Posted on March 19, 2013 (updated: June 20, 2019)

Conservation groups challenge secrecy around endangered Greater sage-grouse

VANCOUVER — The Minister of Environment has a mandatory duty under the Species at Risk Act to protect Canada’s endangered Greater sage-grouse and cannot use a claim of Cabinet confidence to eliminate court supervision of ministers’ actions under federal law, Ecojustice will tell the Federal Court of Appeal this afternoon.

Last year, Ecojustice filed an application in the Federal Court seeking a court order to force Environment Minister Peter Kent to recommend emergency protections for the iconic prairie bird and the habitat it needs to survive and recover in Canada.

In response, the federal government has claimed that the Environment Minister’s plans for protecting the sage-grouse are part of a “Cabinet decision-making process” and are therefore confidential.

“We will argue that this is a cynical attempt to avoid court supervision of federal ministers’ mandatory legal duties, at the expense of Canada’s endangered sage-grouse populations,” said Melissa Gorrie, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “This is yet another example of the growing lack of transparency around the federal government’s decision-making when it comes to environmental issues.”

Ecojustice plans to argue in its Federal Court application that the Species at Risk Act, which mandates protection of endangered species and the habitat they need to survive and recover, should compel immediate action by Minister Kent and Environment Canada.

“Canada is governed by the rule of law,” Gorrie said. “When Parliament imposes mandatory duties on ministers, the courts must be able to review ministers’ actions to see if they comply with the law. We will argue that the claim of Cabinet confidence in this case threatens both our democratic values and our endangered wildlife.”

Since 1988, more than 90 percent of Canada’s sage-grouse — which once numbered in the thousands and could be found throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s sage-brush grasslands — have died off. Fewer than 100 birds are estimated to still remain in Canada.

Industrial activity, particularly oil and gas development, is the primary current threat to the survival of the critically endangered sage-grouse, best known for its elaborate courtship dance. Research shows that when confronted with oil and gas development sage-grouse abandon their leks (central courting and breeding grounds) and other habitats crucial to their survival.

“If no meaningful actions are taken immediately to protect sage grouse and the habitat they need to survive, they will disappear from Canada within the next 10 years,” said Wonnita Andrus, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“The time to protect the sage-grouse is now,” said Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee. “Provincial laws aren’t doing a good job protecting these birds, so it now falls to the federal government to use the tools at its disposal to save the sage-grouse from disappearing from Canada.”

Ecojustice is representing Alberta Wilderness Association, Wilderness Committee, Nature Saskatchewan and Grasslands Naturalists in this action. Ecojustice is the country’s leading charitable organization dedicated to using the law to defend
Canadians’ right to a healthy environment.

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