Nowhere to hide: A look at how lobbyists & the PCs have left species at risk to die & the conservationists trying to save them
In 2019, those tasked with advising the Government of Ontario on how to save the province’s most at risk species were crying out for help.
An employee engagement survey found that 76 percent of those working in the Species at Risk branch of the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change believed the Province was not on the right track in its planning for the future; 60 percent did not clearly understand the Ministry’s mandate and goals; and 52 percent had no idea how their work was contributing to their own goals.
A disillusioned culture began to set in. Nobody could have guessed just how broken the species at risk program in Ontario had become.
Taken over by the interests of lobbyists, it was working directly against its own mandate.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released a detailed report in November, exposing the utter failure of Provincial officials to uphold legislation designed to protect Ontario’s endangered, threatened and other at-risk species. The government’s current processes are doing the exact opposite, the audit found—government failures are actively harming species at risk in Ontario.
“The purpose of species at risk legislation is to serve as the last line of defence when other programs have been ineffective in conserving nature or have directly contributed to biodiversity loss. The Environment Ministry is not, however, acting in the best interests of species and their habitats,” Lysyk’s audit exposed. “The Environment Ministry’s systems and processes for approvals facilitate and enable harm to species at risk and their habitats.”
This is only scratching the surface of the absolute failure of successive governments to protect Ontario’s imperilled wildlife—Premier Doug Ford and his PC caucus have only made things worse.
Among Lysyk’s major findings:
the committee tasked with advising the government on implementing species at risk law is dominated by industry stakeholders “whose interests can be contrary to protecting species at risk and their habitats”. Ten of fifteen members of the committee work for industry associations or companies; half of those ten are registered lobbyists, including members of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, the Ontario Home Builders Association and the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association
the Province has never denied a permit to harm species at risk or their habitat; permits to harm species at risk have increased more than 6,000 percent since 2008. Most of the permits are approved automatically
the committee which recommends species to be listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern—the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO)—did not have enough members appointed to function for two years, creating a backlog of 46 species in need of assessment
there is no analysis of government action to judge its effectiveness at protecting species at risk; there is no study of the cumulative impacts of development in Ontario on species at risk; and the government has said it has no plans to study these items
Recovery plans and strategies for several at-risk species have been delayed for numerous years; the plans that are in place are generally ineffective at improving the status of at-risk animals
the Province does not perform inspections to ensure contractors and developers are implementing the mitigation measures proposed to protect species at risk; the auditor general found examples where mitigation measures put in place as part of the permitting process are ignored, leading to direct harm to endangered species
permits for development are fast-tracked while those for conservation work are delayed. The auditor found examples where delays likely contributed to the Massassauga rattlesnake becoming locally extinct in one area
the PC government dismissed members from COSSARO with no explanation, despite their willingness to continue serving, and replaced them with appointees who lack necessary experience or expertise. The Minister of Environment appointed five individuals in 2019/2020 who were not screened or recommended by staff.
“I think it’s clear that they don’t care. This is not regarded as important,” says Anne Bell, the director of Ontario Nature’s conservation and education programs. “Every single aspect of implementation is a disaster. From listing to appointments to issuing permits to monitoring permits to enforcing the laws—it’s all a disaster.”
It is a tragic fall from grace for Ontario, which was regarded as the gold standard for at-risk species protection when laws were first introduced in 2007.
“It’s so disappointing, because it came out as this really powerful thing and I was so excited that the province was moving in this direction of protecting the environment and protecting species at risk,” says Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus, a professor at Laurentian University with a background in ecology, evolution and organismal biology.
The problems started before Premier Doug Ford and his PC government were elected in 2018—although they have made things much worse for species at risk in Ontario, creating an unprecedented level of harm through their development-at-all-costs agenda; promoting environmentally destructive projects like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass (projects that would harm more than 40 at-risk species); and forcing through legislation with little to no public consultation that strips power away from environmental authorities and weakens the Province’s environmental assessment regime.
