Which laws apply to species at risk in Alberta?

In Alberta, the Wildlife Act was historically focused on game species; however, as it evolved through time, it became more relevant for the management of other species as well. Today, this is the primary provincial law governing species and species at risk. [1] Unfortunately, despite this Act, Alberta is one of seven Canadian jurisdictions that have not yet enacted dedicated endangered species legislation. Rather, in order to comply with the requirements that came with joining the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, Alberta simply changed sections of the existing Wildlife Act to add rules for the designation and protection of endangered species. [2]

One important provision in the Wildlife Act is Section 36(1) which is a prohibition against willfully molesting, disturbing or destroying the house, nest, or den of an endangered animal. [3]

Unfortunately, the usefulness of this section is restricted by the inclusion of the word ‘willfulness’. This language means that accidentally destroying an animal’s den or home (even the den or home of an animal considered to be at risk), for example through industrial development, could not be prosecuted under this section. Additionally, this section focuses only on the protection of individual animals rather than the protection of a species.

Furthermore, because the Wildlife Act was originally a hunting regulation, it continues to be more concerned with hunting without proper licenses than it is with the protection, or lack thereof, of at risk species. The Act and current regulations fail to meaningfully address plant and invertebrate species. For those species, the Wildlife Act offers no legal protection although it does enable some planning for those species that are “at risk.” Further, even for those animals addressed in the Act, there is limited protection. For example, after the identification of a species as being ‘at risk’, the Wildlife Act provides for the option of a recovery plan. [4] A recovery plan is meant to address the best ways to increase the species’ population. Unfortunately, there is no obligation for the Minister to provide a recovery plan, nor is there any requirement that a recovery plan include the identification of a species’ critical habitat. [5] Identification of critical habitat is important because it can help to ensure that populations remain stable into the future. Simply protecting individual species is relatively fruitless unless they have somewhere to live. The government could pass regulations under the Wildlife Act to deal more with habitat; however, this has not happened in Alberta.

The limitations of the Wildlife Act means that there is currently too much reliance on policy in the absence of enforceable, legal protections.

Some of Alberta’s stated policy includes enumerated ‘Species at Risk Strategies’.[7] The basic outline of these steps set out in this strategy is listed below:

i. General Status Assessment: This step provides an initial assessment of the well-being of wild species populations. This is done to determine conservation and management priorities.

ii. Detailed Status Assessment: This assessment is prepared for those species suspected to be at risk and helps to determine whether the species should be considered for designation as either threatened, species of special concern, or data deficient.

iii. Legal Designation: If a species receives a detailed classification after the detailed status assessment, they can be included in the Wildlife Regulation.[8] Once they are listed, they can receive protection and any plans for recovery must be initiated. It is in this step, where the lack of legislative timelines as well as the lack of any legislative definition of ‘habitat’ under the Wildlife Act becomes a problem. Government policy provides an opportunity for the Minister to require that a recovery plan be initiated, however, it is not mandatory nor does it include a deadline by which to do so. Without a deadline for when this plan must be completed, recovery efforts can be drawn out for years, sometimes to the point where populations can no longer recover.

iv. Recovery Planning: These plans are developed for species that are listed as either Threatened or Endangered. The overall goal of any recovery plan is to ensure the species’ long-term survival in the wild.

v. Prevention: This program includes the development of management plans for Species of Special Concern and emphasizes strategies to prevent species designated as Special Concern, from being upgraded to Endangered or Threatened. Inventory and research can also be done on species that are listed as Data Deficient, often in an attempt to get more information and to eventually classify those animals in the correct category.

vi. Implementation: This is the execution of actions that were recommended in the prevention or recovery plans. [9]

These policies can help steer decision making but are not binding on decisions. The policies can be easily changed, relative to the ease of change for a regulation or law, and leave a lot of room for discretion. 

<< A Brief History of Species at Risk or Habitat Law in Canada

Which laws apply to species at risk in Canada? >>

[1] Wildlife Act, RSA 2000, c W-10. 

[2] Shaun Fluker & Jocelyn Stacey, “The Basics of Species at Risk Legislation in Alberta” (2012) 50:1 95 at 97.

[3] Wildlife Act,  s 36(1).

[4] Wildlife Act,  s 6.

[5] Wildlife Act, s 6(3).

[6] “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) online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/d5f03916-aa1a-4c37-acee-354e69a479f0/resource/6b2c4da7-c933-410e-a6c0-575e7c6361c9/download/SpeciesAtRiskGuide-Jan-2015.pdf.

[7] Alberta Environment and Parks, “Alberta’s Species at Risk Strategies” (17 August 2018) Government of Alberta online: https://www.alberta.ca/albertas-species-at-risk-strategies.aspx?utm_source=redirector.  

[8] Wildlife Regulation, Alta Reg 143/1997.

[9] Species at Risk Alberta, “A Guide to Endangered and Threatened Species and Species of Special Concern in Alberta – Version 2” at 5.