The provincial government is proposing a new approach to getting species off the Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) list. And it’s not by addressing threats, preventing further declines or implementing recovery measures. Nothing that involves real, on-the-ground improvements. Rather, it would simply require basing species assessments on how our most vulnerable plants and animals are doing outside Ontario, not here at home.
This new approach to listing is just one of the many disturbing changes the government intends to make to Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA). Like the other proposed amendments, it’s bound to please developers and industry players looking for ways to circumvent the law’s protective measures. Strangely though, I have recently learned that it holds some appeal even for people in the conservation field who would prefer that recovery efforts be focused only on globally imperiled species.
I strongly disagree this perspective, and here’s why…
1. Over 100 species on the SARO list could be removed and no longer considered ‘at risk.’ Many others could be down-listed from threatened or endangered to special concern. In either case, most of the species currently recognized as threatened and endangered in Ontario – and their habitats – might no longer be protected under the ESA.
example our turtle species, all of which are
on the SARO list. Based on their global rankings (Natureserve), the wood turtle could
well be down-listed to special concern (and consequently no longer protected
from harm or habitat destruction) while the spiny softshell, spotted,
Blanding’s, snapping, musk, eastern box and northern map turtles could all be
removed from the list entirely. The government could be sentencing an entire
order of animals to continued decline.
2. Most of our at-risk species are concentrated in southern Ontario, the most heavily developed and populated part of the province. The proposed change could open the floodgates to further loss and degradation of the region’s remaining woodlands, wetlands, streams and shorelines. Many threatened and endangered species serve as umbrella species for others insofar as protecting their habitats helps other species using the same habitats. We could lose one of our most effective legal tools for protecting entire natural communities.
is the least bittern. Currently listed as threatened, this bird often stands in
the way of development approvals in wetlands, benefiting many other wetland
inhabitants at the same time, from frogs, fish and dragonflies to muskrats,
rare orchids and black terns. Removing the least bittern from the SARO list
would mean one fewer lines of defence for these other species.
3. Most of the plants and animals affected are ‘edge of range’ species at their northern limit in Canada. Edge of range species generally are considered important in conservation efforts, particularly in an era of climate change. They may be better adapted to extreme climates than core populations or may have other characteristics that will facilitate adaptation. Excluding them from protection could result in a significant loss of genetic diversity and reduce the ability of species to persist, for example through geographic range shifts.
4. Many of these species are also important culturally, socially or economically. Their continued decline or disappearance from Ontario could be deeply felt by communities and individuals across the province. Take for example , a treasured medicinal plant that inhabits the rich, mature deciduous woodlands of southern Ontario. Though legally cultivated, very few viable wild populations remain in Ontario. Under the new rules it could potentially be down-listed to special concern, as its global status is vulnerable. Wild populations would then be subject to harvesting, a primary driver of its decline.
5. The proposed approach would prevent new listings of and thus legal protections for species that are in trouble in Ontario.
recent study indicates that the American bumble bee is in drastic decline
in Canada. Not yet listed in Ontario, its global status is vulnerable, which
means it could be listed only as special concern when it is assessed by Committee
on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO). In that case, it would have
no legal protection under the amended ESA.
I, for one,
don’t believe it’s acceptable to sacrifice species in Ontario just because
they’re doing better elsewhere. We must not allow the government to wipe its
hands of responsibility for our fellow creatures in need and precipitate their
disappearance from our province.