• Sea otters play among the kelp in Tofino, B.C.

    British Columbia is developing its own species at risk legislation, which environmental groups hope will afford more protection to endangered species in the province, like the sea otter (pictured). (Photo: Marco Crescenzi/Can Geo Photo Club)

Public consultations are underway in British Columbia to help the province develop long-awaited legislation to protect species at risk.

Although endangered species in the province are afforded some protection by other laws on the books, there is no stand-alone law that lays out comprehensive steps for identifying, protecting and recovering species at risk. About half of Canada’s provinces and territories have such laws, which vary in their effectiveness.

“The great variety of plants and animals in British Columbia provides important ecological, social, cultural and economic benefits to the province and its residents,” said George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, in a press release issued Sunday. “With new species at risk legislation, we have the opportunity to protect B.C.’s irreplaceable biodiversity and to bring stability to Indigenous communities, industry and the public.”

Currently, B.C. has 231 species that are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). But according to the Conservation Data Centre of B.C., as many as 1,900 species and subspecies are threatened by climate change, urban sprawl and natural resource development.

“Right now the only way to protect a species at risk is through SARA, but SARA has many loopholes,” says Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, a Vancouver-based environmental group that has long campaigned for a comprehensive provincial law. “Because of that, our species are not recovering as they should.”

Among the flaws with the federal legislation are a lack of clear timelines and enforcement for listing species that have been identified as at-risk by the independent Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). That has led to some species waiting years for official protection.

Once a species is listed under SARA, it may face another long wait for an official recovery plan and protection of its critical habitat. More than five years after the federal government directed the provinces to identify and set aside habitat for boreal woodland caribou, little progress has been made, and the species continues to decline.

Dawe says the Wilderness Committee and other groups participating in the provincial consultation process will seek to make sure B.C.’s legislation fills some of the gaps in SARA.

“We’re pushing that this law be done properly the first time, because as we’ve learned with SARA, it’s difficult to change it once it’s made.”

Public consultations on B.C.’s law will continue through the spring. An intentions paper will be released in the fall of this year outlining specific details of the legislation. Members of the public are invited to have their say on the provincial government’s website.

Related: Study finds half of Canada's vertebrate species are in decline