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Evidence of meeting #9 for Environment and Sustainable Development in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was sara.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Cynthia Wright  Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment
Pardeep Ahluwalia  Director General, Species at Risk Directorate, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Mike Wong  Executive Director, Ecological Integrity Branch, Parks Canada Agency

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

Mr. Chair, I believe you're inviting the chair of the COSEWIC committee, when you probably can get more into detail.

I wouldn't call it necessarily a backlog. Governments provide a general status report on the status of species in Canada. That's the 7,000-plus that we're tracking. That plus other sources of information go to COSEWIC, who then decide what they will assess. They have a system for selecting priorities. So I suppose it's a backlog in the sense that they haven't gone through all 7,700, but they are looking at trends and trying to assess those that look most likely to be endangered.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

We're tracking 7,700 species?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

In Canada, yes.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

How many species do we have?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I think we have about 70,000 species in Canada.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

Do we know that for a fact?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I don't know that anybody can say they know how many species they have in their country when, as I said in my opening remarks, only about 15% of the planet's biological diversity has been described in any meaningful way.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

So we have a geological survey in Canada but no concomitant biological survey, right?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

You could say that.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

So is there any discussion, as a result of the SARA experience, for the need for increased investment in ascertaining and investing in discovering more species and identifying more species, and the nomenclature for more species?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

Well, there is activity happening. I guess first of all I should be clear that the tracking is happening at both provincial and territorial levels as well as at the federal government level. There is funding on nomenclature, taxonomy, etc., mostly in museums and academia. There are discussions under way on how we can collaborate and share information more across governments on biological diversity and how we can do more assessment of not just individual species but understanding ecosystems and trends in ecosystem health.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

So would you say over the past five years, then, that your budget for science is the same? Up? Down?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

The budget for species at risk research has also increased in that same time period.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

Significantly?

9:25 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

As part of that overall increase. Yes, I'd say significantly. Environment Canada's traditional area of expertise in wildlife was limited to migratory birds. We now have resources for internal science and also to fund external science that augments our traditional capacity and knowledge. I think in Canada you can say that in science, knowledge is shared by many and we have to work hard at pulling it together.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

Thank you very much.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you. The time has expired.

Monsieur Bigras.

9:25 a.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Bloc Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I would like to welcome you to the committee. As you know, the former commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development tabled several very critical reports about the protection of species at risk and the strategy adopted by the federal government regarding biodiversity generally. One of these audit reports, which was tabled in 2005, stated that progress to implement the federal government's strategy was slow in a number of ways. The audit also highlighted the fact that the federal government had not kept its promises to improve Canada's tools for understanding biodiversity and to manage information on it.

In addition, in March 2008, the new commissioner published an audit following the one done in 2001. Here were some of the conclusions: “There is no comprehensive inventory of species at risk [...] Legislated deadlines are not being met [...] National coordination is needed [...] Critical habitat has not been identified [...] Action plans are still in their infancy [...] Recovery activities are taking place.”

My question is quite simple. What have you done since the legislation was tabled?

9:30 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I'll take that question, Mr. Chair.

We've tried to convey in the opening presentation that there is a lot of work happening. It's a challenge to work under legislation in the first five years. There's been a lot of hiring of new staff--I mentioned increased resources--training those staff and developing the procedures.

I did point out that listing has happened. There has been almost a doubling of the number of species added to the schedule. I should make sure, Mr. Chair, that members understand that those species are afforded immediate protection. There are prohibitions that apply immediately upon listing. So we are still making pace on the recovery strategies and implementation of those strategies. There is action on 318 recovery strategies and 106 of those are finished. The pace is picking up.

We have also extensive work under the habitat stewardship program, which is helping Canadians protect critical habitat.

There are a number of activities under way to help improve the processes. As I mentioned, a lot of the work is actually done by the provinces. For example, in Environment Canada, of the 335 terrestrial species, we had expertise in only about 55. So we do have to work closely with the provinces and territories, and in fact, for the terrestrial species the provinces and territories are leading on 75% of the recovery strategies.

