The applications filed in Federal Court in Vancouver ask the court to order the federal minister to implement recovery strategies for the Pacific humpback whale, the Nechako white sturgeon, the marbled murrelet and the southern mountain caribou. That would compel the government to protect their critical habitat.
The groups say Environment Minister Peter Kent's ongoing refusal to do so violates the federal Species At Risk Act.
"The recovery strategies for all four of these species are at least three years past the mandatory, statutory deadline set out in the (act)," said Sean Nixon, the lawyer for EcoJustice, a non-profit environmental justice group representing the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace Canada, the Sierra Club and Wildsight.
"In our view this isn't just a technical breach of the law. The federal government's delay in completing recovery strategies is further endangering species that are already endangered or threatened."
There currently are 87 recovery strategies that are more than five years overdue.
The delay undermines the environmental assessment process, Nixon said, and helps fast-track regulatory approvals at the expense of wildlife.
"While the federal government is dithering about whether and how to protect critical habitat, industrial development marches on," he said.
"By the time recovery strategies are actually completed, by the time critical habitat is identified and protected, our options are closed. We already have a pipeline... that punches through the critical habitat of whales, that punches through the habitat of southern mountain caribou."
The Nechako white sturgeon is listed as an endangered species under the act. The North Pacific humpback whale, marbled murrelet (a small sea bird in the same family as puffins and auks) and woodland caribou are listed as threatened.
Steve Wuori, Enbridge's (TSX:ENB) president of liquids pipelines, said the company won't be commenting specifically on the court action.
"I think that we have considered all of the issues that have been raised and more and all of those are being vetted through the regulatory process, so there'll be a full discussion of all those issues, whether they're on shore or offshore and regardless of what species they involve," Wuori told reporters following a speech to the International Pipeline Conference in Calgary.
"I think we really do believe that we have studied these things and will be vetting them through the regulatory hearing process."
Adam Sweet, spokesman for Kent, said it would be inappropriate for the minister's office to comment on a matter before the courts.
"Our government takes our responsibilities under the Species At Risk Act seriously," he said.
Earlier this month, Kent told The Canadian Press in Ottawa the act is ineffective and will be overhauled in the coming months.
While these four species are of special concern to the coalition with the environment review of Northern Gateway currently underway, environmentalists point out there are 188 species across Canada in the same state of limbo: they have been listed under the federal Species at Risk Act as endangered or threatened, but no recovery strategies have been finalized despite the legal obligation to do so.
The pipeline will also impact populations of boreal caribou, northern goshawk, common nighthawk, olive-sided flycatcher and the Canada warbler, they said.
Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee, said the lawsuits are a last resort.
"The federal government's approach to endangered species is a blue print for extinction in Canada," Barlee told reporters at a news conference.
Those recovery plans "are sitting on someone's desk in Ottawa, and the federal government is refusing to release those strategies so we can get on with the business of protecting species at risk in this country."
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