Around the world, the future of many of earth’s most precious animals is starting to look grim.

Last year, a damning report from the World Wildlife Fund and Zoological Society of London suggested that two thirds of the planet’s wildlife could be wiped out by 2020 as human activities overwhelm the earth.

Canada alone has more than 520 plants and animals registered under the federal Species At Risk Act, including the polar bear, sea otter, and whooping crane. The list is continually growing. Of these species — whose future is uncertain in the context of climate change, hunting, pollution, and habitat destruction — roughly 15 per cent of them reside in British Columbia.

The province boasts the highest wildlife diversity in Canada, but according to the environmental law charity Ecojustice, more than 43 per cent of its assessed species are at risk. Loss and fragmentation of habitat is widely accepted as the primary contributor to dwindling populations.

As the clock ticks closer to the provincial election, National Observer has compiled a list of party promises that will help protect these remarkable animals and their habitat. It is not intended as an exhaustive list, but as a sample from each of their portfolios.

The full platforms are available here:

The BC Liberals did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The provincial election is on May 9.

John Horgan, Andrew Weaver, Christy Clark, B.C. election
BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark, BC NDP leader John Horgan and BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver have different ideas about protecting British Columbia's wildlife. Snippets of their platforms can be found below. File photos by The Canadian Press

Species at risk legislation

British Columbia is one of two provinces in Canada that doesn’t have stand-alone legislation to protect species at risk (the other is Alberta). As it stands, wildlife is governed by the Wildlife Act, the Forest and Range Practices Act, the Oil and Gas Activities Act, the Ecological Reserves Act, the Park Act, and the Land Act.

Under Premier Christy Clark, the B.C. government developed a five-year plan for species at risk that ends in 2017. This plan has contributed to the development of recovery strategies for many endangered species, and helped track changes in the status of B.C.'s native vertebrates. Critics however, have called it a largely discretionary “patchwork” job that lacks teeth as it promotes ‘voluntary stewardship,’ and investigates policy options rather than implementing any.

Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee, says adopting comprehensive species at risk legislation is "absolutely, critically important" as many of the province's endangered species enter cycles of extinction.

“If there was ever a time to move swiftly, responsibly and robustly towards implementing comprehensive and robust endangered species legislation, this is it," she said in an interview. "Because the double whammy of habitat lost combined with the massive threat of climate change means our wildlife — and particularly our species at risk — need all the help they can get. They can’t defend themselves against chainsaws or climate change. We need to step in."

northern spotted owl, species at risk, endangered species, wilderness committee
According to the Wilderness Committee, fewer than 15 northern spotted owls remain in British Columbia as human activity encroaches on their habitat. This specimen was seen on May 8, 2003 in Oregon. Photo by The Associated Press

BC LIBERALS

  • The BC Liberals 2017 platform contains no plan to implement stand-alone species at risk legislation, but it reads:

"We are committed to protecting healthy and sustainable wildlife populations. We must operate on the principle of conservation first in order to pass on B.C.’s natural splendour so future generations can enjoy it. That’s why our wildlife management practices are determined by the best available science."

BC NDP

  • Create stand-alone species at risk legislation and harmonize other provincial laws to ensure they work collaboratively to protect B.C. wildlife

"A plan is not a law," said the party in an emailed statement to National Observer. "Our Species at Risk law will include firm protections for critically important habitat, protections that have been missing for too long in B.C.."

BC GREENS

  • While not directly referenced in the BC Greens' platform, the party has repeatedly promised to implement species at risk legislation. On Feb. 27, leader Andrew Weaver's proposed Endangered Species Act went through first reading at the Legislative Assembly.

“The Federal Species at Risk Act and B.C.’s current non-binding patchwork approach to protecting wildlife is clearly not working," Weaver said in a news release at the time. "The biodiversity in our province is prodigious, but it is not without risk. We will lose it if we do not act.”

Protecting wild salmon

According to scientists from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, B.C. can expect a decline in salmon stocks this year. Exceptionally warm conditions partnered with extreme climate events have compromised their diet by bringing smaller, less nutritious plankton into their habitats, along with migratory predators that feed on salmon.

