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Federal Court rules minister took too long to protect B.C. spotted owl

Ruling a historic win for Northern Spotted Owl, says Wilderness Committee

It's a historic moment for conservation in B.C. 

Nearly eight months after he was first brought to trial, the federal court has ruled that Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault broke the law when he waited eight months before recommending an emergency order for B.C.'s Northern Spotted Owl. 

The ruling was made by Justice Yvan Roy, on June 7, who agreed with environmental organization The Wilderness Committee that's Guilbeault's delay violated the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Roy also agreed that the delay was unreasonable as Guilbeault had already "determined the spotted owl faced imminent threats to its recovery primarily due to logging" throughout the Fraser Canyon. This is because the logging poses a threat to the bird's wild population recovery (the Fraser Canyon is the main, critical, habitat for B.C.'s wild spotted owl population), which Guilbeault acknowledged. 

"“I find it difficult to fathom how a period of more than eight months could be reasonable once the opinion has been formed that there exist imminent threats to the species’ survival or recovery," Roy said. "Either the threats are imminent or not. Either the threats concern the survival or recovery of the species or they do not. Once the opinion that the threats are about to happen, the Act says that the recommendation must be made.

"There is (an) emergency. The opinion triggers the action that must be taken.”

Wilderness Committee, represented by the environmental law charity Ecojustice, filed to take Guilbeault to court in June 2023 after he failed to make the recommendation in January, which he said he would do.

In January 2023, the minister determined that the 2,500 hectares of spotted owl habitat was at risk of being logged within the year.  According to Wilderness Committee, under SARA the minister was required to "act urgently" and bring his recommendation — to stop the logging in the owl's habitat — to cabinet. 

Guilbeault only brought the recommendation to the cabinet at the end of September 2023. In a letter announcing its decision, the federal government said in October 2023 that it is not going ahead with an emergency order, despite Guilbeault's recommendation. Instead, it would be endorsing “a collaborative approach” with the B.C. government and Indigenous communities after considering factors such as “socio-economic and legal impacts.”

Despite the government's rejection, Wilderness Committee’s challenge proceeded and a trial began on Oct. 18 at the Federal Court in Vancouver. During the trial, Ecojustice lawyer Kegan Pepper-Smith argued that the delay went against minister’s "responsibility under the Species at Risk Act to address the imminent threat to spotted owl protection posed by old-growth logging in B.C.’s Fraser Canyon."

“This is an important decision for at-risk species across the country facing imminent threats to their survival and recovery," Pepper-Smith said. "Ministers must act with urgency. No longer can they rely on extraneous considerations and processes, like negotiating with the province, to justify delay." 

While Roy's ruling won't stop active logging in the Fraser Canyon, nor stop the Province from issuing logging licences, Wilderness Committee said in their press release that the decision "will serve as a useful precedent for all at-risk species, such as the Southern Resident Killer Whales."

Currently there are three spotted owls, two males and one female, in the Fraser Canyon. The female was born in the wild. Meanwhile the males, named ‘sítist’ [te-syst] and ‘wíkcn’ [week-chin], were released on July 25 into the protected habitat in the Fraser Canyon. 

A partnership between the province’s Spotted Owl Breeding and Release Program and Spuzzum First Nation is currently taking place to help recover the wild northern spotted owl populations in B.C.

Sítist was originally released in August 2022, with two other males, as part of the program’s first release. Unfortunately, he was later found injured near train tracks in the Fraser Canyon. After being rehabilitated by the Orphaned Wildlife Society, he was returned to the program’s breeding facility in Langley.

Ministry staff also confirmed in May 2023 that the two other males had died from unknown causes. 

The spotted owls, who are known in Spuzzum’s language as Skelúle? (Northern Spotted Owl is the name given by settlers of Canada), are seen as important relatives of the First Nation community, whose “presence are indicative of the health” of the “region’s old-growth forests because of its independence on their ecosystems for survival.”

“When you determine there’s an imminent threat, it leaves no doubt what you’re looking at. The government has to realize when they use that term about a species, it has to put a full stop on everything that is threatening it,” said Spuzzum First Nation Chief James Hobart in the press release. “First Nations have been doing all the work while the federal and provincial governments have paused, second-guessed, and minimized our efforts around something that is incredibly sacred to us.”

READ MORE: Environmentalists in B.C. court to force spotted owl protection action

With files from THE CANADIAN PRESS. 

Kemone Moodley

About the Author: Kemone Moodley

I began working with the Hope Standard on August 2022.
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