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Are we doing enough for endangered species?

The Nature of PEI
by Gary Schneider

Yellow violet (photo: Macphail Woods)A good friend of mine used to say “He’s slow, but he does bad work.” It was the ultimate insult, but framed around a dark sense of humour that is not uncommon in Prince Edward Island.

Sometimes it feels as though this is how we deal with endangered species. The federal government has made a commitment to protecting endangered species on federal lands or areas under federal jurisdiction. Unfortunately, Species at Risk Act (SARA) can at times be ineffective and does little to protect species on private lands.

While some provinces have taken steps to create their own Acts, PEI is the lone Atlantic Province without species at risk legislation. We have incorporated some protection within our Wildlife Management Act, but an EcoJustice report found that “PEI’s law automatically prohibits destroying, disturbing or interfering with the habitat of an endangered or threatened species. But no species are listed, so no habitat is protected.”

The report also gave PEI the lowest ranking of the Atlantic provinces.

When we think of endangered species, we often think of piping plovers, a species which attracts attention locally thanks to the great work of the Island Nature Trust and Parks Canada. The term also refers to plants, though it seems easier to worry about plovers than the Gulf of St. Lawrence aster, a SARA-listed plant only found in a few places in the National Park. 

Many of our rare species can be quite common in other provinces—they will never make a national endangered species list. We have also changed so much of our forest habitat over the past three centuries that we are already missing some key species, including fisher, marten, black bear and many others. 

Why is it important to protect rare species? When we collected seed from round leaf dogwood, there were only two specimens known in the province, growing side by side. If the landowner wanted to clear the area for agriculture, that species would be gone. 

There is a fern found around Eastern Kings, named the “male fern,” which has been found on only two properties. That means if two landowners decide to clearcut those small forests and the soil becomes drier, those species would be gone without someone propagating them. The same is true of a number of plants that are rare in the province, including yellow violet, bog birch, and ironwood. 

There is value in educating landowners and having them involved in protecting not only species but habitat as well.  But they can’t be the last defense. I also understand why provincial governments have been reluctant to develop this legislation—it can be politically difficult to tell landowners what they can and can not do on their properties.  Governments themselves are reluctant to change plans to protect threatened species such as bobolinks. We need the builders of highways and roundabouts to recognize what we have at stake with these species at risk. 

It is well past time for this province to step up and legislate protection for species that are threatened, at risk, or endangered. We also need to develop and carry out recovery plans for these species. 

By the way, noted naturalist Bob Bancroft has banded with three nature groups in Nova Scotia in a lawsuit against that government. They’re attempting to force the government to following through on their commitments under the Endangered Species Act. This will be an interesting case to follow, and it hopefully will lead to increased protection for wildlife in that province.

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