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Canada’s federal cabinet has rejected an emergency order to protect the critically endangered spotted owl. The decision comes as only three spotted owls remain in the country’s wild, following decades of industrial logging in the raptor’s old-growth rainforest habitat in British Columbia.
First Nations in the Fraser Canyon, where the owls live, received news of the federal cabinet decision in an Oct. 10 letter from Environment and Climate Change Canada. Cabinet made the determination following a long-awaited recommendation from federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault for an emergency order.
An emergency order, issued under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, gives Ottawa the power to step in and make decisions which normally fall to provinces, such as whether to grant logging approvals in spotted owl critical habitat. The B.C. government, despite criticism from biologists and conservation groups, continues to promote industrial logging in forests that federal scientists deem essential for the owl’s survival and recovery.
“The government of Canada has determined that an emergency order is not the preferred approach at this time and has endorsed a collaborative approach with the government of British Columbia and Indigenous Peoples,” says the letter, signed by two regional directors for the Canadian Wildlife Service, Blair Hammond and Margaret Fairbairn. The Canadian Wildlife Service is the branch of the federal Environment Ministry responsible for the recovery of species at risk.
The wildlife service does not provide any reasons for the decision, saying cabinet can consider a number of factors, including “views shared by Indigenous Peoples, socio-economic and legal considerations, the impact on federal/provincial relations and measures taken by other levels of government.”
Spuzzum First Nation Chief James Hobart immediately criticized the federal cabinet’s decision, saying he is “extremely disappointed.” The nation has been calling for a moratorium on logging in its territory to protect spotted owls and culturally significant old-growth cedar trees.
“I’m disturbed, and I just can’t even believe it. I’m confused, frustrated, all of the above,” Hobart said in a telephone interview.
“They were the ones who came and said, ‘We’ll roll up our sleeves. We’ll do whatever it takes,’ ” Hobart said, referring to his nation’s discussions over the past several years with federal government representatives and an in-person meeting he had with Guilbeault about protecting the spotted owl.
“You’re thinking ‘Oh, the government’s taking this seriously’ and so that’s where our minds were going into this. So for this to happen, it’s like the rug was totally pulled out from under us and that was not fair.”
Hobart said he fears B.C.’s spotted owls are “on their way out” because of the cabinet decision. “I can’t say that I have any confidence now in this government putting the spotted owl first.”
“I don’t know what conversation happened behind closed doors. But it couldn’t have been one of optimism and hope for the owl, that’s for sure.”
The B.C. government has also turned its back on the spotted owl, lacks a credible plan and is failing to properly consult with First Nations about what happens in the owl’s habitat, the chief stated in a news release today.
In July, The Narwhal reported the B.C. government had been lobbying intently to dissuade the federal cabinet from issuing a spotted owl emergency order. A B.C. cabinet minister briefing document, obtained under freedom of information legislation, cited socio-economic impacts and B.C.’s “significant protections” for spotted owls as reasons why Ottawa should back away from issuing the rare order. The federal cabinet has only issued an emergency order twice in the history of Canada’s Species at Risk Act — once to protect the western chorus frog in Quebec and once for the greater sage grouse in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In February, following a petition by the environmental law charity Ecojustice, Guilbeault said he would recommend cabinet issue the order, citing imminent threats to the owl’s survival and recovery. But Guilbeault didn’t immediately make the recommendation, prompting Ecojustice to launch legal action, aiming to force the minister to follow through. The case is scheduled to be heard next week in federal court in Vancouver.
In a news release today, Ecojustice, representing the conservation group Wilderness Committee, said it will now ask the court to determine if the minister’s eight-month delay in recommending the emergency order to cabinet is permitted under the Species at Risk Act.
Ecojustice lawyer Andhra Azevedo said Guilbeault has been required by law since early this year to recommend that cabinet issue the order. “Instead, the minister spent months ‘engaging’ with B.C., while B.C. made no new commitments to protect habitat and instead continued to approve logging,” Azevedo said. “To state the obvious, we have emergency orders under the Species at Risk Act to respond to emergencies — what we’ve seen by the minister and now cabinet is nowhere close to an emergency response.”
