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03/19/2019 09:56 EDT | Updated 03/19/2019 10:06 EDT

Can Ontario's Endangered Wildlife Survive Doug Ford?

His government's review of the Endangered Species Act frames protecting at-risk species as a "barrier to economic development."

Jun Zhang via Getty Images
A logging operation in Southern Ontario.

Humanity has caused populations of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles to decline by 60 per cent since 1970. Now more than one third of plant and animal species are at risk of disappearing off the face of the earth. Surely leaders around the world should now be doing everything in their power to address this crisis and turn the situation around.

Here in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford may be planning the opposite. His government is preparing to change the province's Endangered Species Act (ESA), the legislation created to protect our most at-risk plants and animals. But Ford's review doesn't have a goal to reverse the startling drop in Ontario's animal and plant species, or to better enforce the law.

Instead, the review's discussion paper describes the supposed inconvenience of the legislation itself, stating that "authorization processes can create significant administrative burdens and delays" and "achieving an overall benefit to a species... can be long, onerous and unpredictable."

The decision to protect an at-risk species could be a matter of "ministerial discretion."

Specific logging and other industrial projects have enjoyed sweeping exemptions from the ESA's strict requirements since 2013. They can kill or harm an endangered species and damage its habitat without a permit to do so, and without compensating via actions that provide an overall benefit to the species. Yet rather than close loopholes for big businesses, Ford looks to be preparing to further weaken the rules for industry.

The discussion paper suggests that businesses could pay into a conservation fund rather than change their own behaviour. The "overall benefit" requirement could be scrapped entirely. And there could be further exemptions under the same section of the law used in 2013.

The review paper also opens the door for government to interfere in independent scientific processes. It proposes politicians could question the expert panel's assessment that a particular species is at risk, and demand additional rounds of review. The decision to protect an at-risk species could be a matter of "ministerial discretion." The government could extend its deadlines and drop its deliverables.

Jean-Simon Bégin/Greenpeace
Woodland caribou are designated as "threatened."

So what would it mean if Ford were to gut the Endangered Species Act? Many of Ontario's most beloved and iconic animals are already headed towards a tipping point, beyond which it would be very difficult for them to recover — songbirds, belugas, turtles, owls, polar bears. What would the consequences be if government were to stand aside while species continue to decline?

In B.C. and Alberta, caribou habitat has become degraded to the point where many caribou herds have become locally extinct. Governments have resorted to costly and drastic measures to keep the remaining few animals alive. Predators such as wolves are being shot down by helicopter, at-risk herds are being flown out and eventually merged with other herds, and pregnant caribou are being locked up in protective pens. Despite all this, caribou's long-term survival in these regions is still uncertain.

The government must repeal the sweeping exemptions granted to industry.

Is this where we are headed in Ontario? Here boreal caribou herds are also in steady decline as logging destroys their habitat. Will it reach a point where we are faced with the choice of expensive and intensive intervention — or extinction?

At a fundamental level, Ontario's endangered animals, insects and plants are a critical part of the delicate ecology that sustains us. We rely on these species and the places they inhabit for our food, our water, our energy, our life-support systems. Allowing them to decline and disappear is a threat to our own survival.

It is therefore time to stop framing measures to protect our life support systems as "barriers to economic development," as the ESA review does. It's time to build businesses, industries and an economy that can thrive within the limits of what our planet can sustain.

Andrew Francis Wallace via Getty Images
Premier Doug Ford speaks during question period at Queen's Park on Feb. 20, 2019.

When it comes to Ontario's Endangered Species Act, the top priority for the government's review should be to actually recover endangered species and restore the ecosystems that they — and we — rely upon.

To do this, the government must repeal the sweeping exemptions granted to industry. It must amend the ESA to limit such exemptions in future. It must then focus on implementing the Endangered Species Act as it was originally intended, strong on species protection but with enough flexibility to be workable for landowners and resource developers.

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Beyond the scope of the legislation, the government must ensure that local communities benefit from restoration activities. It must recognize and support First Nations' stewardship. And it must maintain independent oversight of its own activities with regards to endangered species.

In the past month over 4,300 Ontarians sent messages to the Ford government through Greenpeace's website alone, demanding that the province keep strong endangered species protections. This is clearly an issue dear to the people of Ontario, and one that will be followed closely as Ford plans his next move.

Ontario is blessed with an incredible natural environment and people who care deeply about it. If there is a place in the world that can show how nature and humans can thrive together, let this be it. Because our own fate is deeply interwoven with that of the incredible species at risk of disappearing forever.

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