Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) was implemented in 2008 and is crucial for the protection of species at risk. It is a commitment to place the needs of species-at-risk first and use strong scientific criteria for making decisions on species listings and recovery initiatives. On January 18th, the Ontario government announced its plan to undertake a review of the Endangered Species Act. The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks is inviting feedback on four key areas outlined in its Discussion Paper:
- Landscape Approaches
- Listing Process and Protections for Species at Risk
- Species Recovery Policies and Habitat Regulations
- Authorization Processes
While the preamble discusses improving outcomes for species at risk through the streamlining of the review and approval processes, the discussion questions primarily propose ways to weaken protections under the Act.
“Efficiencies for businesses”
The government is proposing several “efficiencies for businesses”, which would enable businesses to pay into a conservation fund, bypassing current requirements for conservation activities designed to compensate for the ongoing adverse impacts of project development. This presents a great risk to already vulnerable species. The Discussion Paper appears to assume that this conservation fund will be beneficial to all species at risk, which remains to be seen. This would inevitably make it difficult to meet the various recovery objectives of every species at risk.
They have also proposed extending the timeline for the Government Response Statement. Instead of prolonging the process, it would be more helpful to coordinate the process of the development of recovery strategies and the Government Response Statement so that they can be completed more-or-less concurrently. Overall, the paper focuses on reducing barriers to business rather than tackling challenges that species at risk are facing.
Endangered species in Ontario
Ontario is home to more than 30,000 species, 243 of which are listed as Species at Risk. Scientists estimate that we are losing species at a rate that is 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural background rate, predominantly due to human actions. All species are interconnected, and you cannot impact one species without impacting another. In our own Ottawa River watershed the Hickorynut mussel and its suspected host, lake sturgeon, are both included on the Species at Risk in Ontario list. Young Hickorynut mussels depend on lake sturgeon for dispersal throughout the watershed. However, lake sturgeon populations have experienced a significant decline in the Ottawa River, and as a result the populations of Hickorynut mussel have been negatively impacted.
The Ottawa River watershed is home to several other species listed on the Species at Risk in Ontario list, including the American eel, Least Bittern, Cerulean warbler, Spotted turtle, River Redhorse, Red-headed woodpecker, and Blanding’s Turtle, among others. All of these species will be impacted by changes to the Endangered Species Act. It is important to remember that the majority of benefits that biodiversity provides occur locally, and in order to ensure the genetic diversity critical to a species’ long-term survival, we must focus on conserving local populations.
Update: Along with 40 other organizations, Ottawa Riverkeeper has signed onto this submission to the Environmental Registry of Ontario regarding the review of the Endangered Species Act.