"I have reconsidered and I have determined that nationally, the species does not face an imminent threat to survival at this time," Kent told The Canadian Press in an interview late Wednesday afternoon from Kamloops, B.C.
Last July, Federal Court Justice Peter Crampton ordered Kent to revisit his decision not to issue an emergency order to protect caribou, which face extirpation from large parts of their range, especially in Alberta's oilsands region.
Crampton wrote that the minister's conclusion that caribou weren't under an imminent threat, and his subsequent refusal to make the order, "came out of the blue" despite scientific and other evidence.
Frustrated by six months of silence, environmental lawyers filed a request with the court this week to force the minister to comply with the judge's ruling.
Ecojustice lawyer Melissa Gorrie found out Wednesday that Kent had done so on Jan. 13, but simply hadn't publicized it.
"We felt it unfortunate it took the minister two weeks to let us know," she said, adding Ecojustice had informed government lawyers of its plans.
Gorrie said she'd have to consult her clients — a group of area aboriginal bands — before deciding how to proceed.
Kent said the formal reasons for his decision will be posted shortly. But he said Wednesday that because some Canadian caribou herds are healthy, there's no immediate danger the species will be lost entirely.
"In vast areas of Canada, the caribou are in sustainable population groups," he said.
Kent said the government's caribou recovery plan accounts for jurisdictions such as Alberta, where scientists say the animals will vanish within a generation if something isn't done.
That plan, introduced in September, has yet to move forward. The department added four months to the usual 60-day comment period, which now expires Feb. 22.
Even if it is implemented as proposed, critics say it relies far too heavily on shooting wolves instead of preserving habitat.
Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, said Kent's reasons seem to be the same ones used during the original court action, which led Crampton to issue the order in the first place.
Allowing herds to die out in some places in the country damages the entire population, said Dyer, a caribou biologist.
"The loss of all the herds in Alberta would have a significant impact on Canada's caribou population nationally because it would fragment the north and western populations from the eastern populations."
It could also impact the ability of Alberta First Nations to use the herds for traditional purposes, Dyer said.
Meanwhile, documents filed with Ecojustice's motion say hundreds of permits have been issued since September for new wells, roads and pipelines, many on what is considered critical caribou habitat.