Jump to content
  • Spotted Owls as bio-indicators of biodiversity doublespeak In Canada

    Loys Maingon

    “The time to protect a species is while it is still common.”

                                      —Rosalie Edge, 1934


    A Northern Spotted Owl


    NO POLITICAL DECISION over the last decade more significantly defines the lack of substance that underlies Canadian federal and provincial conservation policy than the recent cabinet decision to reject issuing of an emergency order to save the last spotted owls ( Strix occidentalis caurina). As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”. Three decades of conservation campaigns and endless government funding, posturing and “commitments” to spotted owl recovery in BC have culminated in effective extinction. After sitting on a request to issue a ministerial order to enforce the Species at Risk Act for eight months, and only after private citizens took the Minister of Environment to court, did Stephen Guilbeault put the request to issue a ministerial order to cabinet, only to see it rejected.

    Notwithstanding that this effectively condemns spotted owls in BC to extinction in Canada, this decision confirms that the keystone legislative tools in the provincial and federal environmental toolbox are only there for the purpose of misleading and assuaging a gullible public, if and when the public cares at all. Apart from concerns voiced by naturalists, biologists and conservation organizations, public reaction has been deafening by its silence. Extinction should be a source of public outrage, because it is the absolute confirmation of environmental mismanagement at the public expense.

    Cultures and economies are mere products of the environment. The environment is who we are. The iconic Group of Seven expressed the settlers’ discovery of a country already well-understood by First Nations. Any “reconciliation” is first and foremost reconciliation with the land, because—as Delgamuukw made clear—the people are the land; without the land there are no people. The land’s health is our health, both social and economic. However, public priority is the end of the month, not the end of species, nor the end of the world. The demise of spotted owls in BC is a reliable indicator of the political stewardship of nature in BC and Canada, and why reconciliation is mere hollow doublespeak.

    First, as I have argued before, the cornerstone of our national conservation policies, the Species at Risk Act, is an ineffective and arbitrary tool. When put to the test, as it has been in this case, it is as effective as a punctured inflatable life raft. International representations and commitments made at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in 2022, that culminated in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, are equally vacuous if clearly recognized endangered species and protected areas are neither protected nor protectable. Nature is not protected in Canada. Business and the economy are. Environmental protection is traded for an economist’s fantasy called “offsets” wherever nature is an obstruction to gain.

    It is not just individual species that are unprotected. Entire areas and regions have been explicitly known for decades by Canada’s own scientists to be environmentally important and sensitive. Yet, even those included in the system of “Important Bird Areas” or “Key Biodiversity Areas” are arbitrarily vulnerable to business and government economic priorities. It is bad enough that the loud-sounding system of “Key Biodiversity Areas” does not always include sensitive species, and internationally-recognized Important Bird Areas like Roberts Bank can be arbitrarily nuked by ministerial fiat. Indeed, the entire apparatus of conservation tools such as “Species at Risk,” “Key Biodiversity Areas,” and “Important Bird Areas,” becomes meaningless when provincial and federal politicians can override Environment Canada’s scientists. Then we can see that economic interests prioritize the development of industrial and corporate installations over endangered species and protected areas, regardless of what scientists have determined.

    Second, the recent federal-provincial announcement of a $500 million “Tripartite Framework Agreement on Nature Conservation between Canada, British Columbia, and the First Nations Leadership Council,” further evinces the system of doublespeak when we stop to consider the intention behind the words. Made just days after the actual denial of an order to save BC’s last spotted owls, this agreement rests on the assumption that biodiversity conservation in Canada largely hinges on UNDRIP commitments to respect indigenous rights to the land. While this is important, the agreement is full of weasel representations. The $500 million is “over the life of the framework.” That is as re-assuring as a used car warranty that states: “until the car breaks down or the first hiccup, whichever comes first.” What will be the life of that framework? The next election? The next minister? How fast cash burns?

    Should there be any doubt about the close connection, and that this announcement is just an offset for the spotted owl announcement, the document is structured around extensive paragraphs and exclusions specifically about spotted owl “recovery”. The reader will find it difficult, if not outright hilarious, to square: “Protect ample old growth habitat to support the recovery of 250 spotted owls” and other ambitious pronouncements at odds with reality. The framework is pure fantasy and promises. Currently, BC has 3 spotted owls in the wild and 16 in a breeding facility. (So far the three that were released from this facility have not survived.) The low numbers are a direct function of the loss of “old growth”. “Old growth” is not just a bunch of 300-year-old trees. It is intact forest between 2,000 and 7,500 year old. It is extremely difficult to ascertain how “ample old growth habitat” is to be miraculously provided or grown when in fact, and contrary to government representations, it continues to be actively extirpated by the province of British Columbia.