“This audit is a gift to us because it reveals everything, there’s nowhere for anybody to hide,” Bell says.
Lysyk made 21 recommendations, with 52 action items, in her 100-page report, all with the intent of fixing the broken system that is actively harming Ontario’s species at risk.
The PCs have chosen to ignore the large majority of these crucial recommendations, preferring to leave the system as is.
As startling as the revelations made by Lysyk are, those working on the frontlines say they are not surprised. Disappointed, of course, but these problems are ones conservationists and experts have been ringing alarm bells about for years. Even previous audits from former auditor generals in Ontario, released close to a decade ago, raised similar concerns with the Liberals' penchant for weakening legislative protections for species at risk.
With Premier Ford and his PCs refusing to do any work to improve protections for the environment, those working to save Ontario’s most endangered species are left to push back against a government that is working against them. But for many, there is no other choice—without them, species whose futures have been irrevocably altered by human activity, will be left alone to follow the dark path to extinction.
Trying to save a species the Ontario government doesn’t care about
The globally endangered Blanding’s turtle has been declining in numbers in Ontario for decades.
(Image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Blanding’s turtle has survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, an amazing creature that has evolved through Earth’s history with unique survival characteristics. Its hard shell and ability to adapt to both land and aquamarine ecologies have allowed it to live for tens of millions of years.
Now found only in eastern Canada and parts of the U.S. it is on the brink of disappearing from the planet.
For conservationists, catching a Blanding’s turtle requires a very particular set of skills.
One must be willing to wade through bogs and wetlands to seek them out. Their low numbers make them exceedingly difficult to find. These searches are typically done at dusk during the species’ breeding month of June—which happens to coincide with one of Ontario’s buggiest months.
Finding the turtle is only half the battle. To preserve the Blanding’s turtle—a critically endangered species that has been declining in numbers for years, and is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, reserved for those species most at risk of disappearing from the planet—biologists are tracking these turtles to catch them in the act of laying their eggs. If this opportunity is missed (it can take anywhere between 30 minutes and 3 hours for a female turtle to lay her eggs), the window is gone, because the turtles are exceptionally skilled at hiding their clutches, clawing back disturbed soil and tamping it down with their shells.
The work requires patience, it requires eagle eyes, and it requires a passion for nature.
While many would balk at the idea of being chin-deep in a Northern Ontario swamp, those trying to save these turtles from extinction go about their work with remarkable patience and precision, and a reverence for the natural world and its creatures.
“When I’m sitting in a wetland holding a turtle, I take a moment and just realize, ‘Mother Earth is allowing me, or giving me this moment to interact with this turtle for a reason, and I need to make sure that my responsibility as a biologist, as a researcher, as a human, is to ensure that I do my best to help that animal, help nature, in any way that I can and make sure that they’re around for much, much longer,” says Alanna Smolarz, a species at risk biologist in the Department of Lands, Resources and the Environment at Magnetawan First Nation, which runs one of the most well-established turtle conservation programs by a First Nation in Ontario.
Alanna Smolarz holding a baby Blanding’s turtle.
(Photo courtesy of Alanna Smolarz)
“One of my favourite places in the world is being in a bog or a swamp, just surrounded by wilderness, and then you find a turtle here and there—it’s quite phenomenal,” says Hannah McCurdy-Adams, the reptile and amphibian program development coordinator with Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC).
As the urban world has continued to expand into previously wild spaces, the threats to the Blanding’s turtle have grown in number. Their habitat has mostly vanished from Ontario. Like all turtles, Blanding’s live, breed and hibernate in wetlands—68 percent of Ontario’s wetlands have been destroyed since the 1980s, and more continue to be lost to the machine of progress every year.
Hannah McCurdy-Adams with Wildlife Preservation Canada, searches for Blanding’s turtles in a northern Ontario wetland.
(Photo courtesy of Hannah McCurdy-Adams)
Despite widespread knowledge about the value of these habitats not only to countless species, but for humans and our battle against climate change, the destruction of these spaces is actually increasing. According to the Ontario Biodiversity Council, between 2011 and 2015, the province was losing 1,825 hectares of wetland each year, this is nearly three times the rate of loss seen between 2000 and 2011 (616 hectares per year).
