Pictured is the Ram’s-Head lady slipper.

By: Zack Metcalfe

In May of 2016 I pulled off a Hants County highway and parked by a barely perceptible trail, leading into a thin forest with powdery white gypsum erupting from the soil everywhere I cared to look.

Had I not done my homework and enlisted the help of local naturalists, I could never have found what I’d come to see, a lady slipper whose head of vibrant purple and white was smaller than my thumbnail, rising delicately from a tangle of undergrowth.

This was the Ram’s-Head lady slipper, named so for the folding of leaves around its petal, not dissimilar from the lowered horns of a charging ram. I fell to hands and knees so as to admire it, and was staggered by the sway this preciously small flower held over provincial politics.

Because this flower was listed under Nova Scotia’s Endangered Species Act in 2007, no one can legally bring it harm. I could not pick it for my own pleasure and no miner could cast it aside to extract the gypsum beneath.

What’s more, inclusion under this Act obligates our Department of Lands and Forestry to establish a working group of experts, dedicated to the protection and recovery of this tiny plant. Ample time and expertise must be spent creating a recovery plan, identifying this species’ core habitat and a suite of recovery options which our government must then enact. In short, this small lady slipper could accomplish in moments what protesters and politicians alike might fail to do in months – keep its forest safe, regardless of its value to industry.

I’m proud to live in a province with legislation this powerful dedicated to species this fragile. The Endangered Species Act has its flaws, to be sure, and it is by no means enough to halt extinction outright, but its power to sidestep economic interests in pursuit of true conservation is inspired. In our pursuit of sustainability, this act was an important step.

But in the years I’ve spent chasing species-at-risk I’ve arrived at a frustrating truth – that the legislation we’ve dedicated to our most beleaguered flora and fauna is useless if not properly enforced. Canada’s Species-at-Risk Act (SARA) suffers a chronic lack of enforcement and resources, to the point that several of its listed species don’t have many of the protections SARA promises. Prince Edward Island’s Wildlife Conservation Act is a plain spoken document, offering absolute protection for any species placed beneath it, but in spite of ongoing declines across the Island’s biota, its provincial government has yet to list a single species, leaving their act and its provisions entirely without teeth.

Nova Scotia’s Endangered Species Act is likewise a rusting tool, able to aid in the recovery of our provincial species but routinely unenforced and very, very behind.

The Ram’s-Head lady slipper was entitled to a working group of experts, a thorough recovery plan and the identification of its core habitat within a year of its listing. Twelve years later, however, absolutely none of these legal requirements have been met. In fact, of the 71 species listed in Nova Scotia, a full 34 have in some way not been fully accommodated by the Department of Lands and Forestry under this act. The department has, in effect, failed to uphold its own laws.

This is not news, but instead an old joke among the province’s conservation community. With every election or encouraging conversation with lawmakers it’s hoped the tide will turn, but it hasn’t, and some people are fed up.

Naturalists, recognizable for their binoculars, field guides and propensity for staring straight up or straight down with extreme concentration, are not activists. I’m aware of no protests they have organized, and know from experience that their academic leanings predispose them to conversation rather than demonstration. They are generally gentle, thoughtful, quiet, and at this moment they’re taking our province to court.

On January 24, they filed a lawsuit with the help of the Halifax based Juniper Law. Their case is that the Department of Lands and Forestry has failed to uphold the Endangered Species Act, and if a judge finds this to be true, the department may be ordered to fulfill its obligations, probably with a mandated timeline. This lawsuit, brought forward by the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists, the Blomidon Naturalists Society and the Halifax Field Naturalists, among others, has suggested that species listed as “endangered” under the act like the Ram’s-Head lady slipper be fully accommodated within six months, while “threatened” species (slightly less critical) be caught up in a year.

I’ve spoken to a few of these naturalists since the lawsuit was announced and can plainly see that the role of litigant is strange to them, but that decades of watching their wilderness fade away has forced them into action. Just as I’m proud of the Endangered Species Act, I’m proud to see the resolve of people like this, who would much rather pursue rare lichens on the Nova Scotian coastline than step into court, but do it anyway.

This lawsuit will go before a judge on February 25, beginning a process which could revive our Endangered Species Act and force a culture change within the Department of Lands and Forestry. Either that or the provincial government could settle, admitting its shortcomings in the meantime and committing outside of court to address the matter at hand. This would feel right, placing everyone on the same side of our shared crisis. Either way, it’s worth paying attention.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. He can be reached at: zack.metcalfe@gmail.com.