In 2012, Ecojustice helped four conservation groups take the federal Minister of the Environment to Federal Court over his continued failure to fulfill his duties under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and protect Canada’s endangered greater sage-grouse. The groups sought a court order to force the minister to recommend that Cabinet make an emergency order under SARA to protect the iconic Prairie bird and its habitat.
The sage-grouse is now only found in parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where it receives little protection from the provincial governments. Recent scientific research suggests that rapid encroachment of oil, gas and other development in the areas where sage-grouse spend the winter, breed, nest and raise their young is the leading factor in their population drop. The sage-grouse is in danger of becoming extinct in Canada within the next 10 years.
In response to our clients’ lawsuit, the federal government claimed that the environment minister’s plans for protecting the sage-grouse were part of a “cabinet decision-making process” and, therefore, confidential. Our clients called it a troubling example of the federal government’s lack of transparency around its decisions to (not) protect the environment. The Federal Court of Appeal ordered the government to make public the Minister’s decision on whether to recommend emergency protections for the sage-grouse. After nearly two years of legal wrangling by Ecojustice lawyers, the federal government finally issued an emergency order for the sage-grouse in 2013.
Why was Ecojustice involved?
Species on the verge of extinction need special protection. We believe that when there is evidence of serious threats to an endangered species, the federal government must be held accountable if it ignores its own laws and fails to act. Governments must also be open and transparent about their environmental decisions.
What does this victory mean?
To our knowledge, this is the first time Canada’s government has introduced emergency protections for an endangered species. Further, the Court of Appeal’s decision sets an important precedent; it makes clear that the courts can review ministerial decisions, that ministers must be open and transparent about their decisions, and that they cannot hide behind a vague and unfounded claim of cabinet confidence in an attempt to avoid judicial review.