Ontario’s Endangered Species Act Must Address Ecosystem Damage
By Justina Ray
January 31, 2019
[Note: a version of this commentary was originally published at iPolitics ].
Are protections for endangered species just another bureaucratic burden that is holding back economic development in Ontario?
That’s the below-the-surface premise that seems to lie behind the Ford government’s latest action to “streamline” environmental regulation in this province. Last week, the government announced a review of the Endangered Species Act, saying that the current act is “unclear, administratively burdensome, time consuming and costly for applicants, and (creates) barriers to economic development.”
“The current Endangered Species act is complex and challenging to navigate. But then so is the task of saving a growing list of species that are facing extinction, usually due to human actions.”
And you know what? The government is not wrong. The current act, in place for just over 10 years, is complex and challenging to navigate. But then so is the task of saving a growing list of species that are facing extinction, usually due to human actions.
The single biggest reason that wild species — from wood turtles to caribou — end up struggling for survival is habitat loss and degradation. And when it comes to wetlands, forests, meadows and rivers, we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. Our relentless encroachment on natural areas — from draining wetlands to making land “productive” to cutting our forests at a rate that is making older forests gradually disappear — is pushing species after species into an ever-tightening corner.
Any effort to conserve species is going to be challenging — scientifically, ethically and economically. Ontario’s Endangered Species Act started out with good intentions and a commitment to putting the needs of species-at-risk first, using strong scientific criteria for deciding both which species to list and how to help them recover.
But faced with the economic trade-offs necessary to ensure species survival, the previous government’s commitment quickly crumpled. In 2013, it opted for a 91-page amendment to the act that essentially exempted major industries like forestry and hydro power from complying with its standards and procedures. It is only thanks to investigations undertaken by the Environmental Commissioner that we have any inkling of the consequences, which included dramatic increases in authorizations of harmful activities, no routine compliance monitoring, and little tracking of the species themselves and how they were faring. This makes the Ford government’s current musings about further weakening the act even more alarming.
“Reports flow in every day about the growing biodiversity crisis: from the decimation of insect populations to jaw-dropping declines in songbird populations. These reports are flashing lights warning us that we are racing toward a cliff.”
As a scientist who has studied wild species for 25 years, the call to do something meaningful seems louder and louder, yet few others seem to hear it. The world is now experiencing an extinction rate that is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate. Reports flow in every day about this growing biodiversity crisis, from the decimation of insect populations to jaw-dropping declines in songbird populations. These reports are more than an economic inconvenience. They are flashing lights warning us that we are racing toward a cliff (and picking up speed).
Unravelling complex ecosystems by removing one piece after another is, frankly, a recipe for disaster. We don’t even fully understand all the roles and relationships within ecosystems that keep our natural systems functioning — our air and water clean, breathable and drinkable, our crops growing and fish swimming — yet we feel free to treat them as capable of bearing any burden we place on them or, even worse, too expensive and inconvenient to make room for. But as we have seen with our unravelling climate, messing with natural systems comes at our peril.
Instead of worrying so much about maximizing short-term economic opportunities, we must start focusing on long-term ecosystem damage. Yes, people need jobs and Canada still relies heavily on resource extraction for economic growth. But the last thing we should be doing is shying away from making hard decisions about limits because that may entail valuing natural wealth over simple GDP.
“When it comes to taking care of our province’s species at risk, we need to work a lot harder on finding new paths.”
In fact, it is in our direct interest to pay attention to the long view for the simple reason that it is far more costly to restore the natural environment once we have learned that it’s actually important. So when it comes to taking care of our province’s species at risk, we need to work a lot harder on finding new paths — whether it is much more rigorously tailoring resource operations to the actual tolerances of species, transitioning to a less resource intensive (and consumptive) economy, or helping people find good work that restores rather than diminishes the natural world.
I know that is not a task that lends itself to a simple slogan or “streamlining.” But it is not just the survival of wildlife that is at stake here — it is ours as well.
Dr. Justina C. Ray is President and Senior Scientist of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. A wildlife biologist engaged in research, listing and recovery of species at risk, she recently served for nine years as terrestrial mammal co-chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and for four years as a member of the Committee on the Status of Species At Risk in Ontario.
She was also a member of the Endangered Species Act Review Advisory Panel for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources through to the passage of a new Act in 2007.
Originally published at ipolitics.ca on January 31, 2019.