(This op-ed first appeared in the Edmonton Journal on Monday, April 7, 2008)
As we celebrate Canada's wildlife during this year's National Wildlife Week, let's include a minute of silence for the wild residents of the Suffield National Wildlife Area, who have little reason to party.
It's a good thing the 94 species of concern, including 18 federally listed species at risk of extinction, that live in this southeast Alberta grassland treasure are oblivious to their future, which is in serious jeopardy.
Their fate -- and potentially that of protected areas across the country -- will be decided within the next year by the federal Environment Minister, whose department is an official partner in Canadian Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Week.
The hearing into EnCana Corporation's proposal to drill 1,275 shallow gas wells in Suffield National Wildlife Area -- officially established only five years ago -- will begin in October 2008, unless it is once again delayed at EnCana's behest.
If approved, the well density in the area will increase from eight to 16 wells per square mile, and 220 km of pipeline will cross this "old-growth" native prairie.
The negative impacts on habitat -- and the wildlife that depend on it -- will be devastating.
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, also an official supporter of National Wildlife Week, has declined the Joint Review Panel's invitation to participate in the hearing, absolving itself of any responsibility for the wildlife that live in or move through the NWA.
Alberta Environment has done the same.
With our provincial leaders washing their hands of the whole affair, where do we turn?
For those of us who care about wildlife -- particularly Canada's endangered species, we may wish to consider any short-term financial benefits we are deriving from EnCana's destruction of wildlife habitat in a federally protected area -- and everyone contributing to the Canada Pension Plan, an EnCana shareholder, is implicated. We might also check our mutual fund portfolios.
With EnCana's AGM coming up in Toronto, concerned shareholders can take the opportunity to hold this company to its claim of being worthy of praise for environmental excellence.
The AGM happens to be on April 22 -- Earth Day. What better day on which to ask EnCana how its recent Globe Award for corporate environmental excellence can be reconciled with their poor stewardship of the very landscape they are proposing to develop further?
In 2007, internal government documents revealed that an audit of EnCana's so-called "minimal disturbance" shallow gas infill drilling program in an environmentally sensitive area of CFB Suffield left significant impacts, including invasive species, disregard for species at risk, improper waste management, lack of promised monitoring, and inappropriate reclamation efforts.
And two days after EnCana's AGM, on April 24, the corporation will make its fourth court appearance related to charges of violating the Canada Wildlife Act by installing a portion of pipeline without the required permit in Suffield National Wildlife Area.
A few recent landmark decisions show a swelling concern for protection of Canada's natural environment.
Imperial Oil's proposed $8-billion Kearl Lake oil sands mine in northeastern Alberta has been delayed with the federal government's recent revoking of a key water permit for the project. This followed on the heels of a Federal Court of Canada ruling that struck down parts of the project's government approval because of concerns about impact on air quality.
In Nova Scotia, an environmental review panel recently asked the province to reject a large quarry proposal because of the likelihood of causing significant environmental effects that would violate the community's "core values."
Neither of these projects was proposed in a federally protected wildlife refuge. If EnCana's project is approved, the words protected area may well lose all meaning in this country.
While symbolic gestures have their place, celebrating National Wildlife Week every year will be an empty one unless it's translated into true habitat protection consistent with the core values of most Canadians.
Without that, Suffield's endangered prairie species like the burrowing owl, Ord's kangaroo rat, and tiny cryptanthe have little chance of survival.
Joyce Hildebrand is a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, part of the Suffield Coalition