The Last Line of Defence
A Review of Ontario’s New Protections for Species at Risk
A Special Report to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Submitted by Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, March 2, 2009
- Click to download a .PDF version
- Click to read the media release
- Click to download the Commissioner’s opening remarks
- The ECO’s Special Report presents an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of Ontario’s new species at risk law – theEndangered Species Act, 2007 – which came into force on June 30, 2008. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 replaces outdated legislation enacted in 1971. The new law aims to protect species that are at risk, as well as their habitats, and to promote their long-term recovery.
Toronto – The fate of Ontario’s 183 species at risk depends on the courage of the Ontario Government in making their protection a priority. This is one conclusion found in a Special Report released by Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), and tabled before the Ontario Legislature today.
“The Endangered Species Act, 2007 is the last line of defence for imperilled species before they disappear from Ontario’s landscape,” advises Miller. “Although the new law is a great improvement over its predecessor, many of its protections can be undermined if the law’s flexibility is misused.”
Today’s report, entitled The Last Line of Defence: A Review of Ontario’s New Protections for Species at Risk, analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of theEndangered Species Act, 2007, which came into force on June 30, 2008 and whose implementation continues. In the report, the ECO provides the Government of Ontario with recommendations and key action items to ensure the province’s most vulnerable species and their habitats are protected and recovered.
For example, under the Act, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is given the authority to allow some activities that may be destructive of habitat, even when that habitat is critical to endangered species. “The ministry must exercise extreme caution and prudence in using this authority,” Miller warns.
“I am encouraged to see that the decision to list species as being at risk is now a scientific decision rather than a political one,” noted Miller. “But without strong commitment and tough decisions, much of Ontario’s wildlife, and the natural areas it relies on, may be lost forever,” stated Miller.
- Use great caution in exercising the power to authorize activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the Act, such as killing individual plants or animals, or destroying their habitat.
- Ensure that habitats are prescribed on an ecological basis, rather than being driven by economic or social constraints.
- Ensure that species management and recovery plans and their implementation are robust and effective, and are delivered in a timely fashion.
Biodiversity – wildlife and natural areas – is being lost at the fastest pace in human history. This loss of biodiversity is part of a global environmental crisis. Almost 200 countries have firmly committed to achieving “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” by the year 2010. The protection and recovery of species at risk are key components to conserving biodiversity.
In Ontario, there are 183 species currently identified as extirpated, endangered, threatened, or of special concern. At least 1,500 species are being tracked by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) but have yet to be formally assessed for their at-risk status. Southwestern Ontario has one of the highest concentrations of species at risk in Canada, with 145 plants and animals identified as being at-risk. Only two of Ontario’s at-risk species have been partially recovered in the last decade.
The status of the province’s species at risk is a key indicator of the overall health and integrity of Ontario’s natural environment. In Ontario, the main threat for two-thirds of species at risk is the loss, alteration and fragmentation of their habitat. Habitat loss may be compounded by other significant threats to biodiversity including climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution.
The Ministry of Natural Resources is directly responsible for protecting and recovering the province’s species at risk. The ministry also manages the province’s protected areas, forests, fisheries, wildlife, and the 87 per cent of the province that consists of Crown lands.
Effective legislation is the last line of defence for species at risk. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 and its accompanying regulations include much-needed advances for the protection of species at risk. However, the new legislation still contains critical weaknesses that may jeopardize the recovery of species at risk and their habitat.
The Special Report provides six recommendations and five key action items to the Ontario government to ensure that the province’s most vulnerable species are conserved for future generations.
- Regulates a range of species at risk at different threat levels
- Impartial process to assess and list species
- Mandatory recovery strategies for endangered and threatened species
- Requires the government to respond to recovery strategies
- Contains prohibitions on the killing of species and the destruction of their habitat
- Recognizes the precautionary principle
- Provides greater opportunities for public participation
- Allows any activity to be exempted by regulation at any point in the future, subject to conditions
- Unclear whether recovery planning will be impartial and science-based
- Regulated habitat protection is discretionary for most species
- Vague requirements for what actions the government will take after a recovery strategy is developed
- Wide latitude to issue permits and agreements that may allow species to be killed or their habitat destroyed
- No mandatory expiry dates or periodic assessments of permits and agreements
- No mechanisms to prevent species from becoming at-risk
- Recovery Planning: MNR should develop and consult on guidelines that ensure recovery strategies and management plans are robust, effective, and defensible in order to adequately protect and recover species at risk and their habitat. (pg. 22)
- Government Action: MNR should ensure that its response statements to recovery strategies and management plans are robust, effective, and defensible and that its commitments are fully implemented in a timely fashion. (pg. 23)
- Habitat Protection: MNR should ensure that habitats are prescribed on an ecological basis, rather than being driven by economic or social constraints. (pg. 30)
- Use of “Flexibility Tools”: MNR should rigorously apply the Act’s “overall benefit” test and the precautionary principle, including an assessment of cumulative impacts, when screening the appropriateness of authorizing activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the Endangered Species Act, 2007. (pg. 35)
MNR should exercise extreme caution in prescribing other statutes for exceptions from the Endangered Species Act, 2007, to ensure that only branches of government with a demonstrated track record in conservation are authorized to allow the harming of species at risk or the destruction of their habitat. (pg. 36)
- Establish a statutory responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the state of Ontario’s biodiversity.
- Ensure recovery and management teams are composed of independent members with the necessary expertise.
- Amend the new Act to require the preparation of government responses for all listed species of special concern.
- Include expiry dates on instruments to ensure the periodic evaluation of permits and agreements.
- Prescribe all instruments under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993.
- Expand the Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program to provide greater financial incentives to private landowners to protect the habitat of species at risk.