In an effort to prevent the extinction of the spotted owl in Canada, leading environmental groups announced today they have filed the first legal action of its kind under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, demanding the federal government intervene to protect the critically endangered bird in British Columbia.

Sierra Legal Defence Fund is representing the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, David Suzuki Foundation, ForestEthics and Environmental Defence in the lawsuit.

In 2005, B.C. government biologists found only 23 owls, an 84 per cent decline in a decade. The main threat to the declining spotted owl population is loss of its old-growth forest habitat. The B.C. government, through its Timber Sales Program, is the largest logger in owl habitat.

“We will not sit on the sidelines and watch the B.C. government log the spotted owl’s habitat until this creature disappears from Canada,” says Joe Foy of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee(WCWC). “We are demanding Canada’s Minister of the Environment enforce the law to protect animals such as the spotted owl.”

Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), if a province doesn’t take adequate action to protect species the federal government can step in using an emergency provision.

“This is the first test of Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The federal government told Canadians that no endangered species would fall between the cracks. Today we are asking that this promise be kept,” says Sierra Legal lawyer Devon Page. “If the spotted owl situation is not an emergency, then nothing is,” adds Page.

The landmark lawsuit would effectively benefit all Canadian wildlife in every province and territory. The Seattle Audubon Society has launched a similar lawsuit in the U.S. and will join forces with the Canadian efforts.

“This is about more than 23 Spotted Owls,” says Panos Grames of the David Suzuki Foundation. “Hundreds of other endangered and threatened plant and animal species all across Canada can fall through this same loophole if it is not closed.”

“The prevention of further extinctions is surely a minimum expectation for Canada’s national endangered species law,” says Dr. Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence. “If the Species at Risk Act cannot prevent the spotted owl from being snuffed out in our country, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

ForestEthics’s Candace Batycki adds: “What we know is that the spotted owl is simply the canary in the coal mine. Across the country there are hundreds of other species such as caribou that are also in grave decline.”

In conjunction with the lawsuit, Sierra Legal and the Wilderness Committee will release “In Defence of Canada’s Spotted Owl”, a report that describes the court action and shows B.C. has increased logging in critical spotted owl habitat over the last three years.