The combination of events has resulted in lower river flows and higher water temperatures that make it difficult for salmon to spawn and survive. While some salmon runs thrive in B.C., others have reached the brink of extinction.

Pacific salmon expert Alexandra Morton points to climate change and salmon farming in ocean net-pens as the primary causes.

"Salmon have a great resiliency, so if they’re allowed to thrive, there’s a greater chance they can survive this," she told National Observer. "All we need to do is figure out how to get out of their way... I think the time is now for the province to tell the companies, 'finish growing your (farmed) fish out, then we’re going to revoke your license.'"

British Columbia's sockeye salmon populations are rapidly declining. In 2016, the lowest sockeye salmon run on record was blamed on warmer waters. Photo by The Canadian Press

BC LIBERALS

  • Create a new centre for salmon research in Campbell River
  • Commit $500,000 to North Island College to investigate ways to improve the commercialization of closed-containment aquaculture production
  • Fulfill a previous promise not to issue any new tenure agreements for net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands until 2020
  • Develop a plan to protect steelhead trout and their spawning grounds; reach out to the federal government for collaboration

BC NDP

  • Fully adopt the recommendations of the Cohen Commission, a $36-million federal inquiry into the decline of Fraser River Sockeye published in 2012
  • Adopt a including a plan to keep farm sites out of critical salmon migration routes
  • Provide incentives to help the aquaculture industry transition to closed containment farming
  • Advocate for climate action that will stabilize temperatures in key salmon habitat
  • Do everything it can to stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain project, with pipelines and tankers that put salmon at risk

"We have committed to protecting salmon and other keystone species by updating and strengthening our environmental assessment process, reviewing the Water Sustainability Act, and bringing in a stand-alone Species at Risk Act," said a BC NDP email statement. "These stronger environmental laws will not only protect salmon for future generations, but hopefully help reverse the decline we are seeing in many salmon runs."

BC GREENS

  • Fully implement the recommendations of the Cohen Commission, which he called a "no-brainer" in an interview with National Observer
  • Create a watershed planning process, enhance data gathering and analysis of water quantity and quality to enable science-based decision-making. Findings from this process could result in greater protection for salmon, says Weaver
  • Advocate for climate action that will stabilize temperatures in key salmon habitat
  • Do everything it can to stop all pipeline, LNG and energy projects whose pipelines and tankers pose a risk to salmon

"I want to be careful what I say, but we have also committed to get the open-net fish farms out of the migratory passage of sockeye salmon," Weaver said in an interview. "There are examples where closed-containment, on-land systems are the way the world is going... So we would work to get these closed-containment systems put in place, on-land systems put in place and get these nets out of the water."

Preserving forest habitat

The creation of legislation last year to protect 85 per cent of British Columbia's iconic Great Bear Rainforest from commercial logging should be celebrated. But according to Jens Wieting of Sierra Club BC, many of the province's other rare and remarkable ecosystems remain at risk from forestry and resource extraction projects that include roads, pipelines, terminals and tankers.

Ongoing logging in the habitat of the endangered southern mountain caribou is one example, he says, and the cutting of old-growth trees on Vancouver Island is another. While the loss of old-growth forests — some of the world's best carbon sinks — has important climate change implications, Wieting says it also has consequences for endangered species like the Vancouver Island marmot or marbled murrelet.

"Vancouver Island is clearly an ecological emergency," he told National Observer. "We just found by looking at the loss of old-growth on Vancouver Island that in the last 25 years, we have lost 30 per cent of the old-growth. That’s actually three times faster than tropical rainforest countries are losing their primary rainforests.”