    The board and staff of Stand.earth are to be highly commended for investing in satellite monitoring and ground-truthing of logging activity in the provincial government’s “deferred areas.” This provides a factual insight into the government’s duplicity. Although the Old Growth Strategic Review (OGSR) came out in April 2020, the provincial NDP government delayed calling for implementation until November 2021, when it called on the logging corporations to defer logging “in good faith”. As everybody knows, the logging has not only continued unabated, it has even accelerated, contrary to the premier’s own public representations. The data in the recent Stand.earth report Forest Eye: An Eye on Old Growth Destruction uses ground-truthed GIS to re-construct logging activity in nominally “deferred areas”: “… the total loss by February 2023 is actually an estimated 26,800 hectares of the most valuable old growth. This includes areas identified as logged through GIS analysis of government data as well as those identified by Forest Eye. Comparing this to the 11,600 hectares reported by government in February 2023 reveals that BC underreported old growth deferral loss by 57% .”

    When the data are aggregated to cover the period from the release of the OGSR recommendations to early November of this year, the area of deferrals clearcut comes to 31,800 hectares. This is almost three times the 11,600 hectares claimed by Premier David Eby. And therein lies the spotted owl reconciliation rub, or snake-oil ointment.

    For decades Spuzzum First Nation has been demanding a moratorium on old-growth logging on its ancestral territories which also happen to be important to them culturally, if only now as home to the last “wild” spotted owl in BC. For the Spuzzum the spotted owl is sacred; not so for the provincial and federal governments, for whom spotted owl recovery is only useful as a public-relations exercise. For many years now, provincial and federal ministers have been re-assuring Spuzzum Nation Chief James Hobart that they would do, quote: “whatever it takes” to save spotted owls on Spuzzum territory.

    All it would take to save spotted owls is to place and enforce a moratorium on logging old growth, as recommended three years ago by the OGSR in April 2020. Instead, three years on, consistent with Stand.earth findings, the provincial government has continued to promote old growth logging and facilitate the continued destruction of biodiversity in British Columbia.

    Nathan Cullen, BC minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, reassures whoever is either gullible enough, or all-too-willing to believe it, that BC runs a world-class facility where 30 spotted owls are raised in captivity: “To support spotted owl recovery based on the best available science and Indigenous Knowledge”. The best science is always as simple as Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor suggests that intact forests are vital for the spotted owl’s recovery: No intact forest, no owl. It does not get simpler. However, that habitat is increasingly and alarmingly diminishing, as the Stand.earth report confirms. Unlike dollars, that generates no synaptic action in the universe of Minister Cullen and Premier Eby. Reintroduction of spotted owl from a state-of-the-art facility has thus far been a resounding failure, because there is insufficient habitat left. Sadly, this does beg the question: How long will it be before the government admits that the state-of-the art-recovery facility is just another public charade?

    The capitalized “Indigenous Knowledge” appealed to is also conveniently disregarded if it does not align with capitalist economic priorities. “Indigenous Knowledge” as opposed to lower-case “ indigenous knowledge” is the ideal indigenous knowledge that aligns with government economic plans. All the talk of “reconciliation” and UNDRIP, which is so useful when it comes to promoting the development of resource industries to grow modern First Nation economies, is set aside when it comes to Spuzzum Nation’s simple request for a moratorium. In this case “conservation” becomes a cover or back door to facilitate business-as-usual in another guise, in the hope that First Nations “partners” will front corporate interests.

    In fact, over the last year correspondence obtained under Freedom of Information applications indicates that Cullen and company spared no pains or expense to intensely lobby the federal government not to issue a ministerial order. While the requests were consistent with the right to defend what the parties feel are their interests, it was inconsistent with the representations made to Spuzzum Nation, and to the public. As Chief Hobart notes: “You’re thinking ‘Oh, the government’s taking this seriously’ and so that’s where our minds were going into this. So for this to happen, it’s like the rug was totally pulled out from under us and that was not fair.”

    We should make no mistake, UNDRIP and reconciliation are really just more colonial economic assimilation. First Nations like the Pacheedaht, who partner with logging companies like Teal Jones and support old-growth logging, reap the rewards; those who do not are simply not heeded, as Chief Hobart has found out. “Reconciliation” is synonymous with “economic integration.” It is integration into an extractivist capitalist culture. It is not reconciliation with the land. The prime intention is not the preservation of intact forests or wilderness, though it may lead to a limited outcome.

