Critics say B.C. old growth blockades underscore failure to deliver endangered species law

·4 min read
Western Screech-owls are at risk on B.C. due to its small population size and loss of breeding and foraging habitat. (Ann Nightingale - image credit)
Western Screech-owls are at risk on B.C. due to its small population size and loss of breeding and foraging habitat. (Ann Nightingale - image credit)

The discovery of a threatened species in the forest at the heart of the province's latest logging conflict has critics calling out the B.C. NDP for not delivering on a 2017 campaign promise to enact provincial laws to protect animals at risk.

This spring, people on Vancouver Island found Western screech owls, a threatened species in B.C., near Cowichan Lake where protesters have been blocking logging activities to protect old growth trees.

Conservationists called on the province to take action to protect the birds by pausing logging activities in the area until the breeding season is over. The birds are known for their distinctive trills and hoots that speed up and sound like a bouncing ball.

Critics say a provincial endangered species act would give the animal's survival prominence over industrial activities.

B.C. does have some policies, such as the Wildlife Act, to protect species that are threatened. But B.C. doesn't have specific laws like most other provinces have, which include binding measures such as habitat protection or rehabilitation.

For example, current B.C. laws might protect trees from being cut down where a Western screech owl is nesting, but logging can still be permitted in and around the birds. Scientists say that's not enough to keep the birds from being negatively affected.

At times the federal government has stepped in to invoke the federal Species at Risk Act, like it did recently to protect hummingbird nests in Burnaby from being threatened by construction around the Trans Mountain pipeline.

'Failed to follow through'

Tara Martin, a UBC professor and conservation scientist, says B.C. has more species at risk than any other province and needs its own laws to adequately ensure their survival.

"We have 1,800 species in decline and the government was elected on a mandate to develop and implement a made-in-B.C. species legislation," she said.

"Sadly, it's failed to follow through on that."

Western screech-owls are more often heard than seen due to their hollow, whistled double trill and a series of low hoots that speed up toward the end like a bouncing ball.
Western screech-owls are more often heard than seen due to their hollow, whistled double trill and a series of low hoots that speed up toward the end like a bouncing ball.(Ann Nightingale)

In 2017, the BC NDP said in its platform it would "bring in an endangered species law and harmonize other laws to ensure they are all working towards the goal of protecting our beautiful province."

The province did begin a process to enact a law, which included input from scientists like Martin, but she said it eventually fizzled out due to pressure from industry.

"It really fell apart for one key reason, and that was a backlash from the forestry sector about protection of old growth forests for southern mountain caribou," she said.

Sonia Furstenau, leader of the B.C. Green Party and the MLA for the Cowichan Valley, helped her party draft and table an endangered species act two months before the NDP was elected as a minority government in 2017 and gained support from her party.

She says the anticipation of having the government pass its own law dissipated when it became clear it wasn't a priority.

"It's really disheartening to see yet another thing that this government promised fall off the edge of the table and be ignored," Furstenau said.

Protecting land

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said protecting species at risk continues to be a priority, but did not say when legislation might come.

Instead it outlined consultation efforts made across the province through to 2018 around the protection and management of endangered species.

The ministry said B.C. has worked to protect land and leads the country with the highest percentage of protected areas, many of which are home to species at risk.

It also said that it will work with Indigenous communities and the federal government "to develop broader provincial approaches and policy tools to achieve positive outcomes for biodiversity and species recovery."

"This will include consideration of legislative options," the ministry said.

'Broken promise'

Meanwhile, conservationists like the Wilderness Committee's Charlotte Dawe say the discovery of Western screech owls in the area to be logged is an opportunity for the province to move faster on its promise from 2017.

"[John Horgan] promised us a law," she said. "He got voted in on that law, he campaigned on it and it's another broken promise. He doesn't seem to understand the severity of the biodiversity crisis at all."