Environmental group sues feds over piping plover habitat


Conservationists are suing the federal government over new rules to protect the habitat of an endangered species of shorebird known as the piping plover.

Conservationists are suing the federal government over new rules to protect the habitat of an endangered species of shorebird known as the piping plover.

Ecojustice Canada, representing the Nova Scotia Federation of Naturalists and the East Coast Environmental Law Association, filed a lawsuit Oct. 31 seeking judicial review of a habitat protection strategy developed by the minister of the Environment Steven Guilbeault.

The lawsuit argues that Ottawa has already filed a recovery strategy to protect the plover, which it describes as complying with the federal Species at Risk Act. According to the statement, this strategy has identified 212 entire beaches across Atlantic Canada and Quebec as critical habitat for the small sand-colored birds.

But an amended strategy released in September changes how critical habitat is identified, according to the suit.

“The Minister has adopted a ‘bounding box’ approach to the identification of critical habitat that does not clearly describe the location or boundaries of plover critical habitat,” the statement said. “Instead, the amended recovery strategy maps locations containing critical habitat using grid squares and identifies critical habitat, not as the entirety of each square, but as all areas within those squares which possess certain vaguely described “biophysical attributes”.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an email that they were “working diligently on an answer” to a question about the lawsuit and “consulting with our subject matter experts.”

Ecojustice lawyer Sarah MacDonald said the 2012 plover recovery strategy had done a “very good job” of identifying critical habitats and was “very clear” that entire beaches needed to be protected. The strategy identified the beaches by name and through Global Positioning System coordinates, she said.

But the modified version, she argued, made changes that weaken its effectiveness.

“Instead of saying an entire beach is critical habitat, what they’re doing now is defining what they call grid squares, these mile-by-mile squares that cover these beaches,” MacDonald said.

“That leaves huge sections of the beach vulnerable to activities that we know are harmful to plovers and their habitat, like residential development and pollution and that sort of thing.”

The lawsuit qualifies the ministry’s decision as neither justified nor intelligible.”

“The amended recovery strategy does not identify critical habitat to the greatest extent possible, or with any degree of geographic precision,” the statement said. “Furthermore, the description of critical habitat in the amended recovery strategy is too vague to support the Minister’s duties to protect critical habitat or to support enforceable legal protections for that habitat. This undermines the ability of SARA to provide meaningful protection.

Macdonald said the groups hope the court will invalidate parts of the new recovery strategy and revert to the original version.

Piping Plovers are tiny birds found only in North America with two subspecies – one that breeds in the Canadian prairies and another along the Atlantic coast.

They were listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in 2003, according to the lawsuit. Between 2006 and 2016, the Canadian plover population declined another 30% to 174 breeding pairs.

The lawsuit argues that human activities such as housing and urban development, pollution from industrial activities, mining and quarrying pose serious and ongoing threats to plover habitat.

Bob Bancroft, president of Nature Nova Scotia, says plovers are attracted to natural disturbances on the beaches where they live.

“Plovers like to nest in disturbed areas where they have rocks, gravel and sand,” he said. “An event like (recent post-tropical storm) Fiona happens after the breeding season, and next spring, depending on the orientation of the particular beach and how much of it has been disturbed, they will choose one of the areas that was disrupted.”

MacDonald agreed, noting that plovers’ habitats change with disturbance and saying entire beaches should be protected to allow the birds to safely follow their natural nesting instincts.

“It makes absolutely no sense (to have certain places protected),” she said. “And so we really hope this trial helps the government see that.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 13, 2022.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press




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