Environmental group sues Catherine McKenna for failing to report on efforts to save caribou habitat

An environmental group is taking Canada's environment minister to court for what it says is a failure to uphold its responsibilities laid out in the Species at Risk Act.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says Catherine McKenna has not acted to protect the habitat of the boreal woodland caribou.

- Watch: Nature of Things: Billion Dollar Caribou (2013 doc)

- Interactive map: Caribou conservation

The group says that once the habitat for a species has been identified, the Species at Risk Act requires the federal environment minister to identify all unprotected portions of that habitat within 180 days.

The minister must then report every six months on what steps are being taken to protect the habitat.

"Boreal woodland caribou critical habitat was identified and publicly posted in October of 2012," said Quebec's CPAWS executive director, Alain Branchaud.

"Though we know that much of the boreal caribou critical habitat remains unprotected more than four years later, there have been no reports describing what is being done to address any protection gaps."

Left in the dark

The caribou's habitat extends from Labrador to the Yukon, spreading across nine provinces and territories. CPAWS says that it has been tracking the provincial and territorial efforts to protect the habitat since 2013 but remains unimpressed with the efforts so far.

The group says the environment minister's lack of action in reporting on preservation efforts has left the caribou habitat fragmented and unprotected from industrial development resulting in a decline of caribou populations.

"Without that kind of reporting, it kind of leaves everybody in a kind of darkness about what's actually going on," said Éric Hébert-Daly, CPAWS national executive director.

The group wrote to McKenna in December, warning her that the "situation for the boreal woodland caribou is urgent."

The group said that in 2012, only 14 of 51 herds identified were "self-sustaining" and that the loss of habitat was a key factor in the declining populations.

Basing action on science

The group's 2016 letter asked McKenna to respond to their concerns by February 2017 or it would pursue "legal remedies if necessary."

A spokesperson from McKenna's office said in an email to CBC that it would be inappropriate to comment with the case before the courts.

Marie-Pascale Des Rosiers, however, said McKenna met with her provincial and territorial counterparts in February to discuss species at risk, including the boreal caribou, but that the department wants "to make sure conservation measures are based on science."

"Our government is committed to the protection and recovery of Canada's species at risk, such as the boreal caribou, in a timely manner using conservation measures based on sound science and robust recovery plans," said Des Rosiers.