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Legal victory for Canada's endangered species

A recent court ruling on protection for Alberta's sage-grouse could have major implications for endangered species here in British Columbia. The bird known for its elaborate mating dance is at the heart of a precedent-setting decision in federal court.

Last week a federal judge ruled that the federal government broke the law by neglecting to identify critical habitat in a recovery plan for the endangered greater sage-grouse.

"It's definitely going to be a precedent," said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice Canada. "It's a legal ruling that interprets the law in the way that we've been seeking for some time. This is only one in a series of endangered species cases we've had to bring to force the government to do its duty."

In 2005, Ecojustice launched a lawsuit against Environment Canada, claiming that it had stripped away habitat protection in a plan to recover B.C.'s endangered spotted owl. The group launched similar cases with the release of the federal government's orca recovery plan and nooksack dace recovery plan.

"It's a pattern where you can only get critical habitat identified if you threaten legal action," said Page.

Canada's Species At Risk Act (SARA) requires the federal government to create and implement recovery plans for species at risk which, among other measures, identifies critical habitat. It's against the law to destroy that critical habitat.

In the case of the nooksack dace (which is a small freshwater fish) the Department of Fisheries and Ocean [DFO] later released a revised recovery plan that included critical habitat. The DFO sought to have the case dismissed as a result of the revised plan, but lost. Ecojustice pursued the case, countering with evidence to indicate this was not an isolated case but part of a policy directive to omit critical habitat from any recovery strategy.

That case is still before the courts. Devon said the most recent ruling will "no doubt" be considered by the federal judge.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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