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Province’s feet-dragging on endangered species has landed it in court. 

Group alleges minister Iain Rankin had failed to conduct his duties under the province’s Endangered Species Act.

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Against the backdrop of a week marked by international climate conversations and action, a group of Nova Scotians who care about the natural environment and keeping it protected took the province's minister of lands and forestry to court over what the group says is a failure to uphold the Nova Scotia's Endangered Species Act.

Bob Bancroft, president of the Nova Scotia Naturalists, was an applicant in Monday's judicial review case, alongside the Blomidon Naturalists Society and the Halifax Field Naturalists.

"It's all tied together—climate change and what's happening to species is just part of this whole picture," he said outside the courtroom on Monday September 23.

Bancroft's lawyer James Simpson appeared before Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Christa Brothers on Monday to argue that Minister Iain Rankin had failed to conduct his duties under the province's Endangered Species Act with respect to six species.

The species in question: the mainland moose, black ash, ram's head lady's slipper, Canada warbler, wood turtle and the eastern wood pewee. They represent a range of the government's failures to carry out their duties to species under the act, Simpson said.

According to the act, the minister shall appoint a team of scientists and experts to prepare a recovery plan within one year of a species being listed as endangered, and two years of being listed as threatened. The minister is also directed to create management plans for vulnerable species within three years of listing, and to review these plans every five years. In a press release, the group says that "despite repeated calls to follow its own law from environmental groups and the province's auditor general, Nova Scotia has dragged its feet on complying with timelines and milestones set out by the ESA."

This is the first time a provincial court will rule on the Endangered Species Act, but Simpson said the legal action comes as "a last resort option" after years of governmental neglect.

In 2015, the East Coast Environmental Law Association (ECELAW)—which acted as intervenor in Monday's case—published a report evaluating the province's responsibility to protect and recover species at risk.

The report has concluded that the government "failed to meet its legal obligations to species at risk in Nova Scotia," with respect to 20 of the province's 37 species that were either endangered or threatened at the time.

The next year, Nova Scotia's auditor general reviewed 14 of the province's recovery and management plans to find that less than half had been completed, and some were more than seven years late. "Species at risk need to be a greater priority for Natural Resources, Department not fully managing conservation and recovery of species at risk," read one of the report's conclusions.

The report outlined five recommendations for conservation and recovery of at-risk species, all of which were agreed to by the department. The auditor general's report published this past March found that none of those recommendations had been acted upon.

Currently the act recognizes 71 species at risk in Nova Scotia, 19 more than were listed when ECELAW conducted their first review in 2015.

During Monday's proceedings, Simpson and James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, a lawyer for the intervenors, argued that the minister had fallen short of his duties for a rising number of species, but that the exact number of infractions was "uncertain."

The minister's lawyer, Jeremy Smith, argued that the act's language—particularly the word "shall"—could mean the duties were to be completed at the minister's discretion, and that the minister's failures to act on behalf of these species within the outlined timeline were due to "reasonable" factors.

The applicants are asking the court to make declarations that the minister acted unlawfully in failing his duties according to the act, and to issue a command which would direct the minister to fulfil his duties to the six species within a specified timeline.

"There is some recourse that if the governments are held to account by a supreme court judge, that they will actually be told to change and follow up with their own legislation," said Bancroft.

"We have laws for how you drive on the highway, why don't we have laws for how you use the land?"

The hearing is scheduled to resume on October 1, when Smith is expected to finish his submissions to the court, and the applicants can enter a reply. In the meantime, Bancroft said he's seen an increase in support from the public with regards to protecting the province's endangered species.

"We vote the politicians in," said Bancroft. "It's time they start listening to us."

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