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Spotted owls star in court

January 20, 2006 By Rex Dalton This article courtesy of Nature News.

Environmentalists take Canadian government to task over endangered birds.

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Environmentalists are going to court against the Canadian government in an attempt to protect critically endangered spotted owls.

A consortium of four environmental groups will enter evidence on 23 January, in a Vancouver-based federal court, that the British Columbia government has been negligent in safeguarding the owls. They hope to force the federal government to implement a draft plan to save the less than two dozen northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) known to exist.

The lawsuit, filed in December 2005, is the first legal challenge on the back of the Canadian Species at Risk Act, which has come into effect during the past few years. Under this act, provincial governments are obliged to implement safeguards for endangered species. If they don't, the federal government can step in.

The environmental groups say Canada has been lax in applying the act across a host of threatened animals and plant species. They want to use the spotted owl as a test case to bring attention to the problem, and to force both provincial and federal governments to act.

Setting an example

The government's failure to act is an extinction policy.
Rick Smith
Executive director of Environmental Defence, Canada
"This is a critical test case," says mammalogist Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, one of the four litigating groups. "Right now, the government's failure to act is an extinction policy."

The act was brought into being to bring Canada into compliance with the international Convention on Biological Diversity, which the country ratified in 1992.

There are thought to be just 22 northern spotted owls, living in a region of old-growth forest bounded by Vancouver, Hope and Lillooet.

Provincial scientists studying the owls recommended in 2003 that logging of old-growth forest be halted in the areas where the owls live. But logging continues. Environmentalists argue that timber companies have pressured the province not to take steps to protect old-growth forests.

Mark Zacharias, acting director of species at risk with British Columbia's Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, says that the provincial government plans to announce proposed habitat protections and population-boosting methods this spring. But environmentalists say they are tired of waiting.

Last hope

Devon Page, a Vancouver attorney for the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, the organization that filed the lawsuit, says the birds may die off before the government acts. "The owl is the most endangered species in Canada," says Page. "They are projected to be extinct by 2010."

Paul Wood, a biologist and forestry expert at the University of British Columbia who studies conservation policy, said the court case "will have precedent-setting environmental and constitutional impacts." It is rare in Canada for the federal government to step in on matters of provincial jurisdiction.

It is unclear how long it will take for this case to wind its way through the Canadian legal system.

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