Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Feds change direction after endangered species lawsuit

A coalition of leading conservation groups is applauding a move by the federal government to settle an outstanding court case that may lead to enhanced protection for Canada’s endangered species.

Conservationists sued the federal government over failure to identify critical habitat in the recovery strategy of an endangered shore bird, the Piping Plover. Canada’s Species at Risk Act cannot protect important habitat unless it is identified in recovery plans. However no habitat is identified in a majority of the plans currently released.

In a surprise move, government lawyers alerted conservation groups to a ministerial about-face, advising that the government would immediately pull the current Plover recovery strategy and reintroduce it with critical habitat identified. As well, the government will address a backlog on recovery planning for over 50 endangered species.

“For naturalists, the court case was a last resort that we saw as a choice between doing nothing and risking extinction of not just the Plovers, but also Canada’s endangered species protection law,” said Julie Gelfand, President of Nature Canada. “We hope this move by the minister signals the possibility that both can be saved.”

The Plover, like 84% of Canada’s at-risk species, is threatened with extinction because of loss of habitat. It is also one of Canada’s most studied birds with known habitat in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. So when the federal government refused to identify critical habitat for the Plover, Sierra Legal launched the court case alleging that the federal government was breaking the law.

“It continually amazes us how much time we invest in simply getting Canada to abide by its own laws,” said Sierra Legal lawyer Devon Page. “But this is a victory and we’ll take it.”

Besides requiring habitat to be identified so that it may be protected, protection of habitat on provincial land, where the vast majority of Canada’s species live, occurs only by order of the federal Cabinet.

“It takes science to identify habitat and political will to protect it,” said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation. “We applaud the government’s change of heart but the real proof will be in whether the federal cabinet has the will to actually protect the habitat.”

“This is a key step in saving species,” said Candace Batycki, endangered forest program director at ForestEthics, “but now we look forward to Minister Baird also following through at the cabinet table.”

“We’re delighted that our lawsuit has caught the government’s attention and prompted this about face,” said Aaron Freeman, policy director with Environmental Defence. “Hopefully the government will take species protection more seriously in the future, without the need for more lawsuits.”

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Gwen Barlee, national policy director with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. “Species at risk in Canada desperately need protection which is why we are so pleased to see the federal government finally move in the right direction.”

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