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Fate of Ontario’s endangered plants and animals hangs in balance

Exchange Magazine,
April 18 2016

Toronto – Environmental groups are asking the Ontario Court of Appeal to overturn a provincial regulation that exempts major industries from Endangered Species Act legal requirements to protect Ontario’s most vulnerable plants and animals.

The appeal, to be argued by lawyers Lara Tessaro and Anastasia Lintner on April 19, on behalf of Ontario Nature and CPAWS Wildlands League, challenges a Divisional Court decision to uphold the Ontario government’s exemptions for forestry, mining, energy, residential development and other activities from the Endangered Species Act. These exemptions deprive 160 endangered and threatened species of their core legal protections – allowing industry now to kill endangered wildlife and destroy their habitats, subject only to minimal restrictions.

Since the provincial Cabinet made the regulation in 2013, more than 1,100 industrial and development activities have been exempted from legal requirements to protect at-risk plants and animals.

“Ontario has argued that it has the right to push endangered species to the brink of extinction,” says Anna Baggio, Director of Conservation Planning for CPAWS Wildlands League. “We should be protecting species, not jeopardizing their survival. That’s why we’ll be back in court on the 19th making a stand for species,” Baggio added.

The appeal comes on the heels of new sobering numbers that reveal increasing human-caused disturbances in threatened boreal caribou habitat. Ranges are being eroded by an expanding industrial logging footprint and pushed into high risk situations. For example, the Brightsand Range in northwestern Ontario has seen anthropogenic disturbance increase by more than 76,000 hectares since 2011. The blanket exemption for forestry, part of the contested regulation, is contributing to boreal caribou’s demise, say the groups.

“I shudder to think about species like the American eel, once abundant and now one of the most critically endangered animals in the province,” says Caroline Schultz, Ontario Nature’s Executive Director. “They regularly get chewed up in the turbines of hydroelectric facilities – an industry exempted under the regulation.” The American eel is estimated to have suffered a population decline of 99 percent in recent years in Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River.

“This appeal marks the first time the Ontario Court of Appeal will interpret the Endangered Species Act, a law that serves as the last line of defense for Ontario’s at-risk plants and animals,” says Tessaro. “To thrive and survive, Ontario’s wild species need a law that protects them, not a law that protects industry.”

It may be too late for the northern cricket frog, frosted elfin, spring salamander and Eskimo curlew, which are among the many species that have disappeared from Ontario altogether. For the 160 endangered and threatened species that still hold on, the outcome of this case could offer them a fighting chance.