Naturalists Notch Win for Suffield National Wildlife Area

The Suffield National Wildlife Area is located in the southeast portion of the province of Alberta, Canada. Created in 2003, Suffield NWA (SNWA) was created with the purpose of preserving the land and providing arefuge for many endangered species within the province.

But not until recently has the fate of SNWA been so secure. In 2005, oil titan Encana Corporation (now Cenovus Energy) proposed plans to drill over 1,000 new wells within Suffield NWA. Understandably, naturalists opposed Cenovus’ plans from the start, and the resultant legal battle stretched out to November 30th of this year when the Canadian government finally ruled against Cenovus’ plans.

Alex MacDonald is the Manager of Protected Areas for Nature Canada, a Canadian naturalist group who took up the fight against Cenovus from the start. MacDonald has been with Nature Canada since 2010, before which he worked with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the National Council for the Canadian Environmental Network. He also has experience in contaminated sites assessment, water issues, international development, species at risk recovery, marine and terrestrial wilderness conservation and protected areas.

Wenger Blog: What makes the Suffield National Wildlife Area so special?
Alex MacDonald
: Suffield National Wildlife Area is a special space of rare prairie grassland, sand hills and ancient glacial valleys. It contains one of the last remaining blocks of unploughed grassland left in Prairie Canada. It’s also home to at least 16 federally-listed species at risk, including the burrowing owl and the loggerhead shrike, and nearly 100 species on the provincial endangered species list.

WB: What was the nature of the conflict with Cenovus Energy’s attempts to operate within Suffield NWA?
AM: Natural grasslands, like those at Suffield, are among the most endangered ecosystems on the continent. Just two years after the Government of Canada established the NWA in 2003, a proposed shallow gas drilling project by energy giant EnCana Corp., now called Cenovus, threatened these pristine prairie grasslands. The company sought a permit to add 1,275 shallow gas wells and 220 km of pipeline inside Suffield National Wildlife Area to expand existing operations that had been established before the national wildlife area was created.

WB: What efforts did Nature Canada undertake to stop Cenovus’ plans to drill?
We’ve campaigned against Cenovus’ proposal since the plans were made public. When Nature Canada learned that a permit to expand development inside an NWA was being considered, we called on our supporters to raise their voices in alarm over this potentially precedent-setting development. No permit of this kind has ever been granted inside a national wildlife area in Canada, and our members told the government that’s the way it should stay. We also ran a letter-writing campaign to convince the government to conduct a full and public review of the proposed drilling project. Those public hearings were held in October 2008, and as an official intervener at the hearings, we filed an extensive joint submission with other grassland conservation groups.

Thanks to our involvement and many more letters from supporters, we were successful in convincing the panel to reject EnCana’s proposal. The review panel found that the project would likely result in significant adverse effects on species at risk and interfere with the conservation of wildlife, and they recommended rejecting the permit request.

WB: What negative effects would the ruling have had on Suffield and area wildlife had it been decided in Cenovus’ favor?
Grassland ecosystems are among the most threatened globally and in Canada. Grasslands birds, as a group, are declining more rapidly than almost any other group, including species found at Suffield like Sprague’s Pipit and Chestnut-collared Longspur. The project would have significantly interfered with the conservation of this and other at-risk wildlife, which is the core purpose of a National Wildlife Area.

WB: How would Cenovus’ plans have impacted Canada outside of Suffield?
It would have thrown into question the whole protected areas network of 54 National Wildlife Areas in this country. If Canadians cannot expect 16 federally listed species at-risk to find safety inside a federally-protected national wildlife area, where in the world can we expect our endangered species to exist in peace? Did Canada really want to set the dangerous precedent of granting a permit for development inside a federally protected area, and risk rendering the very concept of “protected area” meaningless?

WB: If Suffield was a protected area, what legal basis did Cenovus have for requesting to drill?
The Canada Wildlife Act and the Wildlife Area Regulations, the legislation under which national wildlife areas are created and managed, include a significant loophole around the formal protection of the lands beneath national wildlife areas. Canada’s National Parks legislation, by comparison, provides for the full protection of all surface and subsurface lands within parks, which certainly helps to avoid situations like the one we’ve witnessed at Suffield. To be fair, the Wildlife Area Regulations give Environment Canada the authority to limit activities within national wildlife areas through permitting, which, thankfully, proved to be effective in this case.

WB: What is next for Nature Canada and environmental activists within Canada who want to guarantee these protected areas remain untouched?
Cenovus was able to submit its request for a permit because there are loopholes in our laws that allow companies to hold subsurface rights within a protected area. The next step is to close those loopholes and ensure that a protected area truly is safe from development pressures.