Environmental and conservation groups have been voicing their concerns around the proposed changes to the province’s Endangered Species Act that is currently under a 10-year review.
They are worried the proposed changes will weaken protections for species and create loop holes for industry.
The proposed changes introduce a pay-to-proceed system on activities that could harm species habitats, so developers can pay their way out of providing protections, noted Anne Bell, director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature.
“It greases the wheels of destruction,” Bell said. “It’s making it easier and faster for people to undertake activities that are going to harm/threaten endangered species.”
Prior to the proposed changes industry had flexibility to proceed on projects in areas of threatened or endangered species as long as it provided an overall benefit through on-the-ground actions.
With the pay-to-proceed system, industry is allowed to pay a fee in lieu of protections, which could be detrimental to at-risk populations, according to Kelsey Scarfone of Environmental Defence.
“Habitat loss is by in large the number one reason we’re seeing species end up on these [threatened or endangered] lists,” she explained.
“Much of the time it’s actually habitat loss that is the reason for the species being endangered so it makes absolutely no sense to allow a project to decimate habitats and pay instead of protecting,” Scarfone added.
“It’s really a non-starter and I don’t think it makes sense when we know now more than ever that habitats need protecting.”
The best way to recover endangered species populations is through protecting existing habitats, Scarfone explained.
Canada is currently in the midst of a biodiversity crisis and experiencing a significant decline in animal populations.
A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report conducted for the Canadian government last year determined 50 percent of the country’s species are in decline and about 60 percent of wildlife populations worldwide have been declining for over 40 years.
“We’re losing species left, right, and centre around the world and Ontario’s no exception,” Scarfone remarked.
“Really rare and endangered species are facing immense pressures on their habitats.
“We’re in a time where we need to be doubling down on our efforts to protect habitats, protect species, and this law does the opposite,” Scarfone added.
More than 200 species of plants and animals in Ontario are threatened or endangered with extinction and continue to decline.
Another area of concern for environmental groups is the ministry of environment, conservation, and park’s (MECP) ability to delay listing species as threatened or endangered for up to three years.
“Three years could be the amount of time it takes to lose that species,” Scarfone noted.
She said this is because delaying the listing of endangered or threatened species delays their protections.
Prior to the proposed changes species also had to be listed within three months of an assessment by COSSARO–the group of scientists responsible for listing species at risk–which has now been extended to 12 months, further delaying protections.
Meanwhile, MECP officials said these changes will help customize species protections and focus conservation efforts where they are needed for the greatest overall benefit.
“The addition of new tools to be used at the Minister’s discretion will enable meaningful protections for the species that are listed as threatened or endangered, while recognizing the impact of protections on individuals and businesses, and balancing these needs accordingly,” said Emily Hogeveen, press secretary for the MCEP.
There are already existing processes under COSSARO that allow’s the board to reevaluate species presently listed, so Scarfone said she fears this will allow for political influence.
A separate change being proposed by the government opens up COSSARO–a group of up to 12 scientist or individuals with indigenous knowledge–to non-scientists who have “community knowledge.”
MECP argues this will ensure there is an appropriate breadth of scientific expertise on the committee but Scarfone said this could include–as its currently defined–lobbyists or individuals without scientific understanding.
“It could end up that people with no interest in protecting endangered species or no knowledge of ecology or wildlife management could end up on that really important decision making board,” she charged.
Rachel Plotkin of the Suzuki Foundation said it’s unclear to her why this amendment was broadened.
She stressed that decisions for wildlife are best based on science because there are always economic pressures to not list certain species.
“Having decisions based on scientific and indigenous input is the best way to go,” she reasoned.
While the MECP says its streamlining processes for businesses while strengthening protections, Plotkin said it appears they are putting economic interests ahead of environmental sustainability.
“In the framing of why they’re making the changes, really what they talked about was the challenges to operators that are operating in the habitat of species at risk,’ she noted.
“I don’t think those are the primary failings of the act, I think the act as we wrote a report about it at the end of last year…looked at the problems with implementation.
The two primary problems with implementing the act was the broad exemptions granted to industry that allow a slide from habitat protection and restoration towards a culture of mitigation, Plotkin remarked.
“The ways to improve the act are to repeal the exemptions to industry, to hold industry and developers accountable, to the set limits for activities in the habitat of species at risk, and to uphold those limits to ensure wildlife has the space that it needs to survive and recover,” she noted.
Scarfone said from viewing the proposed changes it appears the province is catering to industry and small developer wishes instead of the needs of at-risk species.
“This open for business rhetoric is going to kill species and the changes are really bending to pressures from industry and developers,” she charged.
“It’s really disappointing to see that in a time where nature need us the most.”
Going forward Scarfone said these proposed changes need to be reconciled to actually protect at-risk wildlife.
“That needs to happen or else what we’re looking at is a law that completely fails in protecting species and their habitats,” she remarked.
“If we don’t see changes to this law then we’re going to be left with something so flimsy in protecting species that were going to see major impacts to the endangered species in this province.
“It could definitely lead to extinctions, to major losses in habitat that we can’t afford right now so we need to see big changes to this law that’s proposed right now,” Scarfone added.
“It going through as it’s written would be extremely detrimental to endangered species.”
Consultation for the proposed changes is open until May 18 and Ontarians can provide input to the changes directly on the Enviormental Registry at https://www.ebr.gov.on.ca