Posted on October 1, 2012 (updated: October 1, 2012)

Conservation groups take Environment Minister to Federal Court over failure to protect woodland caribou, again

EDMONTON — The fight to save woodland caribou herds threatened by oilsands development in northeastern Alberta is headed to Federal Court for the second time.

Ecojustice, on behalf of the Pembina Institute and Alberta Wilderness Association, filed an application in the Federal Court today, seeking a court order to force Environment Minister Peter Kent to recommend emergency protection for the caribou and the habitat they need in order to survive. The groups have joined forces with the Athabasca Chipewyan, Swan River, Beaver Lake and Cold Lake First Nationsto challenge Kent.

“In our view, the Minister’s failure to protect the caribou and the habitat they rely on for survival is an unlawful, unreasonable rejection of his duties under the Species at Risk Act,” said Melissa Gorrie, Ecojustice staff lawyer and co-counsel on this case. “The Minister has ignored information from his own scientists and the direction of the Court in refusing, yet again, to recommend emergency protections.”

This is the second time Ecojustice has taken Kent to court in an effort to protect the threatened caribou herds, which are in serious decline largely due to oilsands development in the habitat they need to survive.

In July of 2011, the Federal Court quashed Kent’s refusal to recommend emergency protection for Alberta’s northeastern caribou herds, finding that the Minister’s conclusions “came out of the blue” and did not line up with evidence presented by Environment Canada scientists. The Court then ordered Kent to reconsider his position.

Last month, Kent announced yet again that Alberta’s northeastern caribou herds do not warrant emergency protection measures.

“I have reconsidered and I have determined that nationally, the species does not face an imminent threat to survival at this time,” Kent told The Canadian Press, adding that there is enough time to meet the objectives set out in the government’s proposed caribou recovery strategy for the threatened Alberta herds.

But in Ecojustice’s view, the proposed recovery strategy itself is critically flawed and violates the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Ecojustice has submitted comments to the federal government explaining this position in more detail.

“We think we have a strong argument that the proposed recovery strategy is illegal under SARA. It writes off the most vulnerable herds in the country, like the ones in northeastern Alberta, which threatens the survival and recovery of the entire boreal caribou population,” said Sean Nixon, Ecojustice staff lawyer and co-counsel.

“Recovery strategies are meant to be based on science and free from political influence. Parts of this recovery strategy look like they were written by politicians whose sole aim is to ensure that the needs of threatened species don’t get in the way of rampant oilsands expansion,” Nixon said.

Recovery strategies are intended to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of species listed under SARA.

An emergency order is necessary because Alberta’s northeastern herds are declining so fast that they need immediate protection, and because a final recovery strategy is already five years overdue. The emergency order Ecojustice seeks would include measures to regulate oilsands expansion until stressed herds in the region stabilize, offering some hope for their survival.

Some herds have declined by more than 70 per cent in the last 15 years, and scientists point to the cumulative impacts of uncontrolled oilsands development as a key factor in this decline.

“Neither government nor industry has taken the steps necessary to protect caribou from a certain and untimely end — it’s all about getting out the resources as fast as they can. We must stop the destruction and focus on critical habitat protection,” said Cliff Wallis, vice-president of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Caribou depend on large, continuous tracts of boreal forest to survive, but oilsands development continues to fragment their habitat and disrupts its natural predator-prey balance, exposing the caribou to threats they are ill-equipped to handle.

“If Minister Kent ignores decades of monitoring information and science and does not intervene to prevent woodland caribou from being exterminated in northeastern Alberta, this will be yet another blow to the already damaged reputation and social licence of Canada’s oilsands industry,” said Jennifer Grant, oilsands program director with the Pembina Institute.


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