Habitat fragmentation is the biggest threat to species at risk in Ontario. It is particularly impactful for Blanding’s turtles, who can travel surprisingly long distances to lay their eggs, making them extremely vulnerable to being crushed beneath the wheel of an automobile. The gravel shoulder of a country road makes an attractive place for these turtles to lay their eggs.
“They sort of have a route that they’ve gotten used to, and then we build a road in the way, and suddenly they have this nice, easy to dig through gravel shoulder. It’s sunny, it might be closer than what they’re used to,” McCurdy-Adams explains.
One pass from a gravel grader and the eggs are destroyed.
Instead of preserving valuable wetlands, the rate of destruction in Ontario has increased over the last decade.
(Map from Ontario Biodiversity Council)
Those on the frontlines have a number of tools to give the Blanding’s turtle a helping hand. These include population monitoring, egg incubation programs (which involves physically taking the eggs and hatching them in a controlled environment); and protecting the nesting site if it's possible to leave the eggs in their original location, which is always preferable.
“Our staff and we ourselves know, come the spring, come the summer, we basically live outside. It’s morning to night,” Smolarz says. “It’s pretty intense work, but there’s something pretty special when you do find an individual after 5 hours of looking and then you find one sitting so beautifully on a lily pad or log.”
This work ethic, passion, and desire to protect the natural world, is not a worldview shared by the current provincial government.
The audit completed by Lysyk found numerous examples of actions taken by the government that harmed the habitat of numerous species at risk, including the Blanding’s turtle.
At its core, any legislation designed to protect species at risk is about avoidance, first and foremost. If a development does not need to occur in a particular area because it will impact a particular species, then avoid it. If avoidance is not possible, then mitigation efforts must be put in place. Typically, mitigation efforts are vetted and approved by the provincial government after being analyzed by its team of experts.
For the most part, this system has failed, due to a lack of attention, a lack of inspections, and lack of care for the species who call these areas home.
In order to build in the habitat of a species at risk, companies must receive one of three things: a permit, of which the province has varying types for different categories of development or the actions that will be taking place on the land; an agreement, similar to a permit in that it can come with conditions; and exemptions—certain activities within the habitat of species at risk can be exempt from having to acquire permits or an agreement, but conditions can still be applied to the work.
Permits come with a variety of conditions that must be met in order to mitigate the potential harm to the listed species. Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 2007, there have been 1,124 permits of various types issued, 306 of them have allowed harmful activities. The species most frequently harmed were the butternut tree (endangered), the redside dace (endangered), the bobolink (endangered), the whip-poor will (threatened), and the Blanding’s turtle (endangered).
The issuing of permits that allow harm to species at risk has increased over 6,000 percent since 2008.
(Graphic from Auditor General of Ontario)
In 2018, Natural Resources Ministry staff identified a glaring problem. There was a lack of guidance around when it was okay to turn down a permit request. To date, no guidance has been developed.
After Lysyk raised this issue with the Ford government through her audit, “The Environment Ministry did not agree to develop and implement guidance for Ministry staff on when to deny approvals based on the needs of a species.”
Illustrative of the lack of attention dedicated to this permitting process by the current government, the Environment Ministry issued a permit in 2021 to a company despite the fact it had an ongoing prosecution for building a road through the habitat of the Massasauga rattlesnake without approval in 2018.
Permits aside, the Ford government has made a habit of issuing what are known as conditional exemptions, which make it easier for developers to get shovels in the ground.
In 2020, 96 percent of the 935 approvals granted under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were automatic conditional exemptions. These do not go through a review process by staff, unlike permits and agreements. These exemptions harmed 123 different species at risk. Since 2013, 50 percent of the conditional exemptions handed out by the Province harmed the bobolink, the eastern meadowlark, the barn swallow, the butternut tree, and the Blanding’s turtle.
