By Elizabeth Nickson
As the federal election looms, a hailstorm of criticism is being launched against the Harper government’s failure on environmental issues. Already the media has informed us that we are not protecting our caribou and that Canada is an international pariah with regard to the protection of endangered species. The Sixth Great Extinction looms; our water and air are threatened. Our grandchildren will live on a blasted heath, etc.
Unlike climate change, the notion of the Sixth Great Extinction is not contested vigorously or even examined dispassionately by anyone in the public arena. All reporting contains an element of alarm, if not outright panic. As a result, the numerous failures of endangered species regulation in Canada have not been reported.
The failure of endangered species law can be broken into two sections: process and science. Let’s start with the science. Paul Ehrlich, the godfather of extinction science, predicted in 1986 that by 2000, 27,000 species a day would be going extinct. Reality has been harsh for the professor, since in the last 500 years, according to the authoritative Red List and CREO, only 5 continental mammals and 6 birds have gone extinct. Island extinctions are somewhat larger – in the 100’s – but smaller by many orders of magnitude than 27,000 a day. Further much of the hysteria is based on the notion that climate change will cause species reduction of between 11 and 37 percent, particularly amphibians. Yet, these losses have not come to fruition, and last December, the authoritative Nature magazine published an essay saying it was increasing clear that they never would.
Despite this failure, endangered species biologists still base their work on Ehrlich’s flawed species area relationship. As a result, we are told that many millions of acres must be set aside for conservation purposes, and economic activity stilled. This has happened across Canada’s sparsely populated rural areas, especially where resource, industrial or business activity takes place. People’s economic lives are ruined based on bad data, which is to say, it lacks transparency, has not received genuine independent peer review, and cannot be reproduced by qualified third parties. This has a deleterious knock-on effect on the whole economy. Resource jobs create massive unacknowledged multiplier effects.
Colorado has performed a useful experiment on this issue. Told that a federal listing of the black tailed prairie dog was in the offing, the state did their own counting, several times, using a variety of methods, over a period of years. The federal ESA wanted 12 million acres; the state gave them less than a million. In court, the state’s scientific rigour won, hands down. If the state had not fought the listing, eleven million acres would have been cleared of economic activity, and thousands of families ruined.
Is the Harper government’s refusal to get on board the ESA train making a bit more sense?
Local residents working with regional scientists are far better analysts of species health in their areas. Species science is often developed in Asia, Europe or the US then applied wholesale to our fields, forests and mountains. Further, because of confirmation bias, in this field, there is virtually no such thing as independent peer review; science is reviewed by your pals, who are anxious to be hired again. Too often listings are recommended on the evidence of a single master’s thesis or equally weak science. Repeated use of the same reviewer in multiple assessments is common. If feet drag, environmental NGO’s take the government to court. In southern Alberta last year, NGO’s took the Alberta government to court, resulting in the forced clearance of thousands of acres, expensive new rules, and million dollar fines. This for 100-odd sage grouse who dwell at the northernmost limit of the bird’s historic range. In the U.S., rather than sequestration, successful restoration of the grouse has been done by landowners working with local scientists to improve habitat.
The opportunity cost of shutting down one forest (of thousands) in the U.S., for the spotted owl was estimated at $1.3 billion. On heavily regulated lands, bad science means the cost of industrial projects skyrocket, revenue for public funds drops, and rural Canadians find their communities shrinking every year, as the multiplier takes effect. Rules are so complex that government scientists have been caught hundreds of times destroying species and habitat, and landowners, faced with punishing restrictions, shoot, shovel and shut up.
All this destruction for a 2 percent recovery rate. Time for root and branch reform.
Elizabeth Nickson is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.