Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Victory for Canada’s Grasslands

Suffield. Photo: Andy Teucher
After last week's terrific news about Suffield National Wildlife Area, former Nature Canada staffer Carla Sbert, who campaigned for years to prevent further industrialization inside this protected area, sent us the following. Thanks for the guest post Carla, and for all your hard work on this campaign!

Finally, it’s time to celebrate a major win for prairie conservation! After almost four years of waiting for a government decision, last week the federal government rejected Cenovus’ gas project within CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area (NWA).

Congratulations to all on the environmental coalition who worked so tirelessly to make the case for protecting Suffield! The countless hours preparing submissions to and participating in the environmental assessment panel hearings, all the correspondence sent and press releases issued, and all the conference calls, have now paid off. The result is a good decision for Suffield, a great precedent for NWAs and an important precedent for species at risk.

Suffield NWA is one of the most important remnants of native prairie in Canada. It is home to at least 15 species that are listed as at risk of extinction under to the federal Species at Risk Act and many others listed at the provincial level. It is also home to species that need native prairie habitat to remain off these ‘endangered’ lists.

Ferruginous hawk. Photo: Cliff Wallis

Yet, the ecological integrity of the Suffield NWA was threatened by a Cenovus proposal to drill 1,275 shallow gas wells. Almost four years after a Joint Review Panel recommended against this project, the government has agreed that its environmental impact would be too great and is not justified.

But how could it be that Cenovus was proposing to drill in a protected area? In short, because there are loopholes in our laws that allow companies to hold subsurface rights within a protected area. So this is one reason to welcome the government’s decision against the project: it sets the right precedent by favoring conservation over industrial development in protected areas.

Why is the conservation of Suffield NWA so important? Grassland ecosystems are among the most threatened globally and in Canada. Grasslands birds are declining at alarming rates, while other grasslands species are also at risk. On top of that, land uses that favor conservation are giving way to commercial interests, and climate change is adding pressure on the ecosystem. Protecting Suffield is critical for conserving native prairie.

This decision also sets the right precedent for protecting species at risk and their critical habitat. Suffield remains a haven for Ord’s kangaroo rats, Sprague’s pipits, Burrowing owls and many other species at risk that call it home, giving them a chance to survive and, hopefully, recover.

You can’t have both a protected area and a gas patch. With this decision, Suffield remains a protected area for the conservation of wildlife. Bravo!

Thanks to the staff and volunteers at the sevens groups that make up the Suffield Coalition: Alberta Wilderness Association, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Nature Saskatchewan, Southern Alberta Group for the Environment, Grasslands Naturalists, and Nature Canada. 
Ord's Kangaroo Rat. Photo: Andy Teucher