Since 2007, there have been 1,133 activities that have registered for conditional exemptions with potential impacts on Blanding’s turtles; 2,010 for the bobolink, 1,964 for the eastern meadowlark. For both of these bird species, the vast majority (90 percent) of these requests do not relate to essential projects, i.e. work that must be completed to avoid imminent threats to human health or safety.
Despite Lysyk’s recommendation to review conditional exemptions and their potential harms, the Environment Ministry refused to do so.
The provincial government has relied on certain categories of permits that have completely failed their intended purpose, the audit found.
One such tool is the overall benefit permit. This is given to a developer who vows to ensure that even though their development will harm a particular species at risk, investments will be made in other initiatives (conservation efforts, habitat restoration elsewhere) to ensure the species is left better off overall than it was before the development.
Between 2007 and 2020, 276 overall benefit permits were issued (93 percent of them for locations in Southern Ontario). It wasn’t until 2018 (the audit does not make clear whether this was before or after the election), that the Natural Resources Ministry admitted it needed more guidance on implementing these permits when it comes to habitat destruction and what classified as a suitable replacement.
In certain cases, the amount of habitat destroyed does not equal the amount that is replaced elsewhere. A review completed by the Natural Resources Ministry in 2018 discovered developers were following through with the set mitigation goals in the permit only 42 percent of the time.
It’s clear many of these permits do not provide an “overall benefit”.
In one particular case, a company destroyed 9.6 hectares of different types of habitat for the Blanding’s turtle, and was only required to create 0.49 hectares elsewhere. Monitoring reports showed that no turtles had inhabited the created pond two years after it had been constructed.
In another example, a pair of permits issued in 2021 allowed the damaging or destruction of 51.6 hectares of habitat for the Blanding’s turtle, and required only 1.8 hectares to be created.
This level of carelessness even extends to government agencies. The Ministry of Transportation obtained a permit in 2021 to destroy 0.46 hectares of habitat of the redside dace, and was only required to create or enhance 0.08 hectares elsewhere.
Further reviews found that habitat recreation measures often do not work, the restoration is often done in unsuitable locations or habitat, and in order to get approvals pushed through faster, work is often completed without taking into consideration the nuances of different species and their needs.
“Environment Ministry staff informed us that they often copy the conditions from previously issued permits in order to expedite approvals,” the audit states.
Another broken tool relied on by the Ford government, more so than the Liberals before them, is the use of what is called a social benefit permit. These permits allow development activities to go ahead if the project can prove it will result in a “significant social or economic benefit to Ontario.”
“The most significant difference between the two permits is that overall benefit permits require an overall benefit, making the species better off within a reasonable time, whereas social or economic permits do not have this requirement,” the audit explains. Between the 2017 and 2019, only 6 of these permits were issued in Ontario. Since 2019, four have been approved.
Three of these were given to Metrolinx for public transit projects—the Eglinton Crosstown, the Scarborough Subway, and the Ontario Line—which impacted 9 species at risk. The audit states that staff within the ministry were concerned the use of these permits was becoming more common, reducing the benefit and protection for species at risk.
The audit also suggested there is a serious problem of optics when a government does not hold itself to the same standards which it imposes on others.
“Granting a Crown agency multiple permits with no required overall benefit could create the perception that the government sets a lower standard for itself for protecting species at risk than of others,” the audit states.
The audit found that permits for development are often fast-tracked, while those for conservation work are delayed. Permits for Infrastructure Ontario are prioritized ahead of other applicants.
“It feels like we have to jump through hoops that have been set on fire, over a pool of sharks, to get some permits just to do some basic conservation work and that should not be happening,” Smolarz says. “People wanting to do good work, and not being able to do that work in a timely manner, is just so backwards to me.”
Permits for valuable conservation work are delayed while the government fast-tracks those for development projects.
(Photo courtesy of Alanna Smolarz)
As a result of the myriad of different mechanisms that the government allows for doing harm to species at risk, the Blanding’s turtle has seen a significