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The federal cabinet has rejected an emergency protection order for the northern spotted owl recommended by the Environment Minister.Handout

The federal cabinet has rejected an emergency protection order for the northern spotted owl recommended by the Environment Minister, disappointing advocates that had hoped the action would provide a lifeline to an endangered subspecies that is down to one wild-born bird living in the woods.

The cabinet decision was disclosed Wednesday by environmental groups Ecojustice and Wilderness Committee, as well as Spuzzum First Nation in B.C., which have spent years campaigning to protect the owls’ old-growth habitat. Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeault’s recommendation of an emergency order and cabinet’s rejection occurred days before the advocacy groups were headed to court in an attempt to force Mr. Guilbeault to take the action.

The cabinet decision is the latest development in a decades-long battle over the fate of the spotted owl that involves old-growth forests, Indigenous rights and biodiversity concerns. In Canada, the only known population of the bird is in the southwestern mainland of B.C. There were an estimated population of 500 breeding pairs in B.C. before European settlement; there’s now 30 in a captive breeding program, according to the province, in addition to the one wild-born bird.

In an e-mailed statement, Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson Kaitlin Power said the government would not be making an emergency order at this time but recognizes more needs to be done to support the recovery of the spotted owl.

“The Minister has fulfilled his obligation under the Species at Risk Act and recommended the making of an emergency order to protect the species to the Governor in Council, having previously concluded the species was facing imminent threat to its recovery,” Ms. Power said.

Environment Canada officials continue to develop a federal recovery strategy for the spotted owl with direct input from B.C., First Nations and a range of stakeholders, including the general public, she added.

Nathan Cullen, B.C.’s Minister for Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, was not available for an interview. In an e-mailed statement, he said the province is doing all it can to help spotted owls recover, citing the captive breeding program, logging deferrals in two Fraser Canyon watersheds that provide spotted owl habitat, and work with First Nations and biologists to protect enough habitat to support a recovery objective of 125 breeding pairs.

B.C. First Nation ‘furious’ after federal government rejects order to protect owls

For Spuzzum First Nation Chief James Hobart, the promise of a federal recovery strategy rings hollow.

“They’re not working with us – they’re working around us, and using us as part of their message,” Mr. Hobart said, saying he was distraught and upset by the cabinet rejection. Habitat protection measures taken by the B.C. government are not enough to allow the birds to survive, he said.

“The entire corridor for the spotted owl needs to be expanded, needs to be protected,” Mr. Hobart said, adding that he’d like to see more provincial government funding for logging companies that are being asked or required to give up logging rights, especially in the context of growing First Nations’ involvement and decision-making in forestry operations.

Both the B.C. and federal governments have passed legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says Indigenous peoples have the “right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.”

The B.C.-based Wilderness Committee, represented by environmental law charity Ecojustice, in June launched a court action alleging that Mr. Guilbeault had failed to fulfill his duty to recommend that cabinet issue an emergency order, even though he’d concluded as early as February that the Spotted Owl was facing imminent threats to its survival.

Now that Mr. Guilbeault has recommended an emergency order, and cabinet has rejected it, that angle of the court case is no longer in question, Ecojustice lawyer Andhra Azevedo said.

But the issue of how long a minister can take to make a recommendation under the Species at Risk Act is still an open question, meaning the court case will go ahead, she said.

The Wilderness Committee has over the past two decades made two previous requests for an emergency order to protect the spotted owl, and each time, Ottawa has instead relied on B.C. to take measures to reverse the decline, Ms. Azevedo said – adding that they have not been effective.

In an April, 2023 report, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Jerry DeMarco, found that the federal government’s efforts to protect species at risk were falling short, and he flagged lengthy backlogs in recovery strategies and action plans.

Of the 520 species at risk that have been reassessed since 1982, 416, or 80 per cent, either showed no change in status or had entered a higher risk category, his report found.

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