February 2, 2018

By Scott McFatridge

Species at risk populations continue to decline – the status quo simply isn’t helping them enough. But over time, the right mix of economic incentives and policy tools just might be able to turn things around.

Momentum is building throughout the country for the federal government to make an historic investment in nature conservation in 2018. And for good reason. Species extinctions are occurring at an alarming rate, and Canada’s species at risk (SAR) are no exception.  

Canada’s commitment to protecting and recovering imperilled species is laid out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA), which aims to directly protect species at risk (and their residences and critical habitat) on federal land and in aquatic ecosystems, and indirectly throughout the rest of the country. While federal, provincial and territorial governments have made some modest advances in strengthening SAR protection, they don’t seem to be sufficient to stabilize and recover species at risk.

As part of its new report on species at risk conservation policy, Smart Prosperity Institute and the UOttawa Institute of Environment dug deep. An in-depth literature review was conducted, a stakeholder workshop was held, 35 species at risk recovery experts were interviewed, and a survey was administrated to over 100 researchers and practitioners.

Our research identified nine major roadblocks to recovering species at risk:

1) There are potentially significant gaps in SAR protection on provincial and territorial land which are not being fully addressed by federal backstop measures.

2) There is a lack of incentives for SAR conservation on private land throughout the country. This is a major issue, since private land provides critical habitat for many species at risk, but this habitat mostly remains unprotected (for the reasons mentioned above). And many threats to species at risk – such as residential and commercial property development – are found on private land.

3) Governments and other stakeholders are using a limited set of tools for recovering species at risk. Economic instruments in particular have a real potential for promoting cost-effective recovery, but they are still relatively under-used for SAR conservation. This needs to change, since there are limits to what regulatory and strictly voluntary approaches to SAR recovery can achieve.

4) Aspects of SARA’s planning process work against the use of place-based (multispecies and ecosystem) approaches to recovery planning.

5) A tune-up of government stewardship programs is needed. Federal, provincial and territorial governments have a number of programs for promoting conservation on private land, such as the Habitat Stewardship Program. And while our stakeholders generally viewed these programs positively, they stressed the need for them to be more directed, flexible and incentive-based.

6) There are some shortcomings in how stakeholders collect and share data, and how these are used to inform decision making.

7) Clarity is needed on how SARA interacts with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (2012), and how to achieve compliance with both acts (including assessing and managing cumulative effects).

8) Little use is being made of compliance measures such as rigorous offsets or permits to manage impacts to SAR on federal, provincial and territorial crown land. The federal government has recently outlined a permitting and offsets policy which, if they get the details rights, should help ensure that SAR see an overall conservation benefit (or at least experience no harm) from responsibly undertaken activities (e.g. construction) on federal crown land. While this is no substitute for actual protection measures, ensuring that similar SAR management measures are extended to provincial and territorial crown land would be beneficial.

9) Current resource levels are not up to the challenge of SAR recovery. There was a strong sense from many of our stakeholders (especially in ENGOS and governments) that recovering species at risk will require a major increase in resources relative to today’s levels, which should be prioritized towards implementing stewardship and other recovery actions. Several provinces and territories are facing fiscal challenges, meaning that new instruments for unlocking additional funding may be needed.

While conserving and recovering species at risk will not be easy, our research has also uncovered a set of policy tools which, while underused to date, show significant promise for better engaging stakeholders in species at risk recovery.

To learn more about the challenges facing species at risk recovery and how smart policy can improve recovery outcomes, read our report and keep an eye out for our upcoming series of policy briefs, which distill our recommendations on a few key topics.