What you need to know about species protections: the Species at Risk Act

May 27, 2022
By: admin

What You Need To Know About Species Protections: The Species at Risk Act (SARA)

Published [post_published]
Elise Gagnon, Tara Russell, Gillian Chow-Fraser

Why is learning about legislation relevant to conservation work?

There is a bit of a trend happening with our content, where we want to empower you with a deeper knowledge of legislation in place that has a direct effect on conservation in Canada. Legislation is… not exactly like watching the latest blockbuster. Legislation is complex, nuanced and a dry read. However, we want to break it down into some pieces that will give you a good foundation for what affects conservation in Canada. Whether it is parks, wildlife, land use impacts – legislation is often the tool that will permit or restrict progress in increasing protected areas, ensuring the continued life of our species at risk, and overall, halt and reverse the twin crises*.  
*By the twin crises we are referring to the climate crisis and the biodiversity loss crisis.

An Introduction to the series ‘What you need to know about species protections’

This series is intended to give you an overview of what type of legislation exists to protect at-risk species, and how that legislation impacts species on-the-ground. There is one big federal Act that you may have heard of: The Species at Risk Act (SARA). Species conservation is a shared responsibility across the country. Within provincial and territorial jurisdictions, there are also unique wildlife protection Acts specific to that region. In Alberta, we have the provincial Wildlife Act, which is not actually designed to focus on species at risk protection, like those in other provinces (can you believe it?) but there are provisions within that Act that specifically target species conservation issues.

photo: Thomas Lefevbre
photo: Thomas Lefevbre

Check out our national office’s overview of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). We promise – it actually reads like an overview and at most, it’s a 7-minute read.

The good and the bad of SARA

Like anything complex, there are some incredible strengths to SARA, but also areas for improvement.  
The pros: In the act, there are built-in timelines for action to list species on the SARA database, and once they are recognized on the database there are also timelines for recovery actions. Importantly, species recovery strategies must include identifying their critical habitat. (As an example, the A La Peche caribou herd, which is classified as “Threatened under SARA, has some of its critical habitat in Moon Creek, near Hinton.)

photo: courtesy of John E. Marriott
photo: courtesy of John E. Marriott
photo: Gillian Chow-Fraser
photo: Gillian Chow-Fraser
photo: USFWS Headquarters
photo: USFWS Headquarters

The cons: Canada doesn’t always enforce the tools within the Species at Risk Act, which reduces the efficacy of species protection. Deadlines for recovery action are often missed or delayed, and some species do not have the privilege to wait. Critical habitat is not always fully identified or not identified in a timely way, which puts the critical habitat at risk of destruction while plans are being drafted.  

Ultimately, SARA contains excellent tools for accountability in recovering species at risk—but they need to be enforced. A prime example of this disappointing lack in action surrounds “Section 63” of the Act. Section 63 commits Canada to ensuring progress is being made across jurisdictions on protecting critical habitat via reporting on unprotected critical habitat. (Once critical habitat is identified, any portions that are unprotected need to have plans to protect them.) These reports need to come out every 6 months until all the critical habitat is protected, to show accountability by the jurisdictions on progress.   

Sounds great, right? Well, the problem was that Canada wasn’t doing any of the reporting. In 2017, it was CPAWS that took legal action against the federal government, calling their failure to produce these reports a sign that they were breaking their own laws. Now, these reports are regularly produced tracking woodland caribou critical habitat protections across the country – and they are vital to show the public where dangerous inaction is happening and by who.

To learn more about the case: read here and here

The “Section 63” example also highlights another important dynamic in species at risk recovery: that it is a shared responsibility between the federal government and the provinces and territories – and sometimes they don’t agree. 

* psst – species can have a different status at the federal and provincial level. As an example, in Alberta wood bison are (only recently) considered “Threatened” and at the federal level, they are considered “Endangered”. 

So, what happens when there is a disconnect between the federal guidance under SARA and what the provinces or territories are doing? Up next, we will dig into how SARA can address these concerns and strive to advance conservation on provincially managed lands, including an examination of some tools, including:

  • Section 11 Agreements 
  • Emergency protection orders  
  • Safety net orders 
photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie
photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Want to support our chapter’s programs? 

Up Next: Section 11 – Friend or Foe?


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