On June 6th, and without much fanfare, Ontario’s endangered species were stripped of the foundational protection afforded to them by the Endangered Species Act. Hidden in a “housing bill” alongside a number of other changes to legislation – the Environmental Assessment Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Conservation Authorities Act, and the Ontario Heritage Act – which will do nothing to solve Ontario’s housing crisis, were 20-pages of legal amendments removing almost every single requirement designed to protect and recover species at risk.
The Progressive Conservative’s Bill 108 gives industry a pass to slay at-risk species, pave over their homes, extract natural resources in critical habitat, and cause unbridled destruction of sensitive ecosystems.
The timing of these changes are almost unbelievable – an about-to-be-published UN report concludes that the human-caused mass extinction is putting a million different species on the brink. Meanwhile, Ontario’s own species at risk, now numbering 243, have been swept into the arms of an all-powerful Minister of Environment.
Wasted opportunity for improvement
The demise of the Endangered Species Act was carefully and quietly introduced as a “10-year review”, an opportunity to consult about what was working, and what was not working, for Ontario and its imperiled species.
We’re under no illusion that prior to the 10-year review that the Act was being implemented in such a way as to effectively protect and recover species at risk. Certainly there was a lot of room for improvement in the Act’s implementation.
A perfect example is the “permit-by-rule” system. The previous Liberal government had a history of abusing this mechanism in the Act to exempt a slew of user groups from the prohibitions of killing threatened and endangered species or destroying their habitat. Thanks to permit-by-rule, forestry companies are allowed to destroy threatened caribou habitat, hunters and trappers are allowed to kill threatened Algonquin wolves, and endangered American eels are being cut up in hydroelectric dams—and these are just a few examples of exemptions that predated the new government.
None of the activities exempted this way were being monitored. Simply put, we had no way to measure how bad ongoing destruction was.
What we did have was an important backstop to benchmark a species progress (or regress): science- the essential tool wielded by expert and objective scientists who study Ontario’s biodiversity and the individual and often magnificent components of it.
Science in and of itself has no value unless it’s being used. Until last week, science was a foundation of the ESA.
A species’ journey through the Act
The species assessment committee called COSSARO (“Committee on the Status of Species At Risk in Ontario”) is a group of scientific experts that objectively determine whether a species is at risk or not in our province. If a species in trouble, depending on the severity of threats and the species’ rarity, COSSARO places it in one of the risk categories – special concern, threatened, endangered, or worse yet, extirpated (extinct in Ontario).
Before the Act was gutted this month, species assessments led to automatic legal listing of species on the Act’s Species At Risk in Ontario list (SARO list) a quick 3 months after assessment. If a wildlife or plant species made it to the SARO list as either endangered and threatened, it gained automatic protections under the Act. This makes sense; threatened and endangered species need immediate protection to stand a chance at bouncing back over the longer term while they wait for their recovery to be mapped out.
To direct recovery, a science-based Recovery Strategy was then due within a year of a species being listed as endangered (within two years for those listed as threatened). Then came the Government Response Statement within another 9 months, which is where politicians decided which activities suggested in the Recovery Strategy would actually be undertaken within a socioeconomic context.
For those species listed as special concern, the science-based Management Plan is due within 3 years, where important evidence-based suggestions are suggested. Special concern species don’t get any protection unless the government decides it’s necessary and willing to enact them.
Once government-directed actions are underway, a Progress Report would be due 5 years later to determine how well the species is doing. The cycle is complete when the species gets re-assessed by COSSARO every 10 or so years.
This cycle boded so well for species at risk it was dubbed “the gold standard”. What a marvel of integrated science and decision-making was promised when it was rolled out in 2008! Built-in flexibility meant that socioeconomics of recovery were considered as long as species’ recoveries were the priority. Provided a scientific expert concluded to the Minister that an activity or exemption wouldn’t jeopardize the recovery of species, harmful activities that could kill species and destroy their habitat were still allowed to happen in a controlled way. The Act was written so that it could carefully regulate ongoing destruction that was deemed necessary for the human community through the use of permits and authorization tools that either minimized adverse impacts, or provided some other overall benefit to a dwindling species on the ground nearby to where any habitat destruction was taking place.
It was in 2013 that the reigning Liberal government introduced a fistful of permit-by-rule exemptions that allowed destruction of certain species or in certain areas, enormous and embarrassing delays in the development of Recovery Strategies and Government Response Statements, which in turn delayed Progress Reports, and made it harder for scientists to use reliable updated data to re-assess a species.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Commissioner figured out that none of the exempted activities were being monitored, and that the Ministry didn’t track any compliance monitoring or enforcement for any other permit or authorization given to industry or landowners to conduct activities that harm species at risk or their homes.
