I’ve been working to protect boreal caribou and their habitat for nearly 20 years. I’ve conducted field research, published peer-reviewed papers and talked to thousands of people about the plight of this majestic animal in Ontario.
Over the years, boreal caribou have been subjected to an onslaught of legislative and policy decisions that have threatened their already precarious existence. I’ve become somewhat of a reluctant specialist in engaging these processes. I dig into the details, unravel the legislative lingo, navigate different interests and viewpoints, and use the best available science to determine the potential impacts on caribou. It can be disheartening work at times, but I have always managed to come up with a solutions-based response – that is until now. It’s hard to imagine how to engage decisions on species at risk when the entire system is being dismantled – piece by piece.
At the close of 2019, when people are usually winding down to spend the holidays with family and friends, the Government of Ontario quietly released multiple postings for public comment on the Environmental Registry of Ontario that would harm boreal caribou and many other species at risk. These changes are disguised in misleading rhetoric, and provide only scant details on their implications. Even for someone who has analyzed policy for years, they are incredibly difficult to unpack – and maybe that’s the point. Will public input be taken seriously, or are the decisions already made?
Since elected in June 2018, the provincial government has shown a profound lack of interest in wildlife protection. For example, you may remember that last spring the government sought public input on their proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) through an omnibus bill called the Better for People, Smarter for Business Act. Despite an outcry from environmental groups and thousands of alarmed citizens, the proposed changes were rushed through the Legislature, with no regard for the concerns raised. Whether the consequences were better or smarter for people is dubious at best, but they were undeniably worse for plants and animals. These changes set the stage for the government’s latest proposal to permanently exempt industrial forestry from the ESA.
One of the devastating changes made to the ESA, that Ontario Nature, 86 scientists and many forward-thinking municipalities fiercely challenged, was the undermining of the requirement that industry and developers must compensate for harm done to threatened and endangered species. The then gold-standard ESA required they provide an on-the-ground overall benefit to species negatively impacted, so that these species would be better off in the end. As we pointed out, overall benefit is needed to recover vulnerable and declining species (e.g., by increasing habitat restoration, removing invasive species, and so forth).
Yet, some forest industry lobbyists have challenged the requirement to provide an overall benefit for harm to at-risk species arising from industrial logging on public forests. Instead, for over a decade, they have fought the ESA tooth and nail, arguing that the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA) requirements were equivalent to ESA requirements and that there was therefore no need for the so-called duplication. Of course, that was not the case – there’s no requirement for overall benefit to support species’ recovery in the CFSA. Despite the massive wood supply surplus, they took an ideological stance that they would not even consider setting aside more habitat.
But now, since the government has gutted the ESA recovery requirements, these lobbyists may finally be right – neither law compels the industry to ensure that species are better off in the end. But this won’t matter anyway if the industry is exempt.
In times of despair, I find it helpful to turn to humour to lighten the emotional burden. My hope rests in the fact that one cannot simply abdicate responsibility to recover species.
The Government of Ontario should bear in mind that despite their relentless attacks on the environment, our staff and our members are naturalists. We are the kind of people who will sit for hours in inclement weather to catch even a glimpse of the wildlife we love. We’re not going anywhere.
Julee Boan is Ontario Nature’s Boreal Program Manager.