Politics

Environment Canada settles court case over threats to caribou habitat

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has settled a court action launched by an environmental group over the protection of critical habitat for a species at risk.

Minister is promising more regular reports on protection of habitat for species at risk

A calf born to the Klinse-Za caribou herd in northern B.C. (Wildlife Infometrics)

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has settled a court action launched by an environmental group over the protection of critical habitat for a species at risk.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) filed the application for a judicial review a year ago, alleging McKenna failed to uphold her responsibilities under the Species at Risk Act.

In particular, CPAWS argued the federal government wasn't doing enough to protect the habitat of boreal woodland caribou on non-federal lands.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. (CBC)

"This isn't just a victory for caribou. It's actually a victory for species all around," said Eric Hebert Daly, national director of CPAWS.

In a statement today, Environment and Climate Change Canada said "moving forward, the Government of Canada will track and report unprotected critical habitat for species at risk on non-federal lands."

Since the action was filed in Federal Court April 20, 2017, both sides have worked together to "determine a path forward that is agreeable to both parties," the statement said.

The settlement of CPAWS' application clarifies federal responsibility under the Species at Risk Act, and how it applies to habitat on land owned by the provinces and territories.

In April of this year, the federal government issued its first report on the steps it's taking to protect woodland caribou habitat.

It's also promising to update that report every 180 days, as required by law.

Environment Canada is also promising to issue a broader report on how it's protecting the habitat of 150 threatened species. That report is due in June 2019 and, again, is to be updated every 180 days.

Keeping track of habitat

"Having that kind of information at the fingerprints of provinces and territories and the public, to be able to see that progress in terms of the protection of habitat, is the only way we can do this collectively," said Daly.

"If we don't have those mechanisms in place then all the federal government can do is wait, wait, wait and then suddenly yell, scream and come down hard on provinces."

In its court application, CPAWS argued the federal government failed to identify critical woodland caribou habitat that fell outside of its jurisdiction, and to provide updates on how the provinces were trying to restore that habitat to help the species rebound from the threat of extinction.

The woodland caribou's habitat extends throughout the boreal forest which stretches from Labrador to the Yukon, across nine provinces and territories.

CPAWS has been tracking provincial efforts to protect that habitat since 2013 and has often voiced its dismay over the lack of progress.

It has argued provinces have allowed too much industrial development — such as mining and oil and gas projects — in the boreal zone, leaving the caribou habitat fragmented.

The group first wrote to the environment minister in December 2016, warning her the situation was urgent and that only 14 of 51 herds were "self-sustaining."

Last week, McKenna released a report suggesting the provinces weren't doing enough to protect caribou habitat.

Her officials also found some caribou populations are facing an imminent threat of disappearing, which is the last step before the federal cabinet can step in and order conservation.

McKenna's office said today's agreement signals "government's commitment to report on the protection of critical habitat, providing information to the public on the status of protection efforts by provinces and territories." It also pointed to the promise of $1.3 billion for conservation in this year's budget.

Daly said that investment did change the conversation.

"The federal government can now invest in science for park management. It can now invest in reporting for caribou and providing incentives for provinces and territories to create protected areas."

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