Great bear Rainforest, Mussel Inlet, old-growth trees, ancient forest, temperate coastal rainforestq
The B.C. government, First Nations, loggers and environmentalists have taken major steps to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, pictured above. But what about other vulnerable wildlife habitats across the province? Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey

    BC LIBERALS

    • Support the Snuneymuxw First Nation and their partners to bring the Mid-Island Forestry Initiative to life
    • Pour $27 million into an enhanced provincial caribou recovery program to ensure caribou maintain self-sustaining populations
    • Create and endow a new Wildlife Society with $5 million to manage and grow habitat and continue support through hunting fee revenues
    • Invest $149 million for parks and environmental protection, including $36 million for the BC Parks Future Strategy
    • Allocate $9 million for enhanced reforestation work
    • Provide $500,000 to support the Fraser Basin Council’s Sustainable Solutions Fund
    • Provide $9 million to support the implementation of the Forest Carbon Initiative
    • Increase the number of seedlings planted under the Forests for Tomorrow Program to $28 million per year by 2020

    "We have to make sure that we connect our science to our forest industry and all our resource industries so we can always continue to make the claim that we have the cleanest resource sector, and the cleanest and most sustainable forestry sector in the world," said Clark at the Council of Forest Industries annual convention in 2016.

    BC NDP

    • Modernize land-use planning to sustainably manage land and water ecosystems, using a scientific evidenced-based approach
    • Place all funds from hunting licenses and tags into a new fund for wildlife and habitat conservation
    • Expand investments in reforestation across the province
    • Appoint a scientific panel to review natural gas extraction processes, assess impacts on water and seismic activity, and ensure environmental protection
    • Engage concerned groups in creating short- and long-term plans for wildlife

    "Stronger environmental laws and protections will apply across the B.C. land-base," wrote Jen Holmwood, BC NDP media relations director, in an email.

    BC GREENS

    • Enact a modernized B.C. Forest and Range Ecology Act that implements global best practices in forestry, focuses on restoring wildlife habitat and prioritizes forest health issues (it could effectively stop logging in southern mountain caribou habitat, Weaver told National Observer)
    • Develop a BC old-growth forest inventory that determines reserves and protection needed for old-growth forests
    • Invest $52 million over four years to maintain the productivity and usability of land, including conservation and reclamation
    • Apply the precautionary principle to timber supply reviews to direct sustainable resource management
    • Implement a forest carbon strategy to take full advantage of the opportunities created by forest sinks
    • Stop old-growth logging on Vancouver Island and work towards exclusively second-growth logging across the province

    “We’ve committed on Vancouver Island to stop the old-growth logging, with the provision that we’ll assist those mills that exist that have not already retooled for harvesting second growth," said Weaver. "You have to help those people and those communities that are reliant upon it."

    Tankers in the ocean

    British Columbia's coast is home to a wide variety of at-risk species, including northern resident killer whales, fin whales, salmon, and the southern resident killer whale. The latter has fewer than 90 specimens remaining in the wild, and with the approval of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, faces a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic through its favourite B.C. feeding grounds.

    According to Janie Wray, a whale researcher in the Great Bear Rainforest with decades of experience, these remarkable creatures will be gravely affected should LNG or crude oil tankers start roaring through their habitat. Whales rely on sound for play, courtship, hunting and navigation, she says, and the noise pollution created by large vessels would inevitably disrupt these communication systems.

    The symptoms would range from deafness to death and the odds of a whale-vessel collision would increase.

    “I think that we need to seriously think about setting aside an area along the coast of B.C. that is ‘critical habitat for whales,’" she told National Observer. "I think it’s embarrassing that it hasn’t happened because really, when you think about, there’s no coastline like this on the planet... We’ve already seen a slight increase in collisions with whales with smaller vessels."

    A humpback whale breaches the water. Photo from Eagle Wing Tours
    A humpback whale breaches off the B.C. coast. Whale researcher Janie Wray has heard humpbacks mimicking the sounds of orcas and using distinct choruses and verses in their songs. If tanker traffic is increased in their habitat, she says it could threaten their survival. Photo courtesy of Eagle Wing Tours

    BC LIBERALS

    • The BC Liberal platform does not mention the impact of tankers on vulnerable marine wildlife, but vows to work towards getting three LNG facilities moving to construction by 2020

    "Responsible resource development is how people have lived here for thousands of years — making a good living from the abundance of our land and water, while protecting and preserving the environment for future generations," said Clark at an April campaign stop in Campbell River. "From mining to forestry, to aquaculture, we are the only party with a plan to keep developing resources better, cleaner, and more responsibly than anywhere in the world."

