Canada Proposes Wildlife Law With Weak Teeth

Scientists say law does little to protect habitat of wildlife

Canada is the second-largest country on earth, and a proud exporter to the world of minerals, oil, and lumber since its early days. But that history has also etched a ragged trail across its vast and varied ecosystem.

Some 62 animals and plants - from the Acadian flycatcher to the large whorled pagonia - are considered endangered. And now, a quarter century after the US passed its Endangered Species Act, Canada is considering its own law. But there is a problem: Hundreds of scientists say the proposed law will not work.

"If passed in its current form, this law will do a poor job protecting animals," says David Schindler, a professor at the University of Alberta at Edmonton renowned for his pioneering work on acid rain.

He and 299 Canadian scientists earlier this month signed a blunt letter warning Prime Minister Jean Chretien that the proposed act is far too weak to adequately protect 254 "at risk" species in Canada.

While Canada's proposed law might have a name similar to the US Endangered Species Act, it does not have the same teeth to protect wildlife habitat, the scientists and environmentalists say.

As currently conceived, the law would apply only to a limited number of species: those living on federal lands - which are just 5 percent of Canada - aquatic species, and migratory birds. On provincial land, the federal law would still impose stiff fines for killing an endangered animal, but would not protect the land animals live on.

"The Canadian Act is much weaker and narrower than US law," says Stuart Elgie, a lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defense Fund in Toronto. "The US Endangered Species Act applies to all endangered species and their habitats. Canada's law would only apply to 40 percent of endangered species and the habitats of 30 percent of endangered species."

Even so, Canada has a bit of breathing space, scientists say. In the United States, much more habitat has been chewed up by development, and more than 800 species are on the endangered list, environmentalists say.

Still, polls show more than 90 percent of Canadians see wildlife preservation as a priority today. Yet federal and provincial governments have adopted few laws to protect animal habitats from development.

"Despite Canadians' commitment to conservation, there is little evidence that the status of endangered species and their habitats has improved much over the last 10 years," says a 1995 report by Wildlife Habitat Canada, an Ottawa-based activist group.

Quebec and the western provinces are adamant that they will not cede control of lands to federal law. Yet animals often cross from federal land onto provincial land.

Banff National Park in Alberta is the emblem of Canada's wild lands. Yet Banff's grizzly bear population is threatened from millions of visitors and park development. A temporary halt to park development was upheld this month by the Canadian Supreme Court.

But the new law will not prevent development on lands adjacent to the park and thus will do little to reverse the grizzly's regional decline, says Stephen Herrero, a University of Calgary biologist.

Karen Kraft Sloan, an aide to Environment Minister Sergio Marchi, denies the new legislation is an election-year ploy by the Chrtien government to look as "green" as possible.

Even critics agree the bill is a step in the right direction. Still, many worry that large gaps in the policy will be deadly for endangered species.

"It's true this federal government has gone further than its predecessors," Mr. Elgie says. "But when it comes to extinction ... either you address the problem or you don't."

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