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naturalSCIENCE discusses Canada's Bill C-33, the Species at Risk Act, with Professor Jamie Smith, of the Department of Zoology and a member of the Centre for Biodiversity Research at the University of British Columbia
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June 23, 2000: This year, David Anderson, Canada's Minister of Environment, tabled in Parliament Bill C-33, the Species at Risk Act. This follows a bill tabled in 1995 by Mr. Anderson's predecessor, which died on the order paper after widespread criticism from the scientific community.

Critics saw two major flaws in the earlier proposal. One was that it failed to provide an apolitical scientific process for evaluating the risk to particular species. The other was that it lacked adequate provision for habitat protection. In this interview, Professor Smith discusses with naturalSCIENCE these and other issues relating to the new legislative proposals.

The interview
naturalSCIENCE This year, the government of Canada tabled in Parliament Bill C-33, or the Species at Risk Act, an Act respecting the protection of wildlife species at risk in Canada. To many people, the need for such legislation will be difficult to understand. Biologists maintain that biodiversity as we know it today is the result of an evolutionary process in which new species emerge as old species become extinct. So if human activity has speeded the process of species extinction, has it not also created new evolutionary possibilities? Only last year it was reported that the New York subway, as artificial an environment as one could find, has become home to a new species of mosquito. Furthermore, even if the overall impact of human activity is to reduce global biodiversity, how significant is the process in Canada, a lightly populated region largely dominated by wilderness?

Professor Smith The principal justification for the bill can be found in the list prepared by COSEWIC, a government-appointed Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Over 350 species and sub-species have been officially judged as threatened or endangered by COSEWIC. Species and sub-species get listed when enough populations have gone extinct that a majority of the technical experts on COSEWIC judge that the organism is highly likely to become extinct in the near future.

Although much of Canada is indeed pristine-looking, it is not free from atmospheric pollution, or from effects of global climate change. Alpine lakes in the Rockies are turning out to be highly polluted. Further, most of Canada's listed species occur at the southern edge of the country, where most of the land has been greatly altered by human influences, and many species are indeed at considerable risk.

Extinction is a natural process, but extinction rates are being elevated about a thousandfold (data are only available for birds and larger mammals) by our effects on habitats and populations of wild species.

It is true that human-created environments may favor the formation of new species, but not necessarily the ones we would want (e.g., new and highly pathogenic bacteria are likely to evolve in an antibiotic-rich environment). It is unlikely that an increased rate of speciation would be anywhere near the increased rates of extinction that are noted above.

naturalSCIENCE If we are to protect species that face extinction or extirpation from Canada, the first requirement is to identify those species. Currently, this task is the responsibility of COSEWIC. However, as you and more than 600 other Canadian scientists indicated last year in a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the independence of COSEWIC is open to question since the government has stripped most non-governmental committee members of their voting rights. This, as you argued in your letter to Mr. Chrétien, creates "the danger that governments will pressure their staff scientists to vote the 'right' way."

Under the new legislative proposal, a reestablished COSEWIC will perform the key role of assessing the status of species considered at risk. In your view, will the reestablished COSEWIC have the necessary scientific expertise, political independence and technical resources to function effectively?

Professor Smith In response to our protest, the government has promised to restore the "independent scientist's" votes on COSEWIC. It has also, however, established what amounts to a potential cabinet veto on COSEWIC listings, and instituted a review of all past COSEWIC listings.

This last point appears to me to mean that, until the review of past listings is complete, we no longer have any listed species. Clearly the first step here should have been to declare the current COSEWIC list official, and then to review it after all currently listed species have been given interim legal protection.

The availability of resources to COSEWIC is clearly a vital issue. COSEWIC works only as fast and as well as the resources and expertise available to it allows. Thus, the rate of listing of threatened species is limited by money, time and the current makeup of the committee, and is independent of the rate at which species are actually becoming threatened or endangered.

