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BC exploits loophole, dodges duty to protect species: green groups

Several environmental groups are calling on B.C.’s auditor general to investigate whether the province has failed to protect endangered species by taking advantage of loopholes in federal legislation.

In a complaint filed Tuesday, Ecojustice and the Environmental Law Centre allege the B.C. government has not identified or safeguarded the critical habitats of at-risk species, even when precise scientific information was available.

Under the federal government's 2003 Species at Risk Act, provinces have an obligation to protect habitats they designate as ‘critical.’ But without the designation, many provisions of the Act don’t take effect, Centre legal director Calvin Sandborn said.

“If there is no ‘critical habitat,’ the federal endangered species legislation doesn’t work,” he said.

The loophole is at the heart of yesterday’s request to Auditor General John Doyle, an initiative also supported by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club of B.C.

According to the filing – which includes government documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests – B.C.’s Environment Ministry has disregarded information from scientists working on species recovery projects.

One example the report highlights is the severely endangered Vancouver Island Marmot, which currently has a population in the wild of less than 70.

“The scientists know exactly where the few dozen remaining wild marmots currently live,” reads the document. “Every individual is closely followed by researchers.”

Yet the filing suggests the B.C. government has done nothing to designate the marmots’ homes as 'critical habitat.'

The province has researched and proposed recovery strategies for 44 species, but only identified habitats for two of them, according to the report. It adds that those two designations came as a result of lawsuits filed by Ecojustice.

Sandborn could only speculate why the province has been so slow to flag the habitats of threatened species.

“They may be concerned about not wanting to foreclose any sort of development,” he said.

Sandborn said he hopes the Auditor General initiates an investigation so that B.C. will stop dragging its feet when it comes to protecting endangered species.

“Across the country other provinces are doing a much better job of identifying critical habitat,” he said. “Here there seems to be a general rule against it.”

Calls to Environment Minister Barry Penner were not returned by press time.

Geoff Dembicki is a staff reporter for the Hook.

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