Last March I wrote about the plight of the Greater Sage Grouse in Canada, and plans by the group Ecojustice to take legal action, “seeking a court order to force Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent to recommend emergency protections for the iconic Prairie bird and the habitat it needs to survive in Canada.” Unfortunately, the federal government refused to act, claiming that the Minister of the Environment’s plans for protecting the Sage Grouse are part of a ‘Cabinet decision-making process’ and therefore confidential. Here is Ecojustice’s press release from this week.
So the other month, on February 14, 2013, Ecojustice, representing the Alberta Wilderness Association, Wilderness Committee, Nature Saskatchewan, and Grasslands Naturalists, filed an application in federal court, that the Species at Risk Act (SARA), which mandates protection of endangered species and the habitat they need to survive and recover, should compel immediate action by the Minister and Environment Canada.
The court order came after Ecojustice filed a petition last November demanding that Minister Kent use a provision in the federal Species at Risk Act to protect Canada’s remaining Sage Grouse, found only in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Signatories included the Alberta Wilderness Association, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, the David Suzuki Foundation, Lethbridge Naturalists Society, Nature Alberta, Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Canada, National Audubon Society/Rockies, Sierra Club of Canada/Prairie Chapter, the Society of Grasslands Naturalists, WildEarth Guardians, and the Wilderness Committee.
November’s petition called for Minister Peter Kent to recommend an emergency order to protect the Sage Grouse and to stop further human disturbance of their very specific habitat. According to Ecojustice, “recent scientific research suggests that rapid encroachment of oil and gas development on the areas where Sage Grouse spend the winter, breed, nest and raise their young is the leading factor in their extreme population drop.”
Ecojustice biologist Susan Pinkus said this week, “It’s excruciating to watch this procedural wrangling. The Sage Grouse are on their way out if nothing is done. We’re talking a really dire emergency.”
When Kent failed to move one way or another after 10 weeks [by January 16, 2013], [Ecojustice] requested a judicial review of what they called his refusal to carry out his responsibilities. They also asked for any materials Kent was using in his decision.
Kent’s office refused to provide those documents. Nor has it offered anything beyond year-old statements saying the issue was, at that time, still under consideration. It won’t even say if a decision has been made.
The government has argued that because Kent conferred with cabinet colleagues, the entire matter is covered by cabinet confidentiality.
Ecojustice staff lawyer Melissa Gorrie said, “Minister Kent’s inaction in the face of the rapid decline of these endangered birds is forcing us to seek court intervention. It’s unfortunate that we have to ask the Court to intervene, but the federal government has left us no choice. Sage-grouse need immediate protection or they’ll disappear from Canada.”
Interestingly, the Environment Minister gave an interview last fall to the Canadian Press, in which he said he wanted “to spend the next few months figuring how to make the Species At Risk Act more efficient. In particular, he wants the recovery plans provided for in the legislation to consider whole ecosystems, rather than just species in isolation.”
As a reminder, as of Spring 2012, there only 13 male Sage Grouse dancing at leks in Alberta, with the total population thought to be around 40 birds. As a result of habitat destruction, especially as a result of oil, gas, and industrial development, almost 90 per cent of the bird’s Canadian population died off between 1988 and 2006. Research has shown that when development destroys their habitat, Sage Grouse will abandon their leks, the central courting and breeding grounds) and other habitats that are crucial to their survival. Madeline Wilson, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, has said, “If no meaningful actions are taken immediately to protect sage-grouse and the habitat they need to survive, they will go extinct in Canada within the next 10 years.” She added, “If Sage Grouse are wiped out in Canada, it will be an entirely avoidable and human-caused disaster. The provinces’ failure to protect sage-grouse habitat has brought the species to the brink of extinction, and urgent federal action is needed to save these spectacular birds.”
Alberta and Saskatchewan each have a provinicial Wildlife Act as well as voluntary guidelines for energy development near Sage Grouse habitat. However, provincial protections are so loose that Sage Grouse populations continue to decline. The environmental groups who joined to together last fall called on the oil and gas industry to voluntarily provide Sage Grouse with the protection they need.
In Alberta, Sage Grouse can now be found only in the extreme southeast corner of the province, near Manyberries and Pakowki Lake.
Dr. Mark Boyce, a Sage Grouse expert and professor at the University of Alberta, echoes Madeline Wilson, saying,“We have strong science telling us how and where oil and gas development must be regulated if Sage Grouse are to survive in Canada, but the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the oil and gas industry are refusing to act on it. Unless they change course immediately, Sage Grouse will become the first species extirpated because of the oil and gas industry.”
Ecojustice has made a public service announcement on the Sage Grouse at YouTube,
Ecojustice is a national charitable organization dedicated to defending Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. Founded in 1990 as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund with a team of two in Vancouver , Ecojustice changed its name in 2007 and is now a national organization with staff lawyers and scientists in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa.