It is well known that sea ice, critical habitat to the polar
bear, is shrinking – in large part due to climate change.
This is a particular threat to pregnant and nursing females, and
their cubs. Of the 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world,
approximately 15,500 live in Canada or in territory shared by
Canada, in 13 subpopulations.
A petition filed with the Commission for
Environmental Cooperation in late November suggests that Canada is
not doing enough to protect its polar bears. The U.S. Center for
Biological Diversity (CBD) seeks a finding that Canada is not
effectively enforcing the Species At Risk Act (SARA) by
failing to list and protect the polar bear as an endangered or
The SARA established the Committee on the Status of Endangered
Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which assesses the status of wildlife
species and identifies potential threats to the species,
classifying each into the categories of extinct,
extirpated (i.e., no longer exists in the wild in
Canada), threatened (likely to become an
endangered species if nothing is done), of special
concern (may become threatened or endangered because of
biological characteristics and identified threats), or not
currently at risk. Polar bears are classified as species
"of special concern".
Under the SARA, species that are extirpated, endangered
or threatened have special protections: for example, it is
forbidden to kill, harm or capture them, or to buy, sell or trade
them (or any part of them). The Minister (of the Environment, Parks
Canada or Fisheries & Oceans, depending on the species) must
prepare a recovery strategy for the species, which must
address threats to species survival, including loss of habitat, and
must identify critical habitat; the strategy must be published on a
public registry within specified timelines.
In contrast, there is much less stringent protection for species
"of special concern", where the Minister must only
prepare a management plan that includes how the species
will be conserved.
reviewed the status of polar bears in Canada in 2008, yet
despite noting that "the species cannot persist without
seasonal sea ice" the bears remain in the "of special
concern" category, where they have been listed since April
1991. COSEWIC noted that there is uncertainty about the overall
impact of climate change on polar bears. It projected that bears in
4 (of 13) bear subpopulations are at high risk of declining by 30%
or more over 36 years (three bear generations). Seven
subpopulations were considered stable or increasing, and COSEWIC
could not predict trends for two of the subpopulations.
The CBD alleges that, in its review, COSEWIC failed to consider
best available information, as required under the SARA
– particularly by ignoring the critical impact that
climate change will have on polar bears, an approach that directly
conflicts with expert opinions. The CBD challenges COSEWIC's
methodology in that it used the Canadian polar bear population as a
whole to evaluate the animal's status; they should have used
units below the species level (called "designatable units"). The CBD concludes
that COSEWIC's assessment of the bear as a species "of
special concern" was wrong: it should be considered an
The CBD also asserts that the federal Environment Minister
failed to meet the deadline to respond to COSEWIC's
recommendation regarding classification of the bears –
the government only acknowledged receipt of COSEWIC's
assessment in February 2011, almost three years after the report was
completed, instead of within the required 9 months. The government
explained that it delayed receipt of the assessment to permit
consultation with the Nunavut government and Nunavut Wildlife
Management Board. The CBD argues that had the polar bear been
listed as endangered when it should have been, a recovery strategy
would already be underway.
Is Canada paying attention to what other jurisdictions are doing
about polar bears? In 2006, in large part because of the threat
from global warming, the animal was moved to the International
Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of
threatened species, a category that corresponds to the
threatened category under the SARA.
Similarly, in 2008, the United States listed the animal as a threatened species under the Endangered
Species Act of 1973. Endangered species are defined under that
Act as those in danger of extinction, and threatened species means
any species likely to become an endangered species in the
Next, the CEC Council will determine whether the submission
should be examined further.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.
Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.
Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change continues to roll out its Climate Change Action Plan with its proposed GHG guide for projects that are subject to the province's Environmental Assessment Act.
The Imperial Oil refinery pled guilty to one offence for discharging a contaminant, coker stabilizer, thermocracked gas, into the natural environment causing an adverse effect and was fined $650,000...
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).