This is important not only for the use of their expertise but in recognizing their implementation is going to be important. It's not just the federal government that is implementing actions.

The pace is picking up; there is a lot more work to be done. But now, after five years, with experience and better procedures and practices in place, with staff being hired, we are optimistic that the pace will continue to pick up as it has in the last couple of years.

9:30 a.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Bloc Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

I have another question. At the end of your presentation, you talk about what might be called success stories. I would like to come back to an issue that is much discussed—the polar bear. I think I am correct in saying that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has put the polar bear on what is known as a red list. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that two thirds of this species will be extinct within 50 years. For its part, COSEWIC thinks that the species is not necessarily threatened, but that it is of special concern.

I understand that there are some success stories, but could you explain what procedure is followed when a decision is made that the species is not classified as threatened, even though a number of scientists estimate that it will be extinct within 50 years? What process have you set in place to ensure that this species will be protected? I think polar bears are very threatened because sea ice is melting. This reduces the polar bear's habitat.

9:30 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

I guess there are a couple of points I'd like to make on this one, Mr. Chair.

There has been controversy about what the status is, given the difference in the classification title given by the IUCN and COSEWIC, and by the Americans, in fact. That was one of the reasons the Minister of the Environment, Minister Prentice, held a polar bear round table in January, which was to share knowledge. So there was a presentation there from both the chair of COSEWIC and independent scientists, as well as from Inuit, to discuss what exactly is the status and why the classification outcome is different in different countries.

One of the things COSEWIC does.... And I should underscore that the assessment of special concern comes from the independent body; it's not Environment Canada or Parks Canada, but it is the independent body appointed by the minister who have come up with that assessment. They have a rigorous process, which I'm sure the chair of that committee would be happy to explain to you when he comes. Under that process, though, they do include traditional aboriginal knowledge. That is because western scientists have only been studying many of these species for a few decades, whereas traditional aboriginal knowledge has generations of information.

That information was key in COSEWIC's assessment. They had assessed the polar bear as a species of special concern. The Governor General, after the act was passed, referred it back to the committee so that traditional aboriginal knowledge would be included in the decision-making and in the analysis by COSEWIC, which was done.

COSEWIC reported back last fall that, again, they felt it was of special concern. They did note that climate change will likely have an impact over the next three generations. But in the short term, the biggest threat is over-hunting in some areas.

That was the second purpose of the polar bear round table the minister held in January, to discuss the kinds of management practices that various jurisdictions are putting in place. And it's important to note that for two of the subpopulations where hunting was significantly reduced, the populations of polar bears appear to be recovering.

So COSEWIC provides independent advice that the species is a species of special concern. The departments are in the process of consulting on that before finalizing their advice for listing of that species.

9:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Merci. Your time has expired.

We'll move on to Madame Duncan.

9:35 a.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Ms. Wright, you mentioned at the outset that the federal government had taken actions to list species, and that this affords protection. Yet scientific experts advise me that the most critical action to be taken under the act is protection of habitat. Can you tell me how many of those species have received habitat protection?

9:35 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

Yes, habitat protection comes in a number of different ways. And I'm sure the member, Mr. Chair, is thinking of the critical habitat, a designation under the act.

Critical habitat has been identified for only 22 of the species so far under the act. Again, the pace of that is increasing. But this isn't to say that's the only habitat protection that happens. Many of these species exist in national parks, or in provincial parks or on land managed by Environment Canada in protected areas, so there is protection for many of the species across the country where they are already in protected areas.

And I also mentioned the habitat stewardship program, which is providing funding to allow governments to enter into protection arrangements with private citizens on private lands. That program has protected or restored habitat in the neighbourhood of about 400,00 hectares.

9:35 a.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Ms. Wright, I understand, of course, that if these species at risk also happen to wander into a national park, they're going to be protected. But isn't there an obligation of the federal government to also ensure that the full critical habitat of the species is protected? I'm thinking of the cases of grizzly bears and woodland caribou.