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Minister faces key decision on conserving endangered species, environmentalists say

Piping plover chick © Stephen Muskie

By David Haines,
Queen’s Park Briefing,
June 25 2020

Just call it the plover in the coal mine.

The Minister of the Environment will make an imminent decision on a small bird in a beach town that environmental advocates say could indicate how this government intends to interpret and enforce its newly introduced legislation on endangered species.

The site of this larger battle is Sauble Beach, the main economic engine for the small town of South Bruce Peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, as tens of thousands of tourists flock to its shores for sun and snacks at the Crowd Inn. And on the north shore of this beach is the piping plover, unassuming sparrow-sized birds with orange beaks and sandy plumage.

They also happen to be endangered, with an estimated population of around 6,000 worldwide, and very few on the Great Lakes.

The bird disappeared from the Sauble Beach region in the late-1970s, and then one day in 2007, in a minor miracle, it reappeared. That put an endangered species in conflict with some of the town leaders in South Bruce Peninsula, who would like to mechanically rake the beach to better appeal to tourists. Doing so destroys piping plover habitat, which relies on dunes, indentations and natural debris to lay eggs and protect their young. Beach raking could also make the endangered plovers more vulnerable to prey.

In October 2019 the town was convicted on two counts of failing to protect the piping plover by raking the beach in 2017 and 2018 in violation of its own maintenance bylaws, with a judge saying it demonstrated “wanton disregard” for the habitat.

In a test of new legislation the PC government passed one year ago, the town of South Bruce Peninsula is now seeking a “permit for activities to achieve an overall benefit to the species.” The proposal, listed on the Environmental Registry of Ontario, still awaits approval from Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, but could go into effect as soon as Friday. The town is applying under a new provision in the Endangered Species Act that “an overall benefit to the species will be achieved within a reasonable time through the conditions of the permit,” according to its proposal.

The town would like to: remove “large natural materials and mechanically [rake] the beach, with the exception of the area within a 500 m radius around active piping plover nests; during the arrival, nesting and edging periods of the piping plover; commencing before June 26 and occurring before long weekends and special events.”

The town promises to not rake within 30 feet of the historical dune, a standard it violated earlier. It also promises to remove non-hazardous materials by hand “whenever possible.”

South Beach Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson, who was disappointed by the earlier court decision, did not respond to QP Briefing‘s request for comment, but we’ll update the story if she does. Sauble Beach has faced another recent issue as Jackson shut down the sandy terrain due to people not following social distancing guidelines on recent weekends.

Environmentalists see the town’s plover proposal as insuficient to meet the standard of a net overall benefit for the piping plover, and that granting the permit on those grounds would undermine the credibility of the Endangered Species Act and the ministry.

“Those permits would allow for the destruction of the habitat,” Anne Bell, the director of conservation at Ontario Nature, told QP Briefing. She says that for years the town got by without mechanically raking the beach, and pitting that kind of grooming against one of the most imperilled birds in North America is a false choice.

She’s also concerned about what it means if this permit is allowed to go through, and what is says about the standard for other endangered species in the province. “I regard it as precedent setting,” she said, laying out the stakes. But to her, the choice is clear, and the minister should draw a line in the sand when it comes to a town that has not met its responsibility in protecting the birds, according to a court ruling. “The science is clear, the law is clear. The
minister has a responsibility to implement that law.”

Depending on which way he goes will say a great deal to the environmental community, added Bell. “That’s a decision that’s going to tell us a lot.”

Kelsey Scarfone, a program manager at Environmental Defence, agreed. “That will be a test of the minister,” she observed, adding that the number one threat to species in Ontario is habitat loss. “If we’re serious about protecting species and biodiversity we need to say no to some projects,” she said, even if it might appear inconvenient. “If the minister approves that permit that’s highly problematic.”

Allison Binley, a PhD candidate at Carleton University specializing in conservation, recently co-authored an editorial published in the academic journal Facets last week that urged the Ontario government to strengthen its approach to endangered species writ large. “You can’t pick and choose which species you like and hope the ecosystem will be alright,” she told QPB, adding that Ontario is already seeing signs of eroding habitats.

Environment Minister Jeff Yurek’s ofce responded that it is upholding its duty to protect endangered species. “We are committed to protecting species at risk and their habitat, and we take the protection of the piping plover and its habitat in Sauble Beach very seriously,” spokesperson Andrew Buttigieg stated. He also indicated that the ministry is more satisfied than environmentalists are with the proposal for the permit. “The proposed permits will contain conditions to minimize impacts to [the piping plover] and its habitat and achieve an overall benefit for the species, while allowing the Town of South Bruce Peninsula to conduct work it considers necessary to ensure safety of beachgoers and maintain Sauble Beach’s standard for high recreational use.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner urges the minister to prioritize conservation over short-term tourism, arguing that what’s good for the environment is good for the economy in the long term. “We need to have a balance,” the Guelph MPP told QP Briefing. For him, the balance has shifted too far in one direction, with species and habitat at risk. “We’re facing the largest species lost since we lost the dinosaurs.”