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Canada First Nations, environmental groups sue Ottawa to step up protections of Alberta’s boreal caribou

They argue Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has failed to protect the habitat of five boreal woodland caribou herds as required by federal law.

Rock Arssenault/Rock Arssenault/Reuters

First Nations and environmental groups launched legal action Thursday to force the federal government to safeguard critical habitat for boreal woodland caribou in northern Alberta’s oil sands region, urging new protections for an iconic species scientists say is headed toward extinction.

Lawyers with the environment group Ecojustice filed a notice of application for judicial review in federal court on behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations in northern Alberta, together with the Alberta Wilderness Association and the David Suzuki Foundation.

They argue Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has failed to protect the habitat of five boreal woodland caribou herds as required by federal law, even though her own department has concluded in successive reports that provincial recovery plans for the threatened species are inadequate.

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“This has been going on for many years and in the interim the herds continue to tank, to be quite frank," Ecojustice lawyer Melissa Gorrie said from Edmonton.

The legal challenge aims to prod the federal government to issue a protective order that trumps provincial environmental rules. Such a move risks aggravating tensions at a time when relations between Edmonton and Ottawa have soured owing to lengthy delays to major oil pipeline proposals.

Premier Rachel Notley’s government has chafed at the prospect of federal intervention, and insists more work is needed to understand how conservation efforts might affect jobs and industries still recovering from a sharp economic contraction.

Last year, the province appealed to Ottawa for cash to cover restoration costs that it said could top $1-billion over four decades, plus another $75-million for caribou rearing facilities.

A spokesman for Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips on Thursday reiterated that request but did not address the judicial application directly, pointing instead to newly designated parkland as evidence the province is working to protect critical habitat.

Conservation groups have warned for years that caribou, seen as sacred by some First Nations and by others as an important food staple, face existential threats due to a range of factors including habitat loss, resource development and growing effects of climate change.

The Wildlife Conservation Society last October issued a stark assessment that said the herbivore, which is also depicted on the Canadian quarter, is headed for extinction in every region of the country in which it is found.

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Federal scientists said in April of last year and again in December that a draft provincial recovery strategy for the animal is inadequate. Under the federal Species at Risk Act, such a finding is supposed to trigger a recommendation to cabinet for what’s known as a “safety net order" that supersedes provincial authority, although cabinet can reject it. Boreal woodland caribou were listed as threatened under federal law in 2003.

A spokeswoman for Ms. McKenna on Thursday said the department is aware of the legal action but offered no assurances that it would implement a protective order. Sabrina Kim said Ottawa is committed to its obligations under the federal legislation but noted Alberta has “primary responsibility for managing this species.”

The legal action foreshadows similar fights environmental groups say could play out in Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford’s government has launched a review to streamline that province’s Endangered Species Act.

Boreal woodland caribou in Alberta roam a vast, but severely fragmented, region pockmarked by sprawling oil sands mines, pipelines and other industrial operations. All but one of the five herds seen as especially vulnerable have been in “steep and continuous decline” since 2000, according to the judicial application.

“Other provinces don’t have the mining, the oil and gas and the forestry all operating on the same landscape," said Cliff Wallis, a director with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"We sometimes describe Alberta as the basket case. It’s kind of the front-line of efforts to keep caribou on the landscape.”

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BOREAL WOODLAND CARIBOU RANGE

IN ALBERTA

The boreal woodland caribou's population has

seriously declined and its status is now

threatened.* The population is estimated to be

33,000 Canadawide.

Boreal woodland caribou range

Other caribou populations’ ranges

KEY

Oil sands area

Fort

McMurray

Edmonton

ALBERTA

Calgary

0

100

KM

Boreal woodland caribou

*Based on assessments of 11 distinct population

units of caribou for the Committee on the Status

of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCES: CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC; ENVIRONMENT CANADA;

ALBERTA ENERGY

BOREAL WOODLAND CARIBOU RANGE

IN ALBERTA

The boreal woodland caribou's population has seriously

declined and its status is now threatened.* The population

is estimated to be 33,000 Canadawide.

Boreal woodland caribou range

Other caribou populations’ ranges

KEY

Oil sands area

Fort

McMurray

Edmonton

ALBERTA

Calgary

0

100

KM

Boreal woodland caribou

*Based on assessments of 11 distinct population

units of caribou for the Committee on the Status

of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCES: CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC; ENVIRONMENT

CANADA; ALBERTA ENERGY

BOREAL WOODLAND CARIBOU RANGE IN ALBERTA

The boreal woodland caribou's population has seriously declined and its status is now

threatened.* The population is estimated to be 33,000 Canadawide.

Boreal woodland caribou range

KEY

Other caribou populations’ ranges

Oil sands area

Fort

McMurray

Edmonton

ALBERTA

Calgary

0

100

Boreal woodland caribou

KM

*Based on assessments of 11 distinct population units of caribou for the Committee on the

Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC;

ENVIRONMENT CANADA; ALBERTA ENERGY

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