The spotted owl has been in the limelight on and off for decades as efforts to protect it clash with plans to log the commercially valuable old-growth rainforests the owl depends on for nesting, shelter and prey. The owl has become a symbol of B.C.’s failure to protect at-risk wildlife and the province’s ongoing destruction of old-growth forests.
Only one wild-born spotted owl remains in the forest in B.C., the only place in Canada where it’s ever been found. About 30 spotted owls live at a B.C. government-funded breeding centre east of Vancouver, where their eggs are hatched in incubators in the hopes of bolstering the population so the owls can be reintroduced to the wild. In August 2022, three captive-bred owls, outfitted with tiny GPS backpacks, were set free for the first time. One owl was later found injured and returned to the breeding centre. The other two died over the winter.
The B.C. government issued a news release in late September, saying two more owls from the breeding centre were set free over the summer. “The two male owls, named ‘sítist’ [te-syst] and ‘wíkcn’ [week-chin], were released after being assessed as healthy and ready to fend for themselves, and demonstrating that they could capture live prey and maintain a stable body weight,” the news release said.
B.C. Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen said supporting the recovery of threatened species in B.C. is a priority for his ministry. “That’s why we’re running the world’s only captive breeding and release program for northern spotted owls. Our strategy and the decisions we’re making to support spotted owl recovery are based on the best available science and Indigenous Knowledge,” Cullen stated in the release.
“How is the fact there is only one wild-born spotted owl left in Canada not the definition of an emergency?” asked Wilderness Committee protected areas campaigner Joe Foy.
Foy said logging in the owl’s home has continued unabated this year, even after Guilbeault determined there was an imminent threat to the spotted owl’s recovery due to industrial logging in its habitat. “How does the federal cabinet just say ‘no problem’ to that?” he asked.
In March, based on another freedom of information request, The Narwhal reported the B.C. government had scuttled a federal plan to designate large swaths of core critical habitat for the spotted owl, easing the way for imminent old-growth logging. Almost 50 per cent of core critical habitat which biologists, using the best available science, deemed necessary for the owl’s survival and recovery, was quietly removed from federal maps between 2021 and 2023, following negotiations with the province.
If the spotted owl disappears from B.C., it will join 135 other species, including the black-footed ferret, on the list of wildlife extirpated from Canada — after the federal government signed a landmark global agreement last December committing to recover at-risk species and protect biodiversity.
Wilderness Committee national campaign director Torrance Coste said responsibility for the spotted owl’s survival in Canada lies with Cullen, B.C. Premier David Eby and B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman.
“Despite scientists and the federal environment minister identifying that B.C.’s approved logging posed an imminent threat to spotted owl, the BC NDP government wants to continue old-growth logging and they have effectively pressured the federal cabinet to allow it,” Coste said in a joint news release with Ecojustice.
The Canadian Wildlife Service told First Nations in the Fraser Canyon the federal government is “working closely with partners to ensure that a suite of measures to support spotted owl recovery are implemented.” The work builds off current negotiations towards a tripartite agreement on nature conservation, the wildlife service’s letter said. “This includes habitat protection as well as captive breeding and release.”
Scientists working for the Canadian Wildlife Service have said they believe recovery of the species is biologically and technically possible by reintroducing captive owls into the wild. Wilderness Committee noted the success of reintroduction depends on protecting enough of the owl’s old-growth habitat to ensure released owls will survive and recover to a stable population. Continued clear-cutting in spotted owl habitat, the committee said, is “likely to doom” spotted owl recovery in Canada.
Hobart said the latest decision indicates the federal government has given up on saving the spotted owl. “I don’t know how they can come back from this. They’re now putting the spotted owl as already extinct. That’s how they’re treating it … It’s like they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The spotted owl is an umbrella species, Hobart pointed out. If owl populations are healthy, it indicates the old-growth forest, and the myriad other species that call it home, are also healthy. “There’s so many things that rely on the spotted owl,” he said. “It’s our messenger of the old-growth health.”
Hobart said there is no replacement for the owl, whose feathers are used to make sacred headdresses. “And to see those feathers not be there … it’s not right.”
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