These were important sticks stuck in the wheel of the Act, a wheel which was designed to move us forward toward a future where hundreds of species weren’t about to disappear from Ontario, perhaps forever.
The future of Ontario’s endangered species is now under more threat than ever before
Fast-forward to 2018, when the Progressive Conservatives took over and the Act’s 10-year anniversary triggered them into announcing a “review”. A review of a poorly functioning Act is in theory well-deserved. But then the PCs rolled out a discussion Paper, a single paltry consultation with biodiversity proponents (industry proponents each got their own consultation), an unclear summary of expected amendments, followed by 20 pages of legal language that spelled out the doom of the Endangered Species Act. This was all written under the guise of improving the Act, removing red tape, and importantly “ensuring positive outcomes for species at risk”.
What really happened was this. Timelines to assess, list, monitor, plan, and report were lengthened dramatically. COSSARO will now be open to special interests, diluting the scientific expertise and objectivity that are essential to accurate species assessments. COSSARO is also now required to match the assessment status of species that are doing OK elsewhere, but only if it means the species status will be downgraded. Extinction in Ontario isn’t an issue if the species still exists somewhere else, according to Premier Doug Ford. On the other hand, he doesn’t want us to panic when a species is going extinct next door. This compartmentalization of recovery planning is irrational. Wild animals don’t know where borders are, and certainly our federal government does an abominable job at forcing the provinces and territories to take action for imperiled species even though it’s written right into the federal Species At Risk Act.
What could be worse than diluting science and forcing their hand in assessments? Answer: under the new and not-so-improved Act, the Minister no longer has to consult a scientist before deciding to allow or exempt activities or proponents from killing species at risk or destroying their homes. In fact, businesses will now be able to pay to do this, and that money will be used by some “crown agency” which will have to make tough decisions about which species might benefit from the blood money, and which ones will be ignored and left to disappear.
Our rights to participate in decision-making processes have been undermined
The scariest part for me (and this is coming from a biologist whose work to recover Algonquin wolves is being deliberately undermined by special interests and politicians who hate, fear and misrepresent the wolf) is that to rip up the Endangered Species Act so badly, the government also had to tear into our Environmental Bill of Rights to remove the sections saying that the public had to be notified and consulted when these arbitrary, political and anti-biodiversity decisions are being made by the Minister.
If this isn’t a cover up, I don’t know what is.
How can politicians claim that this is going to be good for species at risk, that it’s going to make a better Ontario? How can so many provincial representatives ignore the concerned scientists, the outraged municipal governments and the environmental community? Last time we checked, consultation meant listening to everyone, and taking all information into consideration. Checking off the wishlists of developer buddies and natural resource extraction CEOs is not what the Environmental Bill of Rights meant by consultation.
This is in no way “For The People”.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We know what is going to happen when a Minister is handed all the power to control species at risk, and it’s hardly ever going be to be a “positive outcome” for wildlife or rare plants. The new Endangered Species Act is a gift to housing developers in the south, hunters and trappers across the province, and natural resource extraction companies in the north. Logging companies will gain permanent exemption rights to destroy caribou habitat, mining is going to wipe out species habitat in the Ring of Fire, dams will continue to chop up endangered American eels, and Algonquin wolves will continue to be shot and strangled in neck snares for sport and profit. Wetlands, green corridors, vernal pools and vestigial forest in southern Ontario will be paved over and covered in houses that most Ontario residents will never be able to afford.
We are indeed in a housing crisis, but it is not limited to the houses of humans. More than the Endangered Species Act, Bill 108 – the housing bill – changed over a dozen other acts that will negatively impact every species that needs a secure home in this province, whether it’s a low-income person, an endangered salamander or a woodland caribou calf.
This government has it out for our species at risk. These species are the canary in the coal mine of so-called progress and the open-for-business mentality that Ford and company have been promoting for the last year. It seems too few governments are willing to recognize and address that species at risk recovery is inconvenient and will require science and tenacity to guarantee. There’s no denying that legislation geared to protecting and recovering them necessitates us to do business a little differently. After all, it’s just one species – our own – that is largely responsible for putting a million others at the precipice of extinction.
It’s hard to believe that any government can ignore the stark findings from UN reports about losing species, losing biodiversity, and losing intricate ecosystems that deliver invaluable, unimaginable, and often unmeasured services that we as the human race rely on for our very survival. The UN report reminds us why we should care about species at risk: without them, we face ecological collapse. How can a government “for the people” put our species at risk too?
At this point, asking head-scratching questions like this is a waste of time. Now we stand together. Now we fight for our human families, for our wildlife community, for the web of life that connect us all and gives us shelter. If we don’t fight now, it’ll all be gone. Please take action now! Extinction is forever.