Environmental groups and the Spuzzum First Nation are heading to court over the months-long delay of an emergency order recommendation that could protect the endangered northern spotted owl.
In February, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said he would recommend an emergency order that would prevent logging in the owl’s habitat. In June, Ecojustice launched legal action to force Guilbeault to actually recommend the order. Eight months after he made the commitment, Guilbeault recommended the emergency order in September — and cabinet rejected it.
On Wednesday, Spuzzum First Nation leadership and environmental groups Ecojustice and Wilderness Committee will go to Federal Court over the eight-month delay.
“The word emergency on the [emergency order] would denote some sort of urgency,” Spuzzum First Nation Chief James Hobart said. “But months went by… By the time he put it [to] cabinet, it didn't seem any longer like it was an emergency.”
The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change did not respond in time for publication.
In a statement to The Canadian Press, Environment and Climate Change Canada said Guilbeault brought the recommendation to cabinet and "fulfilled his obligation under the Species at Risk Act.”
According to the act, if a minister thinks a species faces imminent threats to its survival or recovery, they must make an emergency order to protect it. There’s no mention of how quickly a minister must make that recommendation.
The northern spotted owl lives in old-growth forests in southwestern B.C. According to the federal species at risk registry, northern spotted owls are endangered. As of 2022, only one spotted owl remained in the wild. The province has also bred several in captivity, two of which it released into the wild in July.
Hobart said in February, Guilbeault went to Spuzzum First Nation to see the northern spotted owl’s home.
Eight months after he made the commitment, Minister Steven Guilbeault recommended an emergency order to protect the northern spotted owl's habitat. Now, a First Nation and environmental groups are taking him to court over the delay.
When it assessed the threat of habitat loss to the spotted owl, the Canadian Wildlife Service identified 25 square kilometres of the spotted owl’s old-growth habitat as at risk of being harvested within a year. In February, the Canadian Wildlife Service told Ecojustice in a letter that Guilbeault would be recommending an emergency order as soon as “early 2023” to stop logging in the area and prevent the loss of habitat.
On March 2, B.C. deferred logging on the Spuzzum and Utzlius watersheds until 2025. The next month, the Canadian Wildlife Service sent Ecojustice another letter, this time saying the logging deferral changed forestry’s threat to the owl.
“The minister has revised his opinion and determined that the spotted owl is not facing imminent threats to its survival,” a spokesperson for the Canadian Wildlife Service said.
Still, Hobart said he’s seen evidence of logging in the owl’s habitat. Joe Foy, a veteran campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, said he spent the summer photographing logging activity in the spotted owl’s forest habitat.
“Guilbeault said if (the forests) were logged, it would cause serious difficulty to allow the species to recover. That statement just hung in the air for eight months while the province continued to allow logging in habitat,” Foy said. “This eight-month delay sent the absolute wrong message … and should not have happened.”
Earlier this month, the Canadian Wildlife Service sent a letter to the Spuzzum First Nation that said Guilbeault made the recommendation and the federal government decided not to issue the emergency order.
Andhra Azevedo, staff lawyer at Ecojustice, said she hopes the case sets a legal precedent and emergency orders are brought before cabinet with more urgency. She hopes a timeline can be embedded into the minister’s duty to recommend emergency orders.
“The spotted owl is the extreme example of what happens when there is no urgency,” Azevedo said. “What that means is that logging of this habitat … has been allowed to continue to occur and continue to get approved.”
For Hobart, the court case is another step in efforts to stop logging in the northern spotted owl’s habitat of old-growth forests.
“This is just the beginning,” Hobart said. “We’re going to push the government to do the right thing.”