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B.C.'s approach is failing species at risk, says task force report

VANCOUVER -- The species-by-species approach to saving species at risk is not working in British Columbia, the province with the greatest biodiversity in Canada, says a report released Monday.

Much to the disappointment of environmental groups, the report by a government-appointed task force eschews provincial species-at-risk legislation and instead calls for a broader, ecosystem-based approach.

Bruce Fraser, chairman of the task force appointed last year, said B.C. already has an abundance of legislation aimed at endangered and threatened species.

"What we found is up to now it's been pretty much a piecemeal approach," Fraser said in an interview.

There are half a dozen pieces of legislation that deal with everything from forests, mining and water, to parks and ecological reserves, he said, but they're scattered. Add to that the federal Species At Risk Act, and it's all become quite complex.

"We're saying we've got a lot of building blocks, let's build on those rather than bringing in something completely new that would then take years to develop," said Fraser, a former chairman of the provincial Forest Practices Board and a land use consultant.

Despite decades of legislation, the list of threatned species to continues to grow. There are now about 1,900 species listed in B.C.

The species-by-species approach that has seen 50-odd individual recovery plans enacted in B.C. is failing, the report said.

The task force made 16 recommendation in its report, including a broader, ecosystem-based approach to conservation. It also suggested strengthening and fully implementing existing legislation, as well as establishing consistent funding for conservation efforts.

Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee said the recommendations fall far short of what is needed. Most of all, she said the province needs a strong endangered species law.

"The report points out the problems that species are facing, the challenges from climate change, the degradation of habitat, and that's a step in the right direction but it's not what species need. Species are being studied to death and they desperately need action," Barlee said.

"It's more tinkering; it's more dithering and we're going to start seeing species like the spotted owl wink out. And then in another 20 years, you might see barn swallows, and in another 50 years you might see grizzly bears."

B.C. and Alberta are the only provinces in Canada without their own endangered species legislation, she said.

"That's just embarrassing."

Barlee said the B.C. Liberal government has taken some ground-breaking action on climate change, with its carbon tax for example, but it's failing on species protection. In fact, she said, over the past decade the provincial government has rolled back environmental protection legislation.

"For instance, we're down to just six spotted owls in the wild because we have a B.C. government that still allows logging in critical spotted owl habitat," she said.

Fraser said species-at-risk legislation on the provincial level would only lock-in the species-by-species approach "which we think is a false start." "It proves to be very onerous when you have hundreds of even thousands of species to deal with."

Environment Minister Terry Lake said the province is already in the process of implementing some of the recommendations, including a Conservation Data Centre to collect and disseminate information on threatened species.

Lake said the ecosystem approach makes sense. His ministry will now look at the recommendations and collect public and industry input over the next six months, before taking the issue to the government.

"There are some legislative changes that will have to be contemplated but it's my experience that no matter how much you do there will be organizations that say you're not doing enough," Lake said.

It's a complex issue, he said, one that will take time "rather than just respond with some legislation that may look like we're doing something but actually doesn't achieve the outcomes that we want."

Lake said he's spoken to the federal minister, and he pointed out that the federal Species At Risk Act itself is under review. The kind of species-level approach contained in such legislation may not be the best approach, he said.

"I think we're all clear what the objectives are," Lake said. "The tool that you use to get there, I think, is what we're discussing. Let's design a tool that actually helps us achieve the outcomes."

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