September 30, 1999
I am writing to ask for your help in saving our endangered species.
Over the last 200 years, we have lost at least 27 species or subspecies of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, molluscs, butterflies, and plants. The Queen Charlotte Islands no longer support a woodland caribou population; grizzly bears and black-footed ferrets no longer roam the Prairies; Ontario has lost the longjaw cisco and the blue walleye; the great auk and sea mink have disappeared from eastern Canada; and the Atlantic walrus and gray whale have abandoned the northwest Atlantic Ocean.
The government-sponsored Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada warns that another 86 species face imminent extirpation or extinction, 75 are threatened, and 151 are vulnerable. Most of these species are at risk because their habitats are threatened. Since many critical habitats are on private lands, and others are on government lands under lease to ranchers, foresters, or miners, saving our endangered species requires the cooperation of landowners and resource users.
But the federal government is now considering a law that will instead alienate them. Expected to be called the Species at Risk Act, the law will forbid the destruction of endangered or threatened species, and of their habitat, on public and private lands alike. Violators will be subject to criminal sanctions, including fines and prison sentences.
The proposed law has fatal flaws. Except in extreme cases, it will not compensate landowners or resource users for the lost use of lands devoted to conservation. Individuals will have to bear the full costs of preserving species and habitat, even though their actions benefit all of society.
There is broad international consensus that placing such a burden on a few in order to benefit the many would be unfair. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity stresses the principle of equitable sharing of costs. Here in Canada, environmental and resource industry groups – rarely in agreement on other environmental issues – find common ground on the importance of compensation. The Species at Risk Working Group, representing not only prominent environmentalists but also the agriculture, pulp and paper, and mining industries, has called for legislation that will not adversely affect individuals, businesses, and communities. “The cost of species conservation should be shared by all Canadians and not borne only by a small group of landowners, resource users, workers, and communities,” the group explains. “They should not be expected to carry alone the costs of a collective value.”
Not only will the proposed law be inequitable; it will also be ineffective. It will give landowners and resource users strong incentives to destroy, rather than to protect, wild flora and fauna. Harbouring rare plants and animals will preclude development, farming, and logging, threatening landowners’ livelihoods and reducing their property values. And destroying an endangered species or its habitat will expose landowners to criminal prosecution. Knowing this, landowners will withdraw from habitat protection programs and ensure that they do not maintain habitat that might attract endangered species. Worse, those who discover endangered species on their lands may simply “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
Fortunately, there is a better way: Voluntary conservation programs, several of which are described in the attached articles (“Conservation that works” and “How not to save species“), have been widely tested and shown to work. Funded either by governments or by private conservation organizations, programs that give landowners incentives to preserve habitat and compensate them for losses incurred in doing so will protect more species than the approach now being considered.
Please write to Environment Minister David Anderson at the House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6. Urge him to introduce endangered species legislation that is both fair and effective – legislation that rewards, rather than punishes, good stewardship. And if you agree with our efforts to educate Canadians and want to further our work to save our endangered species, please send us a generous donation. Together, we can make a real difference.