    The tripartite agreement is nominally important, because it appears to finance, and therefore to give substance to, Canada’s commitment to setting aside 30% of conservation lands by 2030. Appearances are all that matter. If precedents are anything to go by, these “commitments” are likely to fall short. It is just another Trojan horse. It was introduced as a classic case of misdirection to placate any immediate concerns with the obvious implications of the spotted owl debacle, which is why the document itself extensively refers to the province of BC’s “spotted owl recovery programme.” The lands that are to be set aside remain undetermined, there are no specific commitments to preserve ecologically important lands or intact forest that are commercially valuable, as are lowland forests. It is all to be worked out in a nebulous future—as were commitments to save the spotted owl over the past three decades. While it appears on surface as a gift of $500 million to protect and finance indigenous protected and conserved areas, it does so within an unspecific economic framework on the assumption that First Nations will seek, integrate into and further our economy of endless growth. It is part of the assimilationist strategy of “indigenomics” which is explicitly defined by indigenous proponents as: “the systemic inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in today’s modern economy.” This is a two-edged sword: while it lifts First Nations out of discrimination and poverty, it also commits them to the destructive economic ideology and priorities of endless growth. The cancer of endless growth is metastatic and promises the illusion of sustainability but never delivers. Where there is endless growth there can be no wilderness, no intact forest and its denizens—no spotted owls.

    This is the business-as-usual framework of a global extractivist and industrial culture to which all of our politicians, from left and right, green to conservative, fully subscribe every time that they continue to endorse the central assumption that we can meet conservation objectives while sustaining endless economic growth and prosperity. This is the economic mirage into which First Nations are invited and expected to partake. Dogmatically inescapable: It is the one true economy and there shall be no other economies before it. Nobody is really willing to think outside of the box. So instead of doing the hard work, we opt for facile, simplistic “solutions”; we work out transient subterfuges to placate our consciences, all the while pretending that any of this can be made sustainable.

    The latest craze in “sustainability” is the creation of a “biodiversity market”. Another “offset market” for the impact of a global economy supporting the needs and insatiable desires of a ballooning, unsustainable population. This is Target 19d of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Concern over this made the editorial page of Science. After over a year of scandalous revelations confirming the common sense understanding that the carbon offset market is little more than an elaborate scam, specific audits of leading brokers has led to the conclusion that at least 90% of offsets are completely worthless and of no ecological value. A similar concern is naturally emerging over “biodiversity markets”. The most important point is that these markets, which are entrenched in a “market-centred” view of life, are not benign scams. They can and are having an adverse impact on conservation.

    In the name of “resilience”, offsets promote a simplistic and cavalier view of the fragility of life on earth and facilitate actual destruction. Carbon and biodiversity offset markets are supposed to be designed to offset negative impacts of development. They depend on two broad assumptions: First, that we understand the complexity of existing ecosystems, and secondly that we can develop in what are often “intact ecosystems” that are unique and thousands of years old in one place, and compensate by preserving ecosystems of truly equal value in another place. Neither assumption is actually warranted. Ecosystems and places are unique in themselves and to the people who inhabit them, and to whom they speak to and give meaning. By their very uniqueness they can neither be substituted nor traded. Business and mass markets do not know the meaning of uniqueness, and therefore are poor measures and managers of wilderness.

    These offset markets are not about “saving nature”. They are are about saving business opportunities and interests. They are about enabling development and managing development costs and publicly perceived impacts. They facilitate the destruction of little-understood intact ecosystems in exchange for trade-offs of uncertain value which are rarely adequately monitored. As Vardon and Lindenmayer note, these markets are set up with little attention to ecosystem details in which there are no simplistic metrics, a point frequently overlooked where economic gain takes precedence over biodiversity conservation: “there is a risk they will become conservation doublespeak, legitimizing biodiversity destruction for economic gain while purporting to promote biodiversity conservation.”

    This begs the hard question on which all accelerated development and conservation in the last sixty years has rested: do we even know what biodiversity we are “preserving” and how to preserve it? The confidence we put in conservation planning comes from the confidence we have in our environmental data. Are the means and frameworks that we use for conservation planning just more short-term accommodations within the dead-end of the economy of endless growth, intent more on placating and misleading rather than on actually solving the biodiversity crisis? The ballooning diversity crisis should raise doubts as to the self-sufficiency of our conservation planning.

