On April 18, 2019, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) posted an overview of its proposed changes to Ontario’s ESA. These changes would roll back protections for Ontario’s most vulnerable plants and animals and give industry and developers the green light to destroy their habitats.
In effect, if the changes go forward, the act would be repealed in everything but the name, rendering it pointless. Here are our top 10 concerns:
1. “Pay to Slay”
MECP wants to allow developers and other proponents of harmful activities to pay into a fund in lieu of fulfilling requirements for on-the-ground compensation. This easy way out reduces accountability and makes it far easier to proceed with activities that harm species at risk and their habitats.
2. Rejecting Science
The Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) is a committee comprised of qualified scientists who perform science-based assessments of whether a species is at risk. MECP is proposing to broaden COSSARO membership so that it includes those with “community knowledge” – a vague term that could open up COSSARO to those who do not have adequate expertise in species assessment or have a different agenda altogether.
3. Deserting “Edge of Range” Species
COSSARO would be required to base its assessments not on the status of a species in Ontario, but instead on its status throughout its range. For example, southern Ontario endangered species at the northern limit of their range may receive less or no protection, depending on their status outside Ontario. This is especially concerning in the face of climate change because healthy species populations are needed at their northern limits to help species adapt to changing climatic conditions.
4. Limiting Protections
The Minister would be able to limit ESA protections so that they apply only in specific geographies or under specific circumstances. This could exclude important habitats and species from protection.
5. Ministerial Veto of Automatic Protections
The listing of species at risk would be “de-coupled” from automatic protections for threatened and endangered species and their habitats and the Minister would have greater “discretion on protections.”
This includes allowing the Minister to suspend species and habitat protections for up to three years based on social or economic considerations. Note, such delays would be exempted from Environmental Bill of Rights posting and consultation requirements. This means that the public would receive no notice and have no input on such decisions. Meanwhile, those with political connections could undermine species protections without full public scrutiny.
6. Sweeping Authorizations for Harmful Activities
MECP proposes to create “landscape agreements” for proponents undertaking harmful activities in multiple locations. Such an approach does not lend itself to addressing site-specific or species-specific concerns and consequently presents unwarranted additional risk for species already in peril.
7. Dodging ESA Requirements
MECP wants to allow activities approved under other laws to be carried out without any additional authorizations under the ESA, even if they harm threatened or endangered species or their habitats. This may be the golden ticket for forestry and other industries seeking permanent exemptions from the ESA.
8. Interfering With the Listing of Species at Risk
The Minister would be able to require COSSARO to reconsider its science-based listing decisions. This change would make it possible for developers and others who have the ear of government to derail the listing process if they don’t like a COSSARO decision.
9. Goodbye Expert Input
Currently, the ESA requires that the Minister consult with an independent expert prior to creating regulations that would jeopardize the survival of a species, or issuing permits for harmful activities that would provide a significant social or economic benefit to Ontario. This requirement would be removed.
10. Delays, Delays, Delays
Multiple delays are proposed for the listing, planning and reporting on species at risk, undermining species recovery. Of deep concern is the proposal to list species nine months after COSSARO makes its assessments public – during this time vulnerable plants, animals and their habitats could be eliminated before protections kick in.