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Environmental groups take feds to court over endangered seabirds

A coalition of environmental groups took the federal government to court Wednesday to protect endangered migratory birds.

Jens Wieting with the Sierra Club of BC says the groups will argue in court that Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault unlawfully limited the federal government’s protection of endangered birds by protecting only their nests, not the habitat they need to survive.

“In order to protect the habitat of endangered migratory birds like the marbled murrelet, we need a wider interpretation of habitat,” he says. “We have to protect… old growth forests where marbled murrelets are nesting.”

The Sierra Club, Wilderness Committee and Ecojustice are working the case together. They say the Species at Risk Act is being used in a way that fails to protect birds including the marbled murrelet, which has been designated as threatened since 1990. The birds live within 30 kilometres of the coastline, from Alaska to California. Most of the BC population lives in forests that are not protected from future logging.

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“Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the minister is required to ensure protection of critical habitat for at-risk migratory birds on provincial lands to which the Migratory Bird Convention Act (MBCA) applies. However, the Minister has taken the position that the federal government has no obligation to protect anything other than bird nests on provincial lands,” they say in a joint statement. “This is bad news for all at-risk migratory birds in Canada.”

Murrelets are at top of mind in the case because they are most at risk among threatened bird populations. They only have one offspring each year, and their numbers are in steady decline coast-wide.

“The birds only approach or leave their nests under the cover of darkness, making the nests nearly impossible to find and difficult to protect,” the groups say. “The main threat to the marbled murrelet’s survival and recovery is logging of their nesting habitat.”

Wieting says the case will hopefully put pressure on the provincial government as well as the federal.

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“With a growing number of endangered species like the marbled murrelet slipping through the cracks in B.C., we’re depending on the federal government to follow through on commitments like those under the Migratory Birds Convention Act,” he says. “Until British Columbia enacts effective biodiversity legislation, marbled murrelets, and many other species need other levels of government to step up to the plate and act for their survival and recovery.”

The case has national implications. If the environmental groups are successful, the federal government will have to take steps to ensure protection of bird habitat and supporting ecosystems.

Meanwhile the Sierra Club gave credit to the BC government for a funding announcement last month which earmarks $300 million to protect old-growth forests.

“This is the beginning of a huge shift toward conserving our most endangered forests and reaching the goal of protecting 30 percent of land in B.C. by 2030. Seven years from now, people in B.C. could be looking back and celebrating this crucial milestone towards conservation, a stable climate and reconciliation,” says Shelley Luce, Sierra Club BC’s Director of Campaigns in a statement. “With this announcement, Premier Eby’s leadership is enabling greater investments in conserving forests and creating new economic activities to replace the industrial clear-cut logging that has decimated our forests.”

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