Feds not doing their job

This is an incredible fish story about a small minnow that roared.

This is an incredible fish story about a small minnow that roared.

The Nooksack dace, an endangered fish no more that 15 cm long at adulthood, was hailed as the hero in a precedent-setting Federal Court case last week in British Columbia that suggests the federal government has been breaking its own laws for years under the Species At Risk Act by failing to identify critical wildlife habitat areas.

While the case involves the dace, unique to four freshwater streams in B.C.’s lower mainland, environment groups are confident the outcome will force Ottawa to rethink protection of threatened species across Canada.

Adding to the debate, eight weeks ago a similar ruling was made in Alberta when the Federal Court found the federal environment minister negligent in failing to identify crucial habitat occupied by the endangered greater sage grouse — now under pressure by the energy industry.

The B.C. case is hailed as one of the most important environmental law decisions ever in Canada.

It involves a lawsuit launched by Ecojustice lawyers on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Georgia Strait Alliance and the Wilderness Committee, accusing the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) of unlawfully destroying (for reasons yet to be explained) habitat maps from the fed’s dace recovery strategy in 2006.

Guilty as charged. The Federal Court found the DFO violated the law protecting the dace under the Species At Risk Act by eliminating such crucial information.

Under the act, the federal government is required to identify critical habitat of all endangered and threatened species.

Environment groups claim the dace documents were trashed for “political and socio-economic” reasons. The big dollar is barking loud these days on the West Coast with the impending Winter Olympics.

Suspicions aside, University of Ottawa environmental law professor Stewart Elgie said the B.C. decision “really slaps the government’s hands for its ongoing failure to identify and protect endangered species habitat. It will have implications for dozens of other species across Canada.”

There are about 120 species in Canada designated “at risk.” Yet, environment groups claim that fewer than 10 per cent have undergone a habitat assessment.

Without identifying where endangered animals live, it’s impossible to protect them properly, said Elgie.

“The vast majority of endangered species in Canada aren’t getting the habitat protection as required under the act,” he said. “They’re failing to get what they need most to survive: a place to live.”

Such is the case closer to home with Southern Alberta’s greater sage grouse. Eight weeks ago, Ecojustice lawyers convinced the Federal Court that the federal government has failed to identify critical habitat for this magnificent bird, which is famous for its courtship dance and which once numbered in the tens of thousands.

The court ruled that without the amount of scientific information available, the federal environment minister has been negligent in designating critical habitat. Environment groups behind the lawsuit are optimistic the ruling will force Ottawa to protect the grouse, which is now staring down the barrel of the energy industry.

Listed as endangered since 1998, fewer than 200 of these birds remain in Alberta. The numbers are steadily declining with oil and gas developments fragmenting their habitat. It’s estimated that at the current pace of decline, the species will disappear from Alberta within six years.

Something has gone desperately wrong with the overall picture of our wildlife species in distress.

“Canadians deserve some answers as to why the federal government is failing to protect our country’s natural heritage despite having a legal duty to do so,” says Rick Smith of Environmental Defence. Indeed.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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