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The western chorus frog weighs about one gram and measures about 2.5 centimetres.Scott Gillingwater/Ontario Nature

A tiny frog has sparked the first Canada-Quebec squabble of the Trudeau era.

The Liberal government in Ottawa has issued an "emergency order" under the Species at Risk Act, blocking part of a residential project south of Montreal to protect the habitat of the western chorus frog.

David Heurtel, Quebec's Environment Minister, responded by stating that Ottawa's move "raises serious questions about a potential intrusion in Quebec's jurisdiction."

The federal department of Environment and Climate Change said the order was necessary to "prevent the loss or degradation of the habitat the western chorus frog needs to grow and reproduce."

The noisy frog weighs about one gram and measures about 2.5 centimetres. The federal order will protect two square kilometres of land in the municipality of La Prairie, Que., that include the area where 171 housing units of a project called Symbiocité were to be built.

In the broader scheme, it also sends a signal across the country that Ottawa is willing to take action in the name of science, even if it causes frictions with other levels of government or private developers.

"We have based our decision on the best available scientific knowledge," federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in a statement. "We firmly believe that economic development and the protection of biodiversity can, and must, go hand in hand."

The move quickly sparked the anger of the Liberal government in Quebec City. It has supported the residential project, which was designed to feature 1,200 housing units.

Mr. Heurtel slammed the federal government, saying it is "breaking the spirit of collaboration" between government departments and the real estate developers behind the Symbiocité project.

"What is sad today is that the federal government has made a decision without working collaboratively with all of the partners. It's a unilateral approach that goes against the collaborative federalism that we were expecting and had seen out of the new government in Ottawa," he told reporters in Quebec City.

The Quebec government said a deal was already in place to protect 83 per cent of the territory that is affected by the federal order, and that there was no urgent need for Ottawa's intervention.

"Maybe we could have taken the time to work together and come to a common solution," Mr. Heurtel said.

The Trudeau government said it was bound by the law to issue the emergency order based on scientific findings.

It said the western chorus frog has lost 60 per cent of its suitable habitat in La Prairie since the early 1990s. Combined with further erosion of its habitat in the rest of southwestern Quebec, the frog is "in danger of extirpation by 2030," the federal government said.

Marc Bishai, a lawyer at the Quebec Environmental Law Centre, said the previous Conservative government had failed to take any action on the file, despite its legal obligations. He pointed out this was the first time the act was used to block a private real estate development.

"It's a small step for the western chorus frog, but a huge leap for the protection of species at risk," he said in an interview. "It means that science has come back in the decision-making process, and it sends a message that the protection of species at risk is a joint [federal-provincial] responsibility."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will keep working to protect jobs and the environment.

"Canadians expect us to do both at the same time," Mr. Trudeau said at an end-of-session news conference in Ottawa.

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