Protecting Canada's Wildlife

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posted January 29, 2001
Stewart Elgie, general counsel for the Sierra Legal Defence Fund says: “This poll confirms Canadians have a deep affection for their wildlife.” Indeed, it does. How often do you get over 90 percent of the population agreeing on anything?

In many ways the Canadian identity is inextricably linked to wildlife. Beavers, loons, polar bears, caribou, osprey, and belted kingfishers appear on our coins and bank-notes. Our flag is the maple leaf. At our airports, souvenir shops overflow with postcards, mugs, T-shirts, and magnets depicting scenes of wildlife in their natural habitat; glossy brochures offer tourists fishing opportunities, hunting adventures, and whale-watching excursions.

This connection with wildlife has deep roots. The promise of fortune from fishing, trapping, and hunting attracted the first explorers and colonizers to this country. The importance of wildlife throughout our history is constant but today we value wildlife for reasons that differ radically from those of the past. Economic dependence, which in some cases led to severe over-exploitation, has largely been replaced by a sense that Canada’s plants and animals should be treasured for their inherent worth.

Yes, Canadians care about their wildlife. It should be no surprise, then, that they have been doing an excellent job protecting species from extinction. The last mammal to become extinct in Canada was the Queen Charlotte Islands population of woodland caribou—and that was 80 years ago. The last bird to become extinct was the passenger pigeon—and that was 86 years ago.

There are hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals working hard to protect endangered species in Canada. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited have, in the last five years alone, doubled the amount of land that they protect in Canada. In fact, there are more conservation groups than there are endangered species in this country. We have also set aside over 10 percent of Canada in national parks. And the other 90 percent is not a strip mall—less than one percent of Canada is urban.

According to the poll, Canadians are willing to do even more. People, on average, said they would give-up one-third of their land to protect species at risk. Can you think of another cause that would elicit such a sacrifice?

If, then, individual Canadians care so much about wildlife, why is the federal government planning to introduce legislation that threatens landowners who harm endangered species or their habitat with punitive action? What exactly will this law accomplish?

Groups like the Sierra Legal Defence Fund have convinced Canadians that all of our individual actions are not enough. Maybe they are right. These actions may not be enough to protect every species, subspecies, and distinct population in this country from the threat of extinction. But if we are going to do more, shouldn’t we look for opportunities to maximize the species protection we can get for the money we spend?

One way to do this is to direct resources to the groups actively engaged in species protection. Some of these groups spend over 85 percent of their budgets directly supporting their conservation work. Can the federal government compete with that? Not if what is happening under the US endangered species bill is any indication. One US government official complained that of the $1.9 million (US) budget his Columbia Basin office receives each year, a paltry $2,000 (US) is designated for actual recovery work. The rest goes primarily to regulating private industry and land.

Regulation should not be confused with actual species protection. If Ottawa really wants to help protect wildlife, the resources that would be spent administering and enforcing an endangered species law should instead go directly to conservation. This would be more effective and more consistent with the desire of individuals to protect wildlife.

Canadians care about their wildlife. It’s the federal government and many so-called environmental advocacy groups who know better but are still intent on squandering our limited economic resources on an ineffective and unnecessary law who don’t seem to care.

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