Ottawa issues emergency protection order for rare Quebec frog

For only the second time since the Species at Risk Act was passed in 2002, an emergency protection order has been issued by the federal government — this time for a Quebec frog with a rapidly dwindling habitat.

Federal decree to safeguard western chorus frog halts part of housing project in La Prairie, Que.

The western chorus frog is only the second species to get an emergency order for its protection since the Species at Risk Act was implemented in 2012. (Etienne Plasse/Un monde inaperçu)

The future of a frog species with a dwindling population in a suburb on Montreal's South Shore is looking brighter after the federal government announced an emergency order for its protection. 

The western chorus frog, a small amphibian at the centre of a large legal battle, is only the second species to receive an emergency order since the Species at Risk Act was passed in 2002, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

"It is important to act now [to] assure the immediate protection of the species," said Mark Dionne, a biologist with the ministry.

The small olive or brown-coloured amphibian, which grows to a length of about 2.5 centimetres, has been listed as threatened since 2010.

The order, which applies to the La Prairie, Candiac and Saint-Philippe municipalities in Quebec, covers about two square kilometres. It will come into effect July 17, 2016.

Victory for environmentalists

A legal battle has been brewing over the western chorus frog in La Prairie since 2013, when a developer proposed building a new residential development, called Symbiocité, on the wooded wetland that is home to the amphibian.

Environmentalists fought the plan, arguing it would harm an already vulnerable species.

Between 1992 and 2013, 60 per cent of the frog's suitable habitat in the La Prairie region was lost — the highest rate of loss in Quebec's Montérégie region, according to the federal Environment Ministry.

Twice in recent years, requests for a permanent protection order for the frog were denied, most recently by former Conservative environment minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Last August, a Quebec Superior Court judge granted an injunction, stopping work on the project.

The newly elected Liberal government announced its intentions to protect the threatened species in late 2015, signalling the emergency protection was on its way.

The order, however, will only affect a small portion of the Symbiocité project — 171 of the proposed 1,200 housing units can no longer be built. 

"We firmly believe that economic development and the protection of biodiversity can, and must, go hand in hand," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in a news release.

The 25-day gap between the announcement of the protection order and the date that it will go into effect is procedural, said Robert McLean, executive director of the environmental stewardship branch with the ministry.

McLean said officials would use that time to hold information sessions "so that we can ensure that people are not surprised by the … requirement of the order and have a chance to ask questions."

For the housing developer, those requirements include several prohibitions, including:

  • Installing or building any structure that could prevent the movement of the species.
  • Removing, damaging, destroying or introducing vegetation.
  • Removing, relocating or working the soil.
  • Driving vehicles off roads or paved paths.

Developer 'surprised and disappointed'

Although Quintpac, the developer behind Symbiocité, will be able to complete four of six phases of its project — including a proposed school and arena —  the federal government will not compensate the company for investments made in the two phases that will now have to be scrapped.

"We are surprised and disappointed by this decision and the fact that [the government] won't provide any compensation given the substantial investments made," said Quintpac president Ted Quint in a statement.

Quint said it was a shame the company had to redesign its project, even though it received all the authorizations and met all the requirements of Quebec's Environment Department.

Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel defended his office, saying it did its job in reviewing the project "in a rigorous and serious way."

He added the emergency order "raised serious questions" about the province's jurisdiction and constituted a possible "intrusion of the Quebec government's responsibilities."

However, documents obtained by Radio-Canada, suggest the provincial government repeatedly approved projects that would further endanger the western chorus frog.

Radio-Canada also reported the federal government stepped in to protect the species because of the Quebec government's inaction, according to a source — a claim that appears to be supported by a recent Quebec auditor general's report that concluded the provincial government was slow to respect its commitments to biodiversity.

Although a Quebec group of chambers of commerce (FCCQ) has echoed the provincial government and the developer's concerns that the order would hurt economic development, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday it was "the only way to ensure the future of Canadians."

"Canadians expect us to do things at the same time: create a prosperous economy, all while protecting the environment."