Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has earned the ire of her Quebec counterpart, municipal leaders in La Prairie and real estate developers everywhere, stepping on Quebec’s jurisdictional toes in defence of the thumbnail-sized Western Chorus Frog.
Ottawa has issued a rare Emergency Order under the Species at Risk Act, putting the brakes on a large residential real estate development in La Prairie, near Montreal, in order to safeguard the habitat of the threatened species.
The Emergency Order stops all planned work on 2 km2 of land. Ottawa says the Emergency Order will block the construction of 171 units of the planned 1,200-unit Symbiocité residential housing project in La Prairie. The Association des professionnels de la construction et de l'habitation du Québec, an association representing the residential construction industry in the province, disputes that. It says that 400 units will be lost, and that other developers will feel the Emergency Order’s impact when they try to secure financing for their projects.
They may be right. The federal power to issue Emergency Orders is not new, says James Pagé, Species at Risk and Biodiversity Specialist at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, but this is only the second time it has been used, and the first time it has affected a private development.
“Up until recently, there hasn’t been an appetite for the government to go this route,” Pagé told EcoLog News.
Ottawa has authority to step in if critical habitat has been identified, as was the case in La Prairie, and if provincial and municipal policies are not effectively protecting the species, says Pagé. In the case of Symbiocité, the developer had received provincial environmental approval and had set aside an ecological reserve within the development for Western Chorus Frog habitat, but the federal government concluded that it was not sufficient to sustain the population, says Pagé.
The Emergency Order demonstrates that there is a strong onus on municipalities and developers to be diligent, says Pagé. Doing what’s necessary to secure provincial environmental approval may not be sufficient. There are other developments near Montreal and in the Ottawa Valley that may impinge on Western Chorus Frog habitat, and the Canadian Wildlife Federation will be keeping a close watch, he says.
More broadly, though, Pagé says Emergency Orders under the Species at Risk Act shouldn’t be necessary. Developers should bear in mind that wiping out even a small population of a species at risk may have a big impact on the entire species’ chances of recovery. It doesn’t necessarily mean that development should cease, says Pagé, but that developers should plan around the needs of the current, natural occupiers of the land.
Municipalities have a role too, he says. They could alert developers to potential problems long before development plans are drawn up. They should work with the province to assess these sites ahead of time, says Pagé. The Emergency Order from Ottawa may have been a victory for the Western Chorus Frog, but it is an Emergency Order that ought not to have been required in the first place.