Ontario Government Exempts Forest Industry From its Endangered Species Act
By Caroline Schultz, Executive Director
Once again the polar bear made headlines when the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it had listed this iconic species as “threatened.” This was a long-overdue move lauded by environmental groups and a notable contrast to Canada’s weaker “special concern” designation.
This development came just weeks after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) declared the Canada warbler a “threatened” species. Long considered common in our boreal forest, Canada warbler populations have plunged 45% over the past four decades. This pretty, active little bird is now yet another name on a list.
What’s worse, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in Ontario significantly set back the protection of Ontario’s biodiversity last week by quietly proposing that the logging industry, active across 45% of the province, be exempt from the provisions of its own Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The roster of endangered species grows every year due to the disturbingly repetitive cycle of threats from habitat loss, pollution and climate change both in lower latitudes as well as the north. As our winters become shorter and milder, frogs, for example, emerge from hibernation prematurely – a certain death sentence as their food source, adult crickets and other bugs, remains buried underground as larvae and eggs until spring.
The Ontario government’s move, announced at the same time as the polar bear decision, is a devastating reversal. In May 2007, when Queen’s Park unveiled its new ESA, Ontario Nature and a coalition of conservation groups applauded the law as a triumph of forward-looking legislation. It made Ontario a leader in North America in terms of protecting the most vulnerable plants and animals across a wide variety of ecosystems, from temperate forests in the south to tundra in the north — home, incidentally, to about 1,000 southern Hudson Bay polar bears, or 7% of the Canadian total.
The need for such protections is indisputable. Ontario provides habitat for globally threatened species such as the spotted turtle, the cerulean warbler and the wolverine. Woodland caribou populations have declined enormously due to logging. And of the 24 reptile species indigenous to Ontario, 15 are now at risk, including six of the province’s eight species of hard-shelled turtles. Indeed, among those plants and animals for which population trends are well documented, more than 75% — a shocking statistic — have either disappeared from Ontario or continue to decline. More alarming still is that a growing number of once common species – the common nighthawk, the olive-sided flycatcher – are now being added to the list of species at risk.
The new Act boosted the number of protected species from 42 to nearly 200, granted automatic habitat protection for endangered and threatened species (a first), required mandatory recovery efforts for those species and provided conservation incentives to private landowners.
We believe a blanket exemption for the logging industry will do nothing less than defeat the purpose of the Act. If this long overdue and desperately needed piece of legislation isn’t effectively implemented, the future will be bleak for Ontario’s at-risk species and may well lead to further decline among boreal forest species, such as the woodland caribou. Allowing the forestry industry to continue its business-as-usual methods could easily prove to be the tipping point for iconic and little known species alike.
We urgently need federal and provincial policies, legislation and enforcement to protect our wildlife, and not just in the far north. If our neighbours to the south can recognize the magnitude of this crisis, then so can we.