Species & the Law

Canada is the second largest country on Earth and due to its immense size and physical location, Canada has a wide diversity of ecosystems, ranging from rainforests and beaches to grasslands and the arctic tundra. This diversity provides Canada with a rich natural heritage and with a seemingly endless supply of natural resources. Unfortunately, the steady exploitation of our natural world, whether through logging, oil and gas development or otherwise, has taken a toll on our wildlife and biodiversity. One of the most recognizable negative side effects that often accompanies this exploitation of our environment is the effect that it has on Canadian plants and animals – collectively we will refer to them as species.

So, before we start looking at how environmental law helps or harms Canadian plants and animals, let’s define what exactly we mean when we say ‘species’.

The Government of Alberta has defined species as “birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, plants and some invertebrates.” [1] As you can see, this definition is quite broad and could encompass nearly all living creatures in Alberta.

All native species* are critical to a healthy biodiversity, however, there are also certain species that have a disproportionate effect on the overall health of their ecosystem and the health of these species’ populations is considered to be a good indication of the health of their overall environment. These are known as keystone species. The first species to be defined as a keystone species was the sea star, populations of which can be found in Canadian coastal waters. [2] Other examples of keystone species in Canada include the woodland caribou, sea otter, grizzly bear, and white bark pine. [3] A keystone species is defined as being a reliable indicator of ecological integrity for the landscape as a whole. [4] They can help us measure how well an ecosystem is doing. In order to deal with the risks facing both keystone and non-keystone species, species at risk legislation should focus both on population maintenance, or growth – as the case may be, and protection. Species are affected by many types of legislation including statutes that deal primarily with land use, forestry, pollution prevention, and more. This section; however, will focus on species at risk law as an introduction to how we manage and protect species.

*A native species is a species that naturally occurs in the area where it is found and that arrived in this area without human intervention.

Categories of Species at Risk >>

[1] “Species at Risk Alberta, A Guide to Endangered and Threatened Species and Species of Special Concern in Alberta – Version 2”, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development 2 (2015) at 1 online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/d5f03916-aa1a-4c37-acee-354e69a479f0/resource/6b2c4da7-c933-410e-a6c0-575e7c6361c9/download/SpeciesAtRiskGuide-Jan-2015.pdf.

[2] Robert T Paine, “Food Web Complexity and Species Diversity” The American Naturalist (1966) 100:910 65.

[3] Species at Risk Alberta Guide at 23 & 87.

[4] Shaun Fluker & Jocelyn Stacey, “The Basics of Species at Risk Legislation in Alberta” (2012) 50:1 95 at 99.