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Municipalities key in protecting species, habitat
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By Samara Eaton

AS YOU WATCH a bulldozer clear land for a new housing development, you might just wonder if anyone has checked the area for endangered species. Even though land use change is a primary threat to endangered species and their habitat, there is currently very little municipal land use planning that takes into account federal and provincial endangered species legislation in Canada.

Unlike the United States, which has had a federal Endangered Species Act in place since the 1970s, Canada only just passed a federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in June 2004. SARA prohibits the killing or disturbing of species and their habitat and applies to all species at risk on federally owned land and to marine species and migratory birds on all land. I work in Nova Scotia, which interestingly, was one of the first provinces to pass an Endangered Species Act, in 1999; it complements SARA with similar provisions, but applies to all land in Nova Scotia.

Both the federal and provincial governments recognized that municipalities should be involved in species at risk recovery. As a result, in 2003, while working for the Wildlife Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources with partial funding from the federal Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP), I started a project examining the role municipalities could play in recovery of species at risk. The project aimed to raise awareness of species at risk among municipal staff and elected officials, help build stewardship capacity within municipalities and explore municipal tools that might assist in conservation and recovery.

As we crisscrossed the province visiting every regional and rural municipality, we made sure that it was clear why municipalities would be interested in getting involved. There are of course the legal obligations that municipalities should be aware of as land owners and regulators. There are also many new related funding opportunities that municipalities may not be aware of. Finally, it is important to make the connection that species at risk are indicators for the natural environment and that a healthy environment improves quality of life and property values for residents. This is of growing importance to municipalities wanting to attract and retain residents and visitors.

Municipal officials responded positively and many were eager to explore a greater role. As we did presentations and workshops, we certainly learned as much from them as they did from us. We moved into the world of planning strategies and land use bylaws rather than conservation genetics and minimum viable populations.

However, municipalities expressed concern about limitations of their existing tools, resources and jurisdiction needed to implement new approaches. It was clear that a one-size-fits-all approach was not going to work given the variability in capacity between municipalities. And even for those municipalities with more capacity, there was still concern about resources and legislative limitations.

Some existing planning, investment and education tools had never been considered for the purpose of protecting species and habitats. For instance, municipalities can already restrict development on floodplains, steep slopes, marshes and along watercourses to protect development from the natural environments. Often these areas also contain significant habitat and this should be recognized as an added benefit when planning. Municipal investments in the management of recreational parks and green spaces could provide many species and habitat benefits. As the level of government closest to the people municipalities also have the ability to deliver community education programs that enhance stewardship of species at risk.

With the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and data sharing agreements, some municipalities and their planning staff are now starting to flag properties where species at risk are present so that regional biologists can visit a proposed development site to assess species at risk issues and mitigation options.

However, more could be done to enable greater municipal involvement. We are following up this project with discussions regarding potential amendments to provincial legislation that would enable municipalities to be more involved.

It's clear that municipalities have an integral role to play in species at risk conservation and recovery. The positive feedback from this project suggests that an expanded role is possible. Municipalities could be an important link between the legislation for species at risk and land use development on the ground.

For more information regarding this project and species at risk in Nova Scotia please contact me by phone at (902) 431-8089 or via e-mail at sameaton@eastlink.ca. Or visit www.speciesatrisk.ca/municipalities/.

Samara Eaton lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and works as a wildlife biologist in the Wildlife Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources.

© 2005 The Gulf of Maine Times