July 30, 2018
Guest post by Connor Cosma
Species at risk populations continue to decline at an alarming rate, with the global rate of species extinctions ranging between 100 and 1000 times higher than the ‘natural’ rate and Canada is no different.
Habitat loss has been consistently identified as the greatest threat to endangered species in Canada which must be mitigated for species to recover. One of the key ways to ease the effect of habitat loss is by encouraging private landowners to become partners in species conservation.
This partnership can be achieved by educating landowners on Canada’s imperilled species legislation- the Species at Risk Act (SARA); raising public awareness of simple activities that can be done to promote species conservation; and increasing the use of financial incentives.
The need for improved landowner outreach is clear. Despite the fact that SARA’s prohibitions only directly apply to Federal land and marine and aquatic ecosystems, interviews with landowners in Ontario and Saskatchewan revealed that most people could not explain the rules of SARA. They thought that the Act applied to all lands equally – including their own properties. This misconception results in landowners being afraid to offer their land for species conservation, because they do not want their future land-use to be restricted. Educating people on where the Act applies could promote voluntary stewardship, since landowners will understand that their future development decisions are unlikely to be regulated (unless they are directly killing, harming or harassing the species).
Many landowners living in areas where there may be a species listed as threatened or endangered under SARA are also unaware of the simple things that they can do to help. By sending an information package to landowners in areas where there may be a listed species, governments and conservation organizations could potentially see increased participation in stewardship schemes at a relatively low cost. The package could include information on basic activities, such as planting specific trees/flowers/shrubs or building structures (like bat boxes). These sorts of actions create much-needed habitat for species at a minimal cost to the landowner; and could have a significant impact on species living in heavily developed areas (e.g. Southwestern Ontario). These activities could also be further promoted by informing landowners about associated cost-sharing programs already in place in many provinces.
While providing landowners with improved information may help increase participation in stewardship, it may not be enough. Financial incentives are another important tool to promote species conservation on private land because helping at-risk species provides primarily a public benefit but comes at a private cost – in terms of time, materials, and the opportunity cost of land.
These interviews with landowners and an analysis of the Alberta Growing Forward Program both suggest that best management practices which primarily provide public benefits are less likely to be adopted than practices which also provide significant private benefits. This suggests that in some instances, financial incentives will be necessary to compensate the landowner.
As mentioned in Smart Prosperity Institute’s policy brief on species at risk conservation, incentive schemes are a valuable tool for promoting species recovery on private land. Landowners might be more willing to adopt temporary incentive schemes (such as payment for environmental services) over more long-term and permanent agreements, since many landowners are reluctant to have their land-use regulated indefinitely.
Provincial environmental stewardship programs should also be integrated with species conservation strategies to increase both of their effectiveness. For example, the Alberta Growing Forward Program could be combined with species at risk projects. Initiatives such as erosion control structures in riparian areas or establishing native vegetation could be included as options in the Program and provide a public benefit by improving both the environment and at-risk species, as well as a private benefit to farms by preventing soil erosion.
Although SARA’s restrictions generally do not apply on private land, it may help to ease landowners’ minds if conservation agreements included written assurances that the government will not later impose additional restrictions on the landowner.
More must be done to promote voluntary conservation activities on private land if endangered species are going to recover. Increased education about at-risk species and the use of financial incentives are two essential parts of the toolkit for promoting species stewardship on private land. Given the government’s historic investment in nature conservation in Budget 2018, there is no time like the present to unlock these tools.
Connor Cosma is a law student at the University of Ottawa. While completing a Student Proposed Internship at Smart Prosperity Institute, he focused his research on the federal Species at Risk Act; canvassing ways in which it could be better implemented to properly protect at-risk species’ and their critical habitat.