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naturalSCIENCE talks with David W. Schindler, FRSC, Killam Professor of Ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, about issues raised by a letter that he and colleagues wrote to Prime Minister Chrétien urging effective legislation to protect Canada's endangered species.
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The letter to Prime Minister Chrétien

February 25, 1999: As the Federal Government prepares to introduce new endangered species legislation, 650 scientists have signed a letter to Prime Minister Chrétien asking for an assurance that the new legislation will give real protection to endangered species.

The scientists see two essential elements to effective legislation. One is that it must provide for an apolitical scientific process for evaluating the risk to particular species. The other is that it embody a commitment to habitat protection, provision for which was missing from the Government's last attempt at endangered species legislation, Bill C-65, which died on the Order Paper in 1997.

The interview
naturalSCIENCE Your letter, with colleagues, to Prime Minister Chrétien urging real protection for endangered species argues that the determination of endangered-species status is a scientific question that cannot be properly made solely by government scientists, because their judgment may be subject to political influence exerted by their employer.

Your point is surely valid. However, it raises the question of how the larger scientific community is to establish whether a species is endangered. One important issue is the criterion for determining whether a species is endangered. Is it sufficient for the population of a species simply to be in decline, or must the population have fallen to a point at which continued reproduction is subject to immediate risk of failure? Also, is endangered status to be assessed on a global, national or regional basis? For example, is a species that survives precariously in Canada at the northern limit of its range to be considered by the Government of Canada as endangered, even though it thrives in the United States or elsewhere?

Professor Schindler The proposal of the Minister's task force, of which I was a member, was to have the listing done by COSEWIC, the Committee On the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, as it has been done since the program began. The members of COSEWIC are all professional scientists, who review information provided by specialists on particular species to make their decisions. They generally specify whether listings are regional, in Canada, or global. They also have three categories of species at risk: endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. I don't know what the "thresholds" for these categories are, but there have been few complaints from knowledgeable ecologists about the process. But one of the complaints about the draft legislation is that for cross-border endangered species like waterfowl and large carnivores, protection in the USA is more effective.

naturalSCIENCE How does COSEWIC evaluate evidence provided by specialists?

Professor Schindler Until now, it's been rather ad hoc, as far as I can tell. With no funds, COSEWIC has largely been operated by volunteers. This would probably have to change if there were any legislation to protect species. Right now, listing is meaningless, in terms of action taken. COSEWIC designates people to draft "recovery plans" which specify what can be done to protect the species (usually habitat protection or improvement), but it is not compulsory that the government act.

naturalSCIENCE Once a scientific determination has been made that a species is endangered, must protection be provided at any cost, or are protective measures to be decided on the basis of a cost:benefit analysis that would place some limit on the value of a particular species? For instance, should we not be prepared to forgo more in immediate economic benefits to preserve a large mammal such as the grizzly bear, than, say, a small fish confined to a single watershed, a mosquito, the smallpox virus?

Professor Schindler This is where politics should enter the process. I think it's fair for a politician to say "although species X is endangered, we will not protect it because..." What should not happen is that politics can prevent the recognition that a species is endangered. The estimates so far indicate that implementing effective legislation would cost about 35 cents per Canadian per year (based on US and Australian costs). I think it's inevitable that large, charismatic species will have a higher likelihood of being protected. Fortunately, many are "umbrella species" with large & complex habitats. For example, it's estimated tht protecting grizzly habitat would also protect the habitats of over 90 smaller animals.

naturalSCIENCE How can political influence be managed to ensure a desirable weighting of economic, social and environmental goals?

Professor Schindler At present, environmental concerns will almost always come last for politicians and industries. But the public at large can take action (as individual farmers have done succesfully for burrowing owls and barn owls), or organize to demand action from politicians, as is happening with grizzly bears. This is why the "visibility" of being endangered is important.

naturalSCIENCE Your letter to the Prime Minister states that "one cannot protect species at risk without protecting their habitats -- places where species feed, breed, rear their young, and so on..." The letter then goes on to say "The new bill must significantly improve on the former Bill C-65, which protected the habitats of fewer than half of Canada's endangered species." Clearly the details of habitat protection are complex, as there are more than 300 Canadian species listed as endangered. However, to provide some idea of what is involved, would you give one or two examples of key habitats that need protection and explain in outline what such protection would entail?

Professor Schindler One example is the habitat of the greater prairie chicken. Intensive cultivation of previous grassland areas on the prairies has destroyed nesting and rearing habitat. The black-footed ferret, burrowing owls, long-tailed weasel, and plains bison have been affected at the same time. The swift fox has been extirpated from Canada because of the loss of prairie habitats, plus poisoning and trapping associated with coyote eradication.

The Kirtland's warbler is another species that has been extirpated in Canada as the result of habitat destruction. This species nests in young pine regenerating after forest fire. Fire suppression has decreased this habitat greatly. The species is also parasitized by cowbirds, due to increased edge-effect from forest fragmentation. In British Columbia and elsewhere, populations of woodland caribou have been reduced because of the harvest of old-growth forests, which provide the winter feeding ground for this species.

In general, prairie habitats need protection: less intensive agriculture, fewer pesticides, and no poisoning programs. Also, larger tracts of old growth forests need to be protected. Less fire protection would benefit the Kirtland's warbler, as is already happening in upper Michigan, where the only remaining populations of this species are found. But for most habitats, we're still losing more than we are recovering.

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