    BC NDP

    • Require LNG projects to meet British Columbia's conditions: jobs and training for locals, fair return for resources, partnership with First Nations, completion of a rigorous environmental assessment process
    • Advocate for federal protection of vulnerable cetacean populations as marine tanker traffic increases

    "The threat posed by a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic from the Kinder Morgan project is one of the key reasons we strongly oppose it and will use every tool in our toolbox to stop it," reads an email statement from the BC NDP. "We will also continue to push the federal government to keep shipments of dangerous cargo such as oil and bitumen out of these sensitive and globally important waters."

    BC GREENS

    • Do everything it can to stop all pipeline, LNG and energy projects whose tankers pose a risk to vulnerable marine wildlife
    • Advocate for greater federal protection of marine species at risk

    "It’s hard, because the water is federal jurisdiction," said Weaver. "But we would do everything we can. We’re the only party that’s actually said Paris (the climate targets made at COP21 in 2015) is a game-changer. We will not encourage the investment into any new fossil fuel infrastructure because it’s the wrong direction to go." ​

    Trophy hunting and enforcement

    More than 90 per cent of British Columbians oppose the grizzly bear trophy hunt.

    According to the David Suzuki Foundation, grizzlies have been eliminated or are currently threatened in 18 per cent of the province, through a dangerous mix of habitat loss, salmon collapse, climate change, and human conflict. They are designated as ‘vulnerable’ by the Conservation Data Centre and a species of ‘special concern’ by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

    In 2012, Coastal First Nations declared a ban on trophy hunting in their territory using indigenous law of the land. The practice is still permitted today however, and the 2017 hunting season has already begun. Every year, an average of 329 grizzly bears are killed by licensed hunters out of an estimated population of 15,000, based on figures from B.C.'s compulsory inspection database.

    A grizzly mother and her cub scout for food in the Great Bear Rainforest, where trophy hunting remains legal today. Photo by Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild

    BC LIBERALS

    • End the trophy hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest in partnership with Coastal First Nations
    • Continue a science-based approach to the trophy hunt elsewhere in the province (restricting the age and sex of bears that can be killed, for example, and banning in grizzly populations of fewer than 100 bears)
    • Invest $9 million for Environmental Management Act compliance and enforcement

    "We know that many First Nations have a deep connection to the land, and also use wildlife for food, social and ceremonial uses," says the party platform. "Our hunting, trapping and angling regulations are designed to ensure species conservation and to maintain healthy wildlife populations for use."

    BC NDP

    • End the grizzly bear trophy hunt throughout the province (but open to the possibility of hunting grizzlies for meat)
    • Strengthen the provincial Conservation Officer Service, which focuses on natural resource law enforcement and preventing human-wildlife conflict

    "Our number one concern with Conservation Officer Service is how few officers we have to manage a very large land base," said the party in an emailed statement. "We are going to hire additional conservation officers and give them the resources they need to get out of the office and out onto the land where they can enforce our environmental laws and protect the public."

    BC GREENS

    • End the grizzly bear trophy hunt throughout the province (but open to the possibility of hunting grizzlies for meat)
    • Direct a portion of $52 million over four years to strengthen the Conservation Officer Service

    "Communities must be free from bearing the costs of negative environmental impacts and be assured they are benefiting from the exploitation of nearby resources," says the party platform. "Mechanisms do exist to fully protect our environment. However, the BC Liberal government has chosen to tie the hands of the Environmental Assessment Office, and has starved conservation officers and other inspectors of desperately needed resources."

    Editor's Note: This report is possible thanks to the generous support from our readers and subscribers, who backed the State of the Animal fundraising campaign in April 2017. If you’d like to see more reporting like this, please support our journalists by becoming a subscriber.

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