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Charity files suit against Environment Minister over lack of reports on endangered caribou

A woodland caribou bull is seen in this undated handout photo.

HO/The Canadian Press

A national charity created to safeguard Canada's lands and water is taking the federal Environment Minister to court for allegedly failing in her responsibility to monitor the protection of the endangered boreal woodland caribou.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is asking the Federal Court to find that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is acting illegally by ignoring the section of the Species At Risk Act that requires her department to report regularly on the condition of the caribou's habitat.

According to the Act, once a critical habitat for a species has been identified, the federal Environment Minister has 180 days to determine whether any portion of that habitat anywhere in Canada remains unprotected. The Minister must then report every six months on what steps are being taken to protect that habitat until full protection has been achieved.

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The habitat of the boreal woodland caribou was identified and publicly reported in October, 2012, nearly a decade after the animals were declared to be threatened with extinction if nothing is done to reverse their decline. But no subsequent reports have been issued by the federal government to indicate what measures are being taken to prevent further degradation of the places in which they live.

Much of the caribou habitat is under the control of the provinces and the federal government does not have the jurisdiction to control its use, said Éric Hébert-Daly, CPAWS' national executive director. But the federal Environment Minister and her department "need to be clear about what's actually going on in the critical habitat of the caribou in the places for which they are responsible and, at this point, there is nothing that reports on what's happening from that perspective."

A spokeswoman for Ms. McKenna said the government could not comment on the lawsuit because the matter is before the court. But she pointed out that the Minister met as recently as February with her provincial and territorial counterparts to discuss species at risk, including the boreal caribou.

The court action by CPAWS comes a week after The Globe and Mail reported that Canada was alone among the world's countries in issuing a blanket rejection of all changes to an international convention on the trade of endangered species that would better protect plants and animals threatened with extinction. Environment department officials said they simply could not meet the deadline for endorsing the modifications to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and that the blanket rejection would likely be lifted later this year. But one environmental group said Canada's response to that convention, which was issued late, was an "embarrassment."

The boreal woodland caribou once roamed over half of Canada but, according to CPAWS, more than half of their range has been lost in the past half-century and today they are found only in northern boreal forests and wetlands. Industrial development, which intersects their habitat creating open spaces in which they are vulnerable to predators, poses the biggest threat.

What is known, Mr. Hébert-Daly said, is that a number of the herds are struggling and that, in many places, far less than the 65 per cent of the caribou habitat is intact, which is a target of the recovery strategy.

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Some progress has been made in habitat protection, Mr. Hébert-Daly said. "But is it happening fast enough? No. Are we absolutely clear about what is permitted and not permitted on certain landscapes as a result of the kinds of decisions that government is making? No." he said. "These are the kinds of things that, frankly, need to be in a report and need to be clear and transparent for all to see because these are largely public lands and they belong to all Canadians and we deserve to know what's going on with them."

CPAWS has raised the issue repeatedly in its own reports and in letters to the Minister, Mr. Hébert-Daly said. But so far, he said, there seems to be no appetite on the part of Environment Canada to comply with the law.

"So this needs to be clarified once and for all," Mr. Hébert-Daly said, "for the benefit of all species."

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