Who’s really endangered?

Commentary, Elizabeth Nickson

As the federal election looms, a hailstorm of criticism is being launched against the Harper government for its failure on environmental issues.

Already, the media reports have informed us that we are not protecting our caribou. Canada is an international pariah when it comes to the protection of endangered species. The sixth "great extinction" looms. 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 of Threatened Species and the Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms — only five continental mammals and six birds have gone extinct. Island extinctions are larger — in the hundreds — 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%, particularly amphibians. Yet, these losses have not come to fruition, and last December, the authoritative journal Nature published an essay saying it was increasingly 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 its own counting, several times, using a variety of methods, over a period of years. Administrators of the federal Endangered Species Act wanted 12 million acres for the animal's protection; 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, 11 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 endangered species 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 U.S., 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 non-governmental organizations take the government to court. In southern Alberta last year, NGOs 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 skyrockets, 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% recovery rate. Time for root and branch reform.

This op ed was originally published by The Toronto Sun on Sunday, March 15, 2015: http://www.torontosun.com/2015/03/15/whos-really-endangered