Grant Fahlman, 51, has lived his whole life on the farm 25 km southeast of Regina where his family settled when they came from Russia in 1889, and this year was the first in his memory that no burrowing owls raised their broods in his pasture. "We had one come around last spring for a couple of weeks, and then it was gone," Fahlman says. "It's a great disappointment." That sense of loss has been felt in recent years by many others who are fond of the little owls with the long legs. A decade ago, Fahlman and other farmers who participate in a program called Operation Burrowing Owl counted 657 breeding pairs in Saskatchewan. This year, just 79 pairs were sighted. Researchers blame everything from the loss of wild grassland habitat to the roadkill of owls flying low over Prairie highways.
Now, federal protection for the burrowing owl - and 338 other species of wildlife considered at risk in Canada - is finally on the way. Maclean's has learned that Environment Minister David Anderson, who is expected to present long-awaited endangered-species legislation to the House of Commons in February, will outline his plan in Calgary on Dec. 17. It is the Liberal government's second try at such a law. The first attempt, a bill introduced by former environment minister Sergio Marchi three years ago, met stiff opposition from both industry and environment groups, and was allowed to die before the 1997 election. Chances of success this time seem better. Unlike Marchi's bill, which put the emphasis on penalties and court action against farmers, loggers and others who jeopardize rare wildlife, Anderson will sweeten his package with money for those who help save vulnerable species. "I don't have a cheque in hand," he said in an interview last week, "but [Finance Minister] Paul Martin is a very sympathetic guy on this issue."
Although Anderson was cautious about revealing details of the proposed law in advance, government officials and outsiders who have been consulted expect him to lean heavily towards using federal funds to coax co-operation between conservationists and industries. In some cases, incentives to safeguard key habitats will be offered to land users - perhaps including farmers who agree not to till tracts of prairie where burrowing owls find the abandoned gopher holes and badger dens they live in. Still, there is no doubt the law will again hold the heavy stick of fines and perhaps jail sentences above any obstinate land user who defies efforts to protect a vital area. Warned Anderson: "If there's one very mean fellow, who has refused to work with his neighbours, has refused appropriate compensation, we then have to have some way of saying we're not going to let him do it."
That threat angers those who are suspicious of any endangered-species act. Alberta rancher David Wildman, president of the Western Stockgrowers' Association, predicts some cattlemen will keep wildlife biologists off their land out of fear that discovery of rare birds, animals or even plants could lead to restrictions on grazing - and ultimately costly legal clashes with the feds. He argues ranchers do not need to be told how to be good conservationists. "If we abuse that grassland," Wildman declares, "then it's a downhill slide for us." Laura Jones, director of environmental studies for the right-leaning Fraser Institute in Vancouver, contends Anderson should walk away from the plan to legislate, and instead funnel any new money available to trusted private conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited. "There are hundreds of organizations protecting wildlife, more than there are endangered species," Jones says. "That's a great way to direct resources."
In fact, Anderson hints strongly that such groups will be invited to play a key role under his new approach. Instead of relying on a government agency to dole out incentive payments for habitat conservation, private organizations could be asked to manage the money. "It might be funded by programs where you have administration through - and I hesitate to use the name of any particular organization - but something like Ducks Unlimited," Anderson says. He added, though, that farmers and resource companies should not look for windfalls: "We do not expect to pay people to do normal good behaviour. But when someone has a specific and unexpected loss, which arises solely by reason of the need to protect habitat for certain species, then they should not bear the burden alone."
Ironically, Anderson's biggest asset in winning support for his bill could be the contrast with the unpopular previous attempt. Shared opposition to that 1996 bill helped forge unlikely coalitions of industry and environmental groups, including one called the Species at Risk Working Group - with membership ranging from the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association to the Sierra Club of Canada. Among other objections, that group's members shared a fear that Marchi's law would lead to pitched court battles by allowing individuals to launch lawsuits against land users they accused of putting species at risk. Anderson flatly rejects that approach - agreeing with critics that it would have imported the litigious, confrontational approach to endangered-species protection of the United States. "I'm not going to have citizen civil suits," he vows.
Anderson has been conducting a diplomatic campaign to soften opposition in advance of publicly outlining the legislation. Even members of Alberta's Land and Resource Partnership, an alliance of staunch opponents of the 1996 bill from the oilpatch and agriculture sectors, have turned cautiously supportive after a recent dinner meeting with him. Yet Anderson, where forced to choose, is likely to champion wildlife over economic interests. After all, the Victoria native is a lifelong environmentalist, who has among his possessions a plush toy Vancouver Island marmot named Janice. At last count, there were just 55 of the real chocolate-brown marmots left in the wild, along with 27 more in Calgary and Toronto zoos. Anderson should know soon after going public whether he has a salable plan for turning his sentimental feeling for creatures clinging to existence into a law that gives them a fighting chance.
Maclean's December 20, 1999