    The answer to these questions came recently in a thought-provoking article by an international group of younger conservation scientists representative of non-mainstream concerns. The article is self-explicit: “The global influence of the IUCN Red List can hinder species conservation efforts.” The IUCN red list, established in the 1960s, is an inefficient, top-down product of its time. Crucially, it is no longer up to the task and, regrettably, it underpins almost all conservation programmes. Developed to manage the initial surge of rampant development by identifying key species-at-risk in potential areas of economic interest, it is the architectural keystone of conservation today. As Stuart Pimm has defined it, the IUCN red list aims to be “a barometer of life on Earth”. The barometer—which was cutting edge in 1960—is a Ford Edsel in 2024.

    After six decades, the IUCN Red list has assessed 150,000 species, 42,100 of which are now classed as “threatened”. While that may sound like a lot to the lay public, that is less than 10% of the 2,000,000 species currently described, in a world that places global biodiversity estimates at 50 million! The barometer is stuck at 150,000 out of 50,000,000 species, or 0.3%. This is like being told we have clear sailing when in fact we have a full blown hurricane, losing species long before we even count them. So, going back to the assumption mentioned above that we understand the complexity of existing ecosystems, current conservation tools and methods derived from the the IUCN Red list represent our state of knowledge. That state of knowledge is wholly inadequate for the irreversible global-scale experiment, without any replicates, currently being carried out by business-driven governments in support of an economy of endless growth.

    Whereas in the 1960s the IUCN alerted the world to a growing problem of extinction, today—in the institutional hands of governments and corporations—it now serves to facilitate and sanitize extinction. This is what British Columbians have just witnessed with the normalization of spotted owl extinction in Canada, and the quiet facilitation of the development of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2, against all of the best scientific advice.

    In the institutional hands of bureaucracy, governments and corporations the IUCN Red List guides all facets of conservation planning, from decision-making, to funding and research. Its logic undergirds policy and legislative implementation tools such as species-at-risk acts, conservation frameworks, and data information tools such as the Important Bird Areas, and Key Biodiversity Areas programmes. As the authors of “The global influence of the IUCN Red list…” argue and illustrate from a growing body of scientific review literature, mostly from the last decade and their own experiences, both the system and its programmes are heavily biased and subjective. The system is based on a top-down and centralized approach which either disregards or excludes regional and local research. Its reliance on a closed expert circle subjectively favours certain taxonomic groups and the approach by species and populations has resulted in mapping that has “limited conservation value because they do not consider local context and knowledge” (p.4). As a result, it does not include new or un-described species or regional occurrences of sub-species. Consequently, and in keeping with the fate of the spotted owl in BC: “This can discourage actions to halt local population declines and known regional extirpations” (p.4).

    It is very important to note and understand that new un-described species, small or unrecorded outlying populations of potentially rare or endangered species, such as Western Screech owl or Old-growth Specklebelly lichen at Fairy Creek, and all hitherto unrecorded small occurrences of species and subspecies, as well species new to a region, are not included in the IUCN Red List system. This provides an ideal filter to restrict actual local conservation interests, as witnessed by its use by the Ministry of Forests, which restricts endangered species protection to a narrow list of species in only some geographic areas. Add to this dimension the deliberate and mandatory exclusion of scientists from the territory of First Nations working to protect the interests of a company like Teal Cedar, and you have a perversion of the intent of UNDRIP, and a perfect environment to further and give free reign to corporate interests, guaranteed to exterminate spotted owls and other species troublesome to industry in BC.

    The IUCN criteria established twenty years ago have prevented the Red List from keeping up with a rapidly deteriorating situation affecting biodiversity. The system has not evolved because it primarily serves corporate interests endorsed by successive governments. As a result, the authors state: “33% of species placed in non-threatened categories of the Red List have been found to be declining in abundance” (p.4-5), and most assessments for 30 to 40% of taxa are already outdated. A significant part of the IUCN’s Red List assessment process comes from the fact that the framework that guides it is reliant on a closed, top-down “by invitation” system, rather than being driven by a participatory bottom up system that would empower local communities to control the fate of their environment. It is a system to make the right decisions by “the right people,” who are rarely the local people.

    The conclusion to which the authors of this paper come to is worth quoting in full: “Thus, instead of top-down approaches, we suggest broadening species conservation efforts, where planning and decision-making are rooted in local contexts and integrated across spatial scales. Furthermore, it is imperative to incorporate and center the expertise, voices, and perspectives of diverse conservationists, indigenous peoples, and local communities across geographies, including the Global South, in decision-making. Recognizing local knowledge, both traditional and scientific is also key to developing meaningful indicators of conservation priorities adapted to local and regional realities.” (p.7)

    This is the real hope and the real positive news. It is younger scientists coming mainly from outside of the mainstream focussing on a real source of problems and demanding a substantial change in priorities, in order to be able to deliver effective conservation to their communities. This is diametrically at odds with delivering conservation to facilitate business and placate national and international “markets.”

