Ottawa Citizen

We must act now to protect birds in Canada

The laws are outdated, not enough, say Savannah Carr-Wilson, Calvin Sandborn and Stephen Hazell.

- 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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