Federal Court overturns Minister Kent’s decision not to protect woodland caribou

Woodland Caribou

Image by Just a Prairie Boy via Flickr

Edmonton — The federal Environment Minister’s “out of the blue” decision not to recommend emergency protection for woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta ignored scientific evidence and must be set aside, a Federal Court has determined.

Environment Minister Peter Kent must now reconsider the government’s position on emergency protections for the caribou.

“Given the evidence, and the court’s decision, the only reasonable conclusion Minister Kent can come to is that he must recommend emergency protection for the caribou,” said Melissa Gorrie, the Ecojustice staff lawyer who appeared at the hearing. “He has a second opportunity to give this iconic animal a chance for survival.”

Ecojustice, on behalf of the Pembina Institute and Alberta Wilderness Association, had sought a court order to force Minister Kent to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. In its decision, the Federal Court also acknowledged that a Recovery Strategy for the woodland caribou is four years overdue, and gave the Minister of Environment until September 1, 2011 to release a draft of the strategy.

Protections for caribou in northeastern Alberta need to be implemented soon. Some herds have declined by more than 70 per cent during the past 15 years. “It is not immediately apparent how, given the foregoing facts, the Minister reasonably could have concluded that there are no imminent threats to the national recovery of boreal caribou,” Justice Crampton wrote in his decision.

“The reason that the Species at Risk Act isn’t working is because the federal government continually refuses to let it work,” said Gorrie. “The Minister’s unreasonable decision is another example of the government’s refusal to apply SARA for the purpose it is intended – to protect species at risk.”

Abundant scientific evidence indicates that oilsands operations contribute to caribou population declines, yet as of July 2010, there were 34 current or approved oilsands projects and 12 additional proposed projects within the herds’ ranges. “We will lose our northeastern Alberta caribou herds if no concrete steps to protect these animals are taken soon,” said Simon Dyer, policy director for the Pembina Institute.

A 2010 Alberta government study found that if the current industrial development trend continued, local caribou are likely to become extinct in less than 40 years.

The Government of Alberta’s reluctance to introduce any meaningful caribou habitat protection through its recent Lower Athabasca Regional Plan makes immediate federal action even more critical.

“Justice Crampton essentially said that the Minister’s decision flies in the face of all the evidence before him,” said Cliff Wallis, Alberta Wilderness Association vice-president. “Minister Kent and the Alberta government must stop their delaying tactics and get on with the pressing work of on-the-ground caribou habitat protection”

 

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