    The current top-down approach and the restrictive criteria of the IUCN that guide top-down programmes—like the Key Biodiversity Areas—exist to suit the interests of governments and corporations, less so the needs of this planet. These programmes are just unethical collusion with corporations. They are not geared to recognize the actual complexity and fragility of the local environment. They are designed to re-assure the public that unsustainable development can be managed to become magically sustainable, as with the BC government’s magic spotted owl recovery facility that excludes the need to preserve intact forest habitat. Governments and corporations simply fund these programs as a means of both placating the public by involving and controlling “citizen science programmes” and gathering deliberately very limited information to actually guide pseudo-conservation.

    For governments, the cost of these programmes is just the cost of continuing to do business-as usual, as is the occasional positive announcement of the expansion of parks in BC. Earlier this month the government proudly announced the addition of 109 hectares in five parks: 64 hectares in Haida Gwai, 33 in Wells Gray, 8 in Gladstone, 3 in Bowron Lakes and 0.15 at Mount Pope.This is proof positive of the NDP’s environmental concern and magnanimity. Now this would be awesome news and a feel-good positive announcement to rejoice over, if the party poopers at Stand.earth hadn’t almost simultaneously reminded the public that the same government had laid waste to 31,800 hectares of prime old growth and intact forest which the public will no longer be able to enjoy and in which a comprehensive biological survey is unlikely to have ever been conducted to account for biodiversity. However, are 109 hectares to be understood as the value of the “Biodiversity Market offset” for the loss of 31,800 hectares? The public entrusted the government with 31,800 hectares of intact forest and got a return of 109 hectares of recreation lands. An edifying investment. This is just more doublespeak. This display of magnanimity is actually just another version of Caesar’s “Bread and Circuses” policy to keep people content, and a mark of political contempt for the public and the planet.

    Let’s put two and two together.

    By no coincidence the 109 hectares saved out of the 31,800 hectares which this same government had laid waste amounts to 0.3%. This is the same 0.3% to be expected from the Kunming-Montreal protocol promises and the IUCN Red List! The returns are commensurate with what you put in. That low number—0.3%—is a “significant figure” representative of Canada’s actual concern for conservation and biodiversity. Never mind the talk of “30 x 30”. When the dust settles the substance of the 30% is more likely to be 0.3% by 2030 as long as the overriding priority continues to be the sustainability of business-as-usual and endless growth. We should learn from three decades of spotted owl “commitments” and three decades of climate change “commitments” that frameworks are skeletal reassurances or aspirations rather than clearly delineated and enforced laws that bind one to an obligatory trust.

    That low number—0.3%— should be understood to be the actual measure of political will displayed by Canada and governments around the world to do as little as possible to address the growing climate and biodiversity crises which this planet continues to experience, as growingly urgent UN reports continue to note. Canada came under international criticism in the Production Gap Report 2023 released by the United Nations in early November. The report identifies Canada as one of the world’s top oil producers whose increased production puts them at odds with their international commitments to limit climate change. Canada is not alone. The United States broke its oil and gas production records this year and China continues to grow its reliance on coal. Where are all these 2030 commitments?

    If anything is going to change, the priority can no longer be the economy. The priority must be this planet, but we have no reason to hope that governments can do better for the planet than they did for BC’s best bio-indicator species of the lack of political will to address the biodiversity and climate crises—BC’s truly unique and disappearing spotted owl.

    Time to get it right. The only priority is the one key biodiversity area in the universe. All 50 million species are endangered by economies of endless growth and endless development. The time and place to protect species is while they are present wherever intact and viable habitat still exists. There should be no obscene triage or offsets for the good of the economy. It is time to implement Earth priorities and place “Earth First!”

    Loys Maingon is a retired biologist.

    This article was first published in the Bulletin (Winter 2023) of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists.

    Other articles by Loys Maingon:

    Where are Nature’s and Biodiversity’s rights?

    Where was the “clarity of knowledge” in the Fairy Creek old-growth logging dispute?

    Would a BC Species-at-Risk Act really protect biodiversity in a world of public relations?

    Biodiversity collapse is a major driver of climate change, and vice versa

    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    There are no comments to display.

    Add a comment...

    ×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

      Only 75 emoji are allowed.

    ×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

    ×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

    ×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...