Full Environmental Assessment Called for Suffield National Wildlife Area: Nature Canada Cautiously Optimistic

Full Environmental Assessment Called for Suffield National Wildlife Area: Nature Canada Cautiously Optimistic

OTTAWA (April 25, 2006) Nature Canada announced today it is pleased that the federal government is taking the concerns of naturalists seriously after Environment Minister Rona Ambrose announced Monday that an independent review panel will be called to assess the environmental impact of drilling in Suffield National Wildlife Area (SNWA).

“Our organization’s supporters have been calling for a rigorous appraisal of the ecological effects of EnCana’s proposed drilling project from the beginning,” said Julie Gelfand, president of Nature Canada. “Frankly, we think it’s a terrible idea to allow industrial development in a protected area designated to conserve 14 of Canada’s species at risk, such as the swift fox.”

An independent review panel is the most rigorous assessment option the Minister could choose. It allows people to present evidence in support of protecting the Suffield NWA from development. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has announced that funding will be available to the public to participate in the environmental assessment process. It has not yet been announced who will sit on the review panel.

“We applaud the Minister’s recognition of the national significance of Suffield,” said Lynn Barber, manager of protected areas at Nature Canada, “and we look forward to participating in the review process.”

Just two years after the Government of Canada established a protected area along the eastern edge of the Canadian Forces Base at Suffield, Alberta, the proposed drilling project threatens to destroy one of the last remaining large intact pieces of unploughed prairie grasslands in Canada.

EnCana Corporation has applied for a permit to drill 1,275 gas wells inside SNWA, an area half the size of Prince Edward Island located northwest of Medicine Hat. The area was designated a protected area in 2003 as a refuge for species at risk and their habitat.

The permit, if granted, would double the number of wells already in the 458 km2 wildlife area, and allow for an additional 220 km of pipeline to be added to existing infrastructure. Increased vehicular traffic would cause significant disruption to previously undisturbed grasslands, sand hills, river breaks and wetlands.

“If a national wildlife area is not safe from industrial development, then what is?” said Gelfand. “Canada’s entire protected area system could be in jeopardy if this drilling is allowed to take place.”

To date, no permit has ever been granted to launch new large-scale drilling operations inside a national wildlife area.

“This would set a chilling precedent that calls into question the integrity of all of Canada’s protected areas,” said Gelfand. “We are heartened that the Minister has seen fit to call a public review on this very serious issue.”

In addition to the 14 nationally endangered species, SNWA is home to 78 species of animals and plants listed in the Status of Alberta Wildlife 2000 as “at risk” or otherwise “sensitive” because of their declining abundance.

Nature Canada is a non-profit national organization dedicated to protecting nature, its diversity, and the processes that sustain it. Our network includes 40,000 individual supporters and more than 350 naturalist organizations operating at the local, regional and provincial levels. Nature Canada is also a Canadian co-partner in BirdLife International, a global partnership conserving birds, habitat and global biodiversity.


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Background Information

In 1992 the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of the Environment signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a National Wildlife Area on a portion of the Canadian Forces Base Suffield near Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Establishment of this NWA was intended to contribute to DND and EC’s environmental objectives and reflect the federal government’s commitment to environmental stewardship. The area within the NWA has been out-of-bounds to military training since 1972 and was precluded from deep rights access for petroleum development by the DND-Alberta Deep Rights agreement of 1999. Public access is prohibited. Although the core area of the base has been zoned for military training, both DND and EC have recognized the environmental sensitivity and importance of the NWA and have been active in its management since 1971.

In March 2003 the Suffield NWA was officially declared and responsibility for its management and protection was delegated by Environment Canada to DND, the first case where the delegation of responsibility for an NWA was transferred.

Ecological Significance

The national significance of this area as a northern refugium for endemic prairie wildlife has been substantiated by recent wildlife studies on invertebrates, birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians. As one of the few extant large blocks of unaltered Dry Mixed-grass Prairie, the CFB Suffield NWA hosts over 1,100 catalogued species including 244 vertebrate, 462 plant, and 436 invertebrate species. Of this rich species assemblage, 14 are listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as species at risk and 78 species of animals and plants are listed in the Status of Alberta Wildlife 2000 as “at risk” or otherwise “sensitive” because of their declining abundance.

Natural grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in prairie Canada. Development by urbanization, livestock grazing, and rangeland conversion to croplands continue to threatened the survival of the prairie ecosystem. As a result it is estimated that only 6% of this important sub-region of the Grassland Natural Region remains unaltered by human disturbances. In western Canada, NWA Suffield is one of the last remaining large blocks of intact prairie grassland where the ecological integrity remains relatively unimpaired and where the diversity and abundance of native plant and animal species has not precipitously declined.

Suffield NWA is 458 km2 of unploughed prairie grassland blanketing rare landscapes of national significance including sand hills, ancient glacial coulees, and the riverbank and breaks along the South Saskatchewan River valley. This is a result of three factors unique to the area: its location near the northern limit of the mid-continental grasslands, the eolian grasslands contained therein, and its relatively unaltered vegetation.

The protection of key prairie habitat this NWA provides for migratory birds and other species is an important contribution towards Canada’s international agreements, including the Migratory Birds Convention, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.