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Nature advocates claim win on grouse judgment

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is reviewing a court decision that found the federal government has been misapplying its own Species at Risk Act.

Environmentalists who took the government to court say it's the strongest judgment yet on what they see as federal foot-dragging on protecting the habitat needed to revive threatened species.

It has implications for dozens of other animals on the species-at-risk list, said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, the lead group in the suit against Ottawa.

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The Federal Court ruling, issued last Thursday in Vancouver, concluded that while it wasn't illegal, Ottawa acted unreasonably by not identifying critical habitat in a recovery plan for the endangered greater sage grouse.

Justice Russel Zinn found the government ignored its own scientific evidence pinpointing the bird's vital habitat.

"The judge adopted our position in entirety and says the minister must identify all the critical habitat that's known at the time," Mr. Page said in an interview yesterday .

Added Cliff Wallis, vice-president of the Alberta Wilderness Association: "The decision has clearly articulated that the minister does not have discretion."

Mr. Prentice is reviewing the decision, press secretary Bill Rodgers said in an e-mail. The minister had been attending the G8 summit in Italy when the court issued its ruling.

The court gave the two sides 30 days to come up with a plan to revise the grouse's recovery strategy to include its critical habitat.

Mr. Page said he hopes Ottawa doesn't appeal the decision.

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But Mike Wong, executive director of ecological integrity at Parks Canada, which is responsible for implementing the law, said an appeal hasn't been ruled out.

"We're awaiting advice from our legal counsel on that," Mr. Wong said.

The case revolved around a species of sage grouse found in Alberta and Saskatchewan that's known for the flamboyant mating dance of its males.

The grouse once had 100,000 square kilometres of habitat across the Southern Prairies. But agriculture, oil and gas development, road building and pipeline construction have fragmented the habitat. The birds have been pushed into roughly 6,000 square kilometres straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary near the U.S. border.

While there are thousands of grouse in the United States, the Canadian population has plummeted over the past 20 years and only a few dozen remain.

The government proposed a recovery strategy last year, as required by the act, but it contains no identified critical habitat to be protected, which environmentalists say renders any plan meaningless.

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The ruling could affect plans for other species at risk, such as the Nooksack dace, a small freshwater fish found in British Columbia, and the woodland caribou, Mr. Page said.

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