There are only 263,000 marbled murres left, with at least 50,000 in British Columbia.
Two environmental groups are suing the Canadian government for failing to protect the habitat of more than two dozen species of migratory birds, including the Marbled Murrelet, a seabird that nests in Colombia’s coastal old-growth forests -British.
Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the Minister of Environment and Climate Change is required to recommend orders to protect critical habitat for migratory birds off federal lands if he does not there are no laws in force.
On March 25, 2022, Minister Steven Guilbeault appeared to fulfill this obligation when he issued a protection order for the habitat of critically endangered migratory birds listed under SARA.
In reality, Guilbeault only wondered “if the nests of migratory birds at risk are protected by federal law,” said the Sierra Club BC and the Wilderness Committee in a judicial review application filed this week.
This narrow interpretation of SARA is a dangerous move for birds like the threatened Marbled Murrelet, as well as 24 other migratory bird species at risk across the country, the court document says.
“Without protection of critical nesting habitat in the old growth forests of coastal British Columbia, Marbled Murrelet populations have continued to decline, primarily due to continued logging in their nesting habitat,” notes the application for judicial review.
Since the Migratory Birds Convention Act and SARA already provide protection for nests, Guilbeault “made it clear that he would not be taking any further action under [SARA] to protect any critical habitat for migratory birds on non-federal lands,” the document states.
Both environmental groups are calling for the minister’s decision to be overturned or set aside and, in the case of the Marbled Murrelet, declared illegal.
The lawsuit represents an escalation of efforts by the two groups to protect Marbled Murrelet critical habitat — for the past two years, they have been sending petitions and letters asking the federal and British Columbia governments to take action.
Attempts to rescue the Marbled Murrelet took off in 2014 with the release of a recovery strategy intended to improve the species’ nesting habitat.
The species is difficult to track, especially when nesting, as the Marbled Murrelet raises its young off the ground in the mossy branches of old trees.
First declared threatened in 1990, the tiny black-and-white seabird is found along 4,000 kilometers of coastline, stretching from California to Alaska. Most of the population is found in Alaska and British Columbia
Only 263,000 birds remain, including at least 50,000 in British Columbia, where the species has lost about 20% of its habitat over the past three generations, according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada ( COSEWIC).
The species breeds several times in its lifetime, and low reproductive rates mean that keeping paired birds alive for a long time is critical to the health of the species.
The Marbled Murrelet is threatened by oil contamination, entanglement in gillnets when foraging at sea, and proposed shipping routes within its range. All of this is expected to lead to a projected population decline of more than 30% over the next three generations.
Habitat loss remains the biggest threat, however, according to COSEWIC.
Since 2016, the bird’s nesting habitat has declined on eastern Vancouver Island, “primarily due to industrial logging,” the court document claims.
On the western and northern ends of the island, the 8,500 hectares of nesting habitat remaining in 2020 are expected to be increasingly threatened due to logging over the next five to eight years.
Lawyers for the two environmental groups requested that the case be heard in Vancouver, British Columbia.
None of the claims have been proven or tested in court.