We must act now to pro­tect birds in Canada

The laws are out­dated, not enough, say Sa­van­nah Carr-Wil­son, Calvin Sand­born and Stephen Hazell.

Ottawa Citizen - - OPINION - Sa­van­nah Carr-Wil­son was ar­ti­cled stu­dent and Calvin Sand­born is le­gal di­rec­tor of the Uvic En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­tre; Stephen Hazell is di­rec­tor of Con­ser­va­tion at Na­ture Canada.

Mi­gra­tory birds lend grace and beauty to our lives. From the heron silently stalk­ing fish at dawn, to the haunt­ing call of the loon, to the ma­jes­tic glide of swans to pond, these birds en­rich us.

They also ben­e­fit us in prac­ti­cal ways. They con­trol in­sects that dam­age farms and forests, and dis­perse seeds and pol­li­nate plants. They are cen­tral to the diet and cul­ture of Indige­nous groups. Bird watch­ing and wa­ter­fowl hunt­ing con­trib­ute bil­lions of dol­lars to Canada’s econ­omy.

But the birds are in deep trou­ble. A shock­ing UBC study re­cently found that seabird pop­u­la­tions have de­clined 70 per cent since the 1950s. Canadian shore­bird, grass­land bird, and aerial in­sec­ti­vore pop­u­la­tions have plunged 42 to 64 per cent since the 1970s.

In fact, one-third of North America’s bird species risk ex­tinc­tion if ac­tion is not taken.

The good news is that mi­gra­tory birds faced a sim­i­lar cri­sis a cen­tury ago — and we pro­tected them then. With con­certed ef­fort, we can do it again.

One hun­dred years ago, pop­u­la­tions of mi­gra­tory birds such as the trum­peter swan, whoop­ing crane, brant goose and wood duck de­clined dra­mat­i­cally. This de­cline was caused by over­hunt­ing — and by the slaugh­ter of five mil­lion birds a year to pro­vide dec­o­ra­tive feath­ers for women’s hats.

Audubon So­ci­eties were formed across North America to stop the sense­less killing, and in 1916 the U.S. and Canada signed the Mi­gra­tory Birds Con­ven­tion. The 1917 Mi­gra­tory Birds Con­ven­tion Act suc­cess­fully met the threat to birds and con­trolled the hunt­ing.

But a cen­tury later, the law fails to pro­tect birds from two key mod­ern threats — in­ci­den­tal de­struc­tion caused by in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties, and loss of habi­tat. It fails to pro­tect the mil­lions of birds, nests and eggs in­ad­ver­tently de­stroyed ev­ery year by in­dus­tries and ac­tiv­i­ties such as farm­ing and forestry, road­side mow­ing, and col­li­sions with sky­scrapers/trans­mis­sion lines. Ot­tawa knows this “in­ci­den­tal take” of birds is a ma­jor prob­lem. Gov­ern­ment started draft­ing laws to reg­u­late it — but shut down the re­form work in 2010.

Fur­ther­more, the Act of­fers lit­tle habi­tat pro­tec­tion — even though habi­tat de­struc­tion is the chief threat that birds face.

There are also prob­lems with the spe­cial “Mi­gra­tory Bird Sanc­tu­ar­ies” es­tab­lished un­der the Act. These sanc­tu­ar­ies were cre­ated to pro­vide a safe refuge for mi­gra­tory birds — it is the­o­ret­i­cally il­le­gal to carry on unau­tho­rized ac­tiv­i­ties harm­ful to mi­gra­tory birds, eggs, nests, or habi­tat there. Yet in­ten­sive in­dus­trial and ma­rina de­vel­op­ment has badly com­pro­mised sanc­tu­ar­ies like Sid­ney’s Shoal Har­bour Mi­gra­tory Bird Sanc­tu­ary and Vic­to­ria Har­bour Mi­gra­tory Bird Sanc­tu­ary.

In ad­di­tion, there is sur­pris­ing con­fu­sion be­tween Ot­tawa and B.C. over which gov­ern­ment is legally re­spon­si­ble for en­forc­ing the Mi­gra­tory Birds Con­ven­tion Act in cer­tain sanc­tu­ar­ies. As a re­sult, nei­ther gov­ern­ment is do­ing much pro­tec­tive en­force­ment in “sanc­tu­ar­ies” such as Shoal Har­bour.

Clearly, we need to strengthen the Mi­gra­tory Birds Con­ven­tion Act. Con­cerned cit­i­zens can help pro­tect the birds by call­ing on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to:

Re­sume its 2010 ef­forts to reg­u­late “in­ci­den­tal take” of birds, eggs, and nests — fo­cus­ing on key in­dus­tries.

Sci­en­tif­i­cally iden­tify key habi­tat out­side of cur­rent sanc­tu­ar­ies — and fully pro­tect those ar­eas. For ex­am­ple, new parks could fit with the fed­eral goal of con­serv­ing 17 per cent of Canada’s land and fresh­wa­ter in pro­tected ar­eas by 2020.

Clar­ify with B.C. which gov­ern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for en­force­ment in mi­gra­tory bird sanc­tu­ar­ies — and get some­body to start en­forc­ing the law there.

In ad­di­tion, gov­ern­ments need to re­vamp per­mit­ting poli­cies for new de­vel­op­ments in bird sanc­tu­ar­ies. The law should bar such new de­vel­op­ment un­til proper en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments are con­ducted.

A cen­tury ago, Canada helped solve an ur­gent cri­sis. To­day, mi­gra­tory birds face a new cri­sis and Cana­di­ans again have an op­por­tu­nity to step for­ward and pro­tect birds.

If we act de­ci­sively, our great-grand­chil­dren will thank us for this grace and beauty.

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