provides for this protection is the Species at Risk Act (SARA), passed by Parliament in December 2002. SARA's purposes are to prevent extinction, to recover species currently threatened directly or indirectly by humans and to manage other species to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened in the future. Judged against these objectives, SARA has underachieved because of withering political interest and weak policy prescriptions.

The federal cabinet decides which species are listed under SARA, a statutory process that begins with the government's receipt of assessments from an independent national advisory body called COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). COSEWIC advises the listing of a species when there is compelling evidence of a dramatic reduction in abundance caused by threats such as habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, non-native species and climate change.

More than 520 Canadian species (plants, birds, mammals, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, insects, lichens) have been listed under SARA. Some of these now number in the tens of individuals (such as the northern spotted owl); many others have experienced declines of more than 90 percent, such as the 12-metre-long basking shark, Canada's largest fish.

Despite initial good intentions, all has not gone well in protecting and recovering species at risk. The listing-decision process ground to a halt after 2010; COSEWIC continued to communicate its advice but the government did not act on it. Backlogs in finalizing recovery strategies for previously listed species have been severe. SARA's List of Wildlife Species at Risk has long been biased against marine and northern species. Limited use has been made of SARA's conservation agreements to broaden the engagement of citizens, business and civil society in stewardship activities. Few quantifiable benchmarks exist for evaluating recovery successes (and failures).

However, recent efforts by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC, which has primary responsibility for SARA) suggest a renewed commitment to protecting species at risk. The Minister has re-invigorated the stalled listing process and dramatically accelerated the rate of production of proposed recovery strategies.

At the policy level, ECCC has released a suite of eight draft documents for public consultation. These aspirational documents provide greater clarity, rigour and guidance for a number of key decision elements under SARA. If comprehensively and rigorously brought into effect, they will almost certainly strengthen the implementation of SARA and increase the chances of effective protection and recovery of species at risk.

For example, the draft Policy on Survival and Recovery addresses a surprising ambiguity in the legislation...

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