On Tuesday, Dec. 4, Ontario's Upper Thames River Conservation Authority handed Scott Gillingwater, a species at risk biologist, the prestigious provincial Conservation Pioneer Award. Gillingwater's work includes some of Canada's longest-term research on a number of declining snake and turtle species. Gillingwater also provides technical expertise to provincial and national endangered species recovery teams and the board of directors of the Institute for the Conservation of World Biodiversity. The award — honouring individuals who've contributed significantly to Ontario's conservation movement — makes Gillingwater a hero with local, provincial, national and international standing. As for those at the federal level who might benefit from his considerable expertise to act on recommendations, he may as well be banging his head against a wall: when it comes to species at risk, Ottawa just doesn't seem to care — as it proved again the very next day.
"The federal government's approach to endangered species is a blueprint for extinction in Canada," Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee told reporters at a September news conference.
Indeed when considering the current plight of Canada's growing list of endangered species, many critics point first to the Harper government's Trojan Horse "budget" bill, C-38, which passed this summer. Significant changes to existing laws contained in C-38 included weakened protection for fish and species at risk; an entirely new — and less comprehensive — environmental assessment law; broad decision-making powers for cabinet and ministers, and; less accountability and fewer opportunities for public participation. Others might finger the second such legislative bludgeon, bill C-45, which included changes to laws preventing harm from hazardous waste and the shipping industry, and which protected fish and their habitat through the Navigable Waters Act. On Dec. 4, Canada had 2.5 million protected rivers and lakes; the passing of C-45 on Dec. 5 reduced this to 87 lakes and 62 rivers. (Bizarrely 90 per cent of them lap the shores of Conservative ridings.)
And yet the Harper government's greatest slight to species at risk has nothing to do with these actions, but with inaction, as demonstrated in its avowed disinterest in enacting existing provisions of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). By not acting on existing laws, the federal conservatives have put species at risk in greater peril than ever — and squandered the considerable tax dollars spent on listing those species in the first place.
Nevertheless, as the 10th anniversary of SARA approaches, numerous more animals and plants have been added to the ranks of those considered endangered, threatened or at-risk. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) alone has added a dozen animals to the endangered list. One of those is the much-persecuted Massasauga rattlesnake, found only along the shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The committee also raised alarm over three bats in Eastern Canada — the little brown myotis, the northern myotis and the tri-coloured bat — that have declined a shocking 90 per cent in two years due to White Nose Syndrome, a deadly fungal disease. "It's very dire," said Graham Forbes, a professor at the University of New Brunswick. "There's virtually no bats left."