Environment Minister Peter Kent has made it clear where he stands on protecting Alberta’s dwindling caribou herds. In his opinion,  these herds — which are being decimated by continued oilsands development — do not warrant protection because some herds in other parts of Canada are doing okay.

Ecojustice views such a position as indefensible. Today, on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Pembina Institute, we filed a Federal Court application against the Minister, seeking — for the second time — an order forcing him to recommend the emergency protection these herds need to survive.

It’s unfortunate that we have to take Minister Kent to court again, but these vulnerable herds need immediate protection. Some herds have declined by more than 70 per cent in the last 15 years, and with a final recovery strategy already five years overdue and still years away from implementation, they need help now.

In July 2011, the Federal Court ruled in our favour and instructed Minister Kent to reconsider his refusal to recommend emergency protections for the caribou. Unfortunately, the Minister refuses to budge from his original position, and recently decided — yet again — not to recommend emergency protections.

In our view, in doing so the Minister has ignore the direction of the Federal Court and the obligations the Minister has under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the law that was written with the intention of giving threatened species the protection they need to recover.

Minister Kent has stated that part of the reason an emergency order is unwarranted is his belief that the proposed national caribou recovery strategy will help the Alberta herds. Ecojustice’s view is that the proposed strategy is insufficient and actually violates SARA. Yesterday we submitted comments to the Environment Canada detailing our position.

The main issue we have with the proposed strategy is that it writes off the most endangered caribou herds in the country — including the ones in Alberta we are trying to protect. These herds are integral to the stability of the entire caribou population scattered throughout Canada’s boreal forest. Letting herds collapse is akin to breaking links in a chain — it weakens the whole substantially.

The Minister is bound by SARA to protect vulnerable species and give them the best possible chance to survive and recover. He does not have the authority to write off some herds just because protecting them is inconvenient or contradicts plans to expand oilsands projects in Alberta.

The oilsands are of particular concern for the Alberta herds because caribou depend on large, continuous tracts of boreal forest to survive. Oilsands development continues to fragment this habitat, which disrupts the natural predator-prey balance and exposes the caribou to threats they are ill-equipped to handle.

But aside from the fact that some caribou herds are endangered, why all the fuss? It’s a good question, considering they are relatively elusive and most Canadians have never seen one up close.

Like the killer whale, another species Ecojustice has worked hard to protect, the caribou is a “sentinel” species, which means its health indicates the health of its surrounding environment. Caribou herds are stressed — as evidenced by their dramatic population decline in recent years — which is a signal that Canada’s iconic boreal forest ecosystems are also in distress.

This is a big problem. The boreal forest isn’t just home to animals like the caribou: It also filters freshwater, stores carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming and drives key Canadian industries like forestry and fisheries.

Habitat protection is essential if species in decline are to survive and recover. This is why it’s so critical Minister Kent and the federal government do their part to protect the Alberta cairbou herds and their habitat. If we stop the oilsands industry from recklessly disturbing the boreal forest, we not only protect the caribou, but an integral part of an ecosystem vital to preserving Canada’s environmental and economic well-being.

We think that’s pretty important. And it’s why we’re taking the Minister back to Federal Court over emergency protection for Alberta’s endangered caribou.

by Melissa Gorrie and Sean Nixon, staff lawyers