As U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi discussed oilsands concerns in Ottawa, a court action began yesterday in Edmonton that could deliver another hit to the beleaguered industry.

Environmental and aboriginal groups hope to use the Species At Risk Act to force federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice to protect woodland caribou herds in northeastern Alberta that are rapidly shrinking in the face of oilsands and forestry development.

“What we’re asking is that the court order the minister to recommend an emergency protection order for the caribou of northeastern Alberta,” said Barry Robinson, a lawyer with the group Ecojustice.

The groups filed two notices in Federal Court yesterday saying that legislation obliges Prentice to step in to protect the herds, which studies suggest have declined to one-tenth their historic size.

Woodland caribou in Alberta are considered a threatened population under the act, which forces Ottawa to develop a recovery plan for it. Environment Canada is working on that plan, but the herds are shrinking so quickly that emergency protection is needed, Robinson said.

“We said: ‘Fine, do whatever you think is necessary to get a good recovery strategy. But in the interim, let’s get some protection for these herds.’”

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