Legal loss to Shell dire for wildlife

By Barrie K. Gilbert, PhD, Wildlife Scientist, Wolfe Island, Ont.
Source: Edmonton Journal
June 3, 2011

The recent rejection by a superior court justice of an appeal of an Energy Resources Conservation Board decision on Shell Canada's application to drill in the Castle wilderness is fallacious.

Now the legal system has joined the ERCB and the provincial sustainable resource development (SRD) department in failing to block further loss of grizzly bear habitat and endangered plant communities.

The judge ruled: "The well's opponents did not present any persuasive evidence it would endanger the bears."

This statement is not only directly counter to the precautionary principle, but also fails to recognize that endangered species decline and go extinct by deaths of a thousand cuts. To ecologists this is the tyranny of small, incremental decisions, where each apparently insignificant decision to destroy habitat leads to an outcome that none would have planned or preferred.

The grizzly bear has been designated as endangered in Alberta. This alone should have been reason for rejecting this well application.

The area west of Pincher Creek is critically important because it is part of a narrow zone of grizzly habitat connecting populations north and south of it. If it is further degraded the potential for genetic isolation occurs.

Both the government and Shell have failed to close oil and gas roads, which has led to an explosion of offroad vehicle usage and other recreational incursions on wild land. Several recent studies reveal a massive network of illegal roads and trails, many invading streams and meadows, displacing wildlife.

This Shell drilling application should have been a no-brainer for ERCB rejection, but instead it may become the poster child for demonstrating how completely Alberta's ERCB is captivated by Big Oil.

If endangered plants and animals and lethal threats to the health, even survival, of local residents from predictable leaks of poison gas (35 per cent hydrogen sulphide) are not sufficient reason for rejection, then one can see the legal sham prolonged hearings and full-press legal defence teams by oil companies represent.

Justice Carole Conrad, in her decision released by the Court of Appeal of Alberta, said: "There was no expert evidence that the well would molest, destroy or disturb such a den if it did exist."

As the expert on grizzly bears at the ERCB hearing, I tried to present just such evidence, but I was censored.

There is a mountain of scientific evidence showing that grizzlies get killed on and near roads, and industrial activity, such as drilling and heavy traffic, prevents their use of habitat. SRD biologists had data on at least eight radio-collared grizzly bears using the area -SRD was nowhere to be seen at the hearing.

Albertans are sadly misled if they believe their government's claim of balance between industrial exploitation and wildland conservation.

The legal mandate of the ERCB should be to make decisions in the best interest of Albertans, not Big Oil.

Looking back over the years, since 1974, when I was a provincial biologist in Edmonton, I see continued loss of wildlife population viability, loss of wilderness and degradation of habitat. The propaganda mantra of a "working landscape" as currently practised is cause for shame in cashrich, wildlife-poor Alberta.

            

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