Ontario proposes to weaken protections for Greenbelt species at risk
By Caroline Schultz and Theresa McClenaghan
Niagara Falls Review
November 1, 2016
Lost in the shuffle of ongoing debates about the Greenbelt is an alarming but little known fact: the government of Ontario is proposing to significantly weaken protections for the rare and endangered species that find refuge in the Greenbelt’s precious forests, meadows, marshes and rivers.
Unbelievable, but true.
The species that would be affected include red-headed woodpecker, wood turtle, monarch butterfly, Jefferson salamander, American ginseng, dwarf lake iris and redside dace. There are about 80 species in total, over one-third of Ontario’s at-risk plants and animals. They face many threats, including poaching, pollution and climate change, but chief among these threats by far is habitat loss.
Consider, for example, the redside dace, in many respects a Greenbelt poster child for the impacts of habitat loss and degradation. Sensitive to changes in water quality, temperature and flow, this colourful, red-striped minnow is threatened by urban development, particularly increases in paved surfaces and in pollutants due to poor storm water management. About eighty percent of Canada’s redside dace persist only in the Greenbelt, where the species benefits from a higher level of protection than elsewhere in the province. Yet even here, it is dwindling due to adverse water quality impacts of activities occurring outside the purview of the Greenbelt. Its future is dim, especially considering that the most stable populations occur in the Greenbelt municipalities of Durham, York and Simcoe where development pressures will continue to increase in the upcoming years. Simply put, it needs more stringent protections, not less if it is to hang on in Ontario.
And yet, under the guise of bringing the Greenbelt Plan into closer alignment with other provincial laws and policies, the government is proposing to weaken habitat protection for the redside dace and dozens of other Greenbelt species. Three changes are being proposed.
First, the habitats of at-risk species, currently protected under the Greenbelt Plan, would no longer qualify for protection in their own right. They would be open to development under Ontario’s beleaguered Endangered Species Act (ESA), a once gold standard law that the Province has gutted in recent years through regulatory exemptions. Indeed, the ESA would function very much as a Trojan horse for development in the Greenbelt if the proposed changes go forward.
Second, new developments on lands adjacent to species at risk habitats, currently prohibited, would be allowed to proceed. Picture a new quarry or road right next to a meadow that harbours an at-risk turtle or bird. Exposure to noise, pollutants, predators, poachers and deadly traffic would increase, while access to other habitats or potential breeding partners would be diminished.
Third, the scope of protection, which currently applies to all species at risk, would be narrowed to include only the habitats of threatened and endangered species. Excluded from protection would be the habitats of all “special concern” species (ie., those at risk of becoming threatened or endangered), such as the beloved monarch butterfly.
For the vast majority of at-risk species in the Greenbelt habitat loss poses the greatest threat. Ontario needs to deal with this threat head-on by strengthening protection not weakening it. Species at risk need our help, desperately. If not in the Greenbelt, then where?
Caroline Schultz, Ontario Nature
Executive Director and Counsel
Canadian Environmental Law Association