Also, COSEWIC has strong taxonomic biases, which mean that vertebrate animals are far more likely to get listed than higher plants, invertebrates or other organisms, many of which have no experts to represent them on COSEWIC.

naturalSCIENCE The provisions of Bill C-33 apply only to federal lands, which total less than 5% of Canada's total land area, plus lands in a province that are not federal lands where an order has been made by the Governor in Council under Paragraph 34 Section (2). In practice, how broadly do you see the powers provided under the act being applied with respect to land that is not federal land, given that an order under Section (2) requires prior consultation with the appropriate provincial minister?

Professor Smith Recent experience of federal-provincial relations in related matters suggests that the proposed act will seldom, if ever, be used on provincial lands, because of the lack of primacy of the federal act. Of course, this is why the provinces agreed to it in the national accord.

Our only guarantee of action so far seems to be that the current federal Minister is apparently sincere in his desire to apply the act to its limits. His successors, however, especially if they are from the Canadian Alliance Party, are unlikely to act strongly against an unwilling province.

naturalSCIENCE Although, under the proposed legislation, COSEWIC will determine which species are at risk, it will be Ministers of the federal, provincial and territorial governments who will be responsible for the conservation and management of endangered species. We have seen evidence in the case of the collapse of Canada's east coast cod fishery that government actions may bear little relation to the scientific consensus on what action is most consistent with conservation objectives. In the case of the Atlantic cod fishery, one reason that scientific advice appears to have been ignored was that scientific data were not made available to the public except at the wish of the political decision makers, or after long delay, through the process of refereed journal publication (3). As a result, it must have been easier than would have otherwise been the case for decision makers to overlook scientific advice that conflicted with economic interests or short-term electoral advantage. How confident can we be that under the provisions of Bill C-33, scientific advice will be given its due weight in the decision-making process?

Professor Smith There are two issues here. One is listing, the other is recovery planning. In my opinion, cabinet has no business interfering with the listing process (on which they do not have any relevant expertise). It is, however, reasonable for governments to play a part in the recovery planning process, particularly if the cost of maximizing the survival of a listed species is too high for the public purse to bear.

A serious problem underlying matters here is that the civil service in Canada lacks independence and scientific credibility. The "job" of a civil service ought to be to provide technical expertise to governments, technical information to the public, and to educate policy-makers and citizens with the most up-to-date knowledge in an area, while applying it to policy actions.

My recent experience with some of the top brass in Environment Canada (the agency responsible for enforcing the Species at Risk Act) is that they see their job not as advising the government or informing the public, but as acting to shield government and public from current knowledge. The emphasis seems to be more on damage control and propaganda, than on technical advice and public discourse. The last thing that governments appear to want nowadays is intelligent public discourse (4). Hearings about the new bill have been stage-managed to limit public input, and input of independent experts, to a minimum.

naturalSCIENCE Bill C-33 leaves it to government ministers, i.e., their staff, to devise recovery strategies for endangered species, when "the recovery of the listed wildlife species is technically and biologically feasible." Does this mean that expensive solutions, for example a halt to old-growth logging over large tracts of British Columbia's rain forest, will be deemed technically unfeasible?

Professor Smith Probably it does, but there are several issues here. The cost of conservation, and the way to invest optimally in conserving biodiversity, is not easily judged from environmental propaganda. For vertebrates, at least, coastal lowland forests are not the ecosystem to which conservation funds should be directed, because such forests support few listed species, and the populations of those listed species that they do support are not obviously declining. The forests in British Columbia that most need protection are those at high elevations that are used by caribou (Rangifer tarandus). The ecosystems with the greatest need of protection are: grasslands, wetlands, marine ecosystems (not covered by the Species at Risk Act, but by other complex regulatory legislation) and certain types of southern forests (Carolinean forests in Ontario and coastal Douglas-fir in British Columbia).

Much of the "value" in Canada's wildlife lies outside the current list of endangered species, and thus outside the influence of Bill C-33. We should care just as much about protecting populations of still common but declining species, as about listed species, because listing rarely happens until a species is in so much trouble that recovery may be impossible.

Links and references
(1) Environment Canada's Species at Risk Web Site
(2) On Protecting Endangered Species: An interview with Professor David Schindler
(3) naturalSCIENCE Commentary: Science, the state and freedom of speech
(4) John Ralston Saul. 1995. The Unconscious Civilization. Published for CBC/SRC by Anansi Press, Concord, ON. Available from

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