Provincial & Territorial Species at Risk Laws
This evaluation identifies the provinces and territories in Canada that have specific laws to protect species at risk and gaps in effective implementation.
BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, Yukon, and PEI still do not have dedicated species at risk legislation.
The last time Saskatchewan updated its list of species at risk.
Manitoba is the only province or territory with a law that includes protection for endangered ecosystems.
Why do provincial & territorial species at risk laws matter?
Species at risk of extinction, also known as threatened or endangered species, represent those plants, animals, and other wildlife species that have not been adequately safeguarded through existing laws and policies against a myriad of threatening processes.
Accordingly, many nations have enacted laws that confer special attention to these species at risk that provide protections of varying strength to populations and their habitats (Ray et al. 2021). These laws often represent the last lines of defence in stopping extinction.
The federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) is intended to: 1) prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, 2) provide for the recovery of wildlife species, and 3) prevent wild species becoming endangered or threatened. However, its automatic protections apply only to migratory birds, aquatic species, and species on federal lands. Hence, the primary responsibility for the protection of species at risk and their habitats in Canada is under provincial and territorial governments.
Many species that are listed by SARA are not listed in provincial and territorial species at risk legislation or wildlife laws.
In recognition of the incomplete coverage of legal safeguards across Canada, the federal government and all provinces and territories except Québec (and Nunavut, which did not yet exist), agreed to create consistent legislation for species at risk in a National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk (the ‘Accord’). in 1996. At that time, only Ontario (1971), New Brunswick (1973) and Manitoba (1990) had endangered species laws in place. Following the Accord, Nova Scotia (1998), Newfoundland and Labrador (2001) and Northwest Territories (2009) enacted new laws, and Ontario (2007) and New Brunswick (2013) replaced theirs with new acts.
To date, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon, and PEI still do not have dedicated species at risk legislation. Of the two jurisdictions that did not sign the Accord in 1996, Québec has had a species at risk law in place since 1998, and Nunavut does not. Most provinces and territories that do not have dedicated species at risk laws have wildlife laws that give authority for protection of designated species at risk, although generally not for their habitats (Ecojustice 2012; Olive 2018).
Calls to action
Addressing the biodiversity crisis in Canada will require transformative change. See our backgrounder on this for more information. More specific actions include:
Federal, provincial, territorial & Indigenous governments
- Mainstream biodiversity conservation through innovative governance (particularly Indigenous-led conservation), and federal leadership with strong levels of financial investment.
- Develop a new National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan within a year of the new post-2020 targets in the Global Biodiversity Framework. This is anticipated to be ratified at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) under the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal in December 2022.
- Create genuine space for Indigenous law and Indigenous-led conservation to address biodiversity loss and degradation in Canada.
- Harmonize species at risk laws across Canada.
- Improve reporting on the effectiveness of laws in protecting and recovering species at risk.
Local governments & communities
- Develop local policies and plans to protect nature. Many local governments have already developed their own biodiversity plans and natural heritage strategies, including cities like Edmonton and Vancouver.
Civil societies, community organizations, universities, colleges & museums
- Support and encourage governments in developing laws and policies that truly protect wildlife and their habitats, rather than accommodate species and ecosystems within status quo development.
Businesses & corporations
- Incorporate and implement biodiversity targets into corporate sustainable development goals and measure progress.
- Support and encourage governments in developing laws for species at risk.
- Encourage governments to enact or strengthen our laws to protect species at risk.
- Participate in government consultations and voting processes to place the biodiversity and climate emergencies at the top of the agenda.
As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, one of Canada’s commitments is to “promote the recovery of threatened species” (Article 8). While the United States had enacted dedicated federal endangered species legislation in 1973, Canada did not put in place federal legislation until the passage of the Species at Risk Act in 2002, which came into full effect in 2004.
The overall history of implementation of species at risk laws in Canada can best be described as relatively weak and politically contentious. BC has the greatest number of species at risk in Canada but does not have a species at risk law (Westwood et al. 2019). Changes to endangered species legislation to reduce protection under the auspices of efficiency and removal of “red tape” is a common and reoccurring event (e.g., Ontario; Bergman et al., 2020; Nova Scotia; East Coast Environmental Law 2021). The Ontario Endangered Species Act, for example, has been amended several times since it was assented to in 2007 – three times since 2019. While once considered the strongest such laws in force in Canada (Ecojustice 2012), a recent audit found Ontario was failing to achieve its central purpose, with mounting evidence for weakened and delayed protections for species at risk in the province (Office of the Auditor General of Ontario 2021).
The federal government can enforce SARA through emergency orders and the “safety net” provision, but these are rarely invoked. As such, a patchwork of protection measures exists for most species through differing provincial and territorial interpretations and implementation of SARA (Olive 2015). Many species are often listed under SARA but are not included in provincial or territorial listings, which can limit the scope of recovery efforts (e.g., Bobolink is currently listed under SARA, but not in Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act). This inconsistency is most pronounced in the six jurisdictions (Nunavut, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, PEI) that do not have specific provincial or territorial endangered species legislation. While their wildlife laws do all contain provisions for species at risk, these are largely discretionary and rely on producing lists of regulated species at risk, many of which are either out of date or haven’t been created at all.
Confidence and limitations
High confidence – this information is based on information publicly available on government websites.
The presence of laws to protect species at risk does not necessarily mean that species are risk are being effectively conserved (Office of the Auditor General of Ontario 2021). These laws do however set the foundation for the protection of species at risk, but effectiveness of implementation needs regular assessment. This is challenging to do, both because information on activities, e.g., permitting is rarely transparent, and so many species receive little to no monitoring attention.
The Barn Owl is a nocturnal species of owl that can be found all around the world. It relies on its excellent vision and precise hearing to hunt even in total darkness.
There are two populations in Canada. The Western population is resident year-round in southern British Columbia. The Eastern population is very small and found sporadically in southwestern Ontario.
Photo: Barn Owl (western population).
COSEWIC status: Threatened.
Applications and next steps
This evaluation can be used to identify and inform gaps in laws that protect species at risk. Species protection gaps (i.e., species listed under SARA, but not listed in provincial or territorial species at risk acts) will be explored in the next iteration or other evaluations.
Figure 1: Species at Risk Laws in Canada.
S3: Species at Risk
P1: Biodiversity Laws, Policies and Plans
How to Cite
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada. 2022. Species at Risk Laws (version 1.0), in SHAPE of Nature. https://shapeofnature.ca/
Data sources & methods
The review of laws is based on a search of government websites for species at risk laws.
This evaluation is updated annually. The next update will occur in 2023.
S1 Edge of Extinction
S2 Globally Threatened Species
S3 Species at Risk
S4 Endemic Species
S5 Knowledge of Species
S6 State of Canada's Trees
S7 State of Canada's Whales
H1 Globally Threatened Ecosystems
A1 Protected & Conserved Areas
A2 Recovery Plans for Species at Risk
P1 Biodiversity Laws, Policies & Plans
P2 Provincial & Territorial Species at Risk Laws
P3 Delays in Protecting Species at Risk