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Only a few dozen killer whales remain in B.C.'s southern resident population, including this new calf spotted near Victoria on Feb 6. Ecojustice spokesperson Susan Pinkus said killer whales are the only species to have been granted habitat protection outside of existing parks, and that move came about only when environmental groups filed litigation. (Mark Melleson/CBC)

A new report card from a coalition of conservation groups says the federal government is moving at a snail's pace when it comes to implementing Canada's Species at Risk Act.

The report card was produced by Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, Nature Canada and Environmental Defence. It accuses the federal government of ducking its own laws and ignoring scientific evidence to avoid protecting habitat essential for species' survival.

"What the report card has found is that the most important piece of legislation we have to protect species at risk in Canada has potential to work but is not working yet because it's being poorly implemented," said Susan Pinkus, a conservation biologist with Ecojustice.

The coalition's report, released Thursday, says of the 449 species listed under the act, next to none are receiving adequate protection. Pinkus said resident killer whales are the only species to have been granted habitat protection outside of existing parks. She said it's a move that came about only when environmental groups filed litigation.

"We can't file lawsuits for every species," she said.

"It seems ridiculous that the environmental community is in the position of forcing the government to obey laws that the government itself made."

Legislation due for review

Canada's Species at Risk Act was enacted in December 2002 to provide legal protection for wildlife in danger of becoming extirpated or extinct. The report card, which gives the federal government a final grade of F, coincides with the act's mandatory five-year review.

"We're hoping that the five-year review … is going to reinforce the fact that the act is not being implemented and that there needs to be more political will to implement it and to protect the habitats that species need to survive," said Rachel Plotkin, biodiversity policy analyst with David Suzuki Foundation.

In a statement released Thursday, Environment Canada said the government has committed $275 million over five years to achieve progress on the conservation of wildlife in Canada.

"Considerable effort continues to be made on the part of the federal, provincial and territorial governments to prepare recovery strategies, management plans and/or action plans for listed species," the statement reads.

"At present, recovery strategies for 107 species are now completed or are in the final stages of completion, and work on strategies for 183 additional species has begun."

For a species to be covered by the act, it must first be listed for protection. After an assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the federal government has nine months to add the species to the act's formal list.

Delays put species in jeopardy, report says

The report says the government has failed to meet this nine-month timeline and has left many species in limbo.

"At least 53 species at risk are likely continuing to decline while government takes between 17 and 29 months to determine whether or not to add them to the list, and for some species the delays are indefinite," the report reads.

"Such delays can jeopardize the recovery of a species that is already on the brink of extinction."

Pinkus said the northern spotted owl is a classic example.

"The spotted owl has been listed under the Species at Risk Act since 2003," she said.

"There have been many opportunities for the federal government to use that act to protect it and we're now basically on a death watch. We're watching this species disappear from the wild."

The report says just seven of the owls were seen at last count.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans singled out

When it comes to action plans for species at risk, the report says just one of those plans has been completed since the act was implemented.

"(It's) for the Banff Springs snail, a species located entirely within a national park," the report reads.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is singled out in the report and accused of failing to acknowledge that marine fish need protection. Since 2004, the report reads, only 35 per cent of marine fish assessed to be at risk by the federal committee have been added to the list and no marine fish have been listed as endangered or threatened.

Pardeep Ahluwalia, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said that figure doesn't tell the whole story.

"This number is predicated on the belief that the Species at Risk Act is the only mechanism we have to protect species deemed to be at risk," he said. Ahluwalia said the Fisheries Act gives the department the ability to manage stocks through integrated fishery plans. Those plans, he said, are designed to lead to protection, conservation and recovery.

"We believe we are working to implement the Species at Risk Act and we've been reasonably good at it. I'll praise it softly because yes, of course, one could always be a little bit better," he said.

He stressed that the act is still relatively new and that the department is still learning all the intricacies involved.

"DFO is very much committed to the protection of aquatic species at risk.… No, we're not perfect but I don't think that our record is as bad as is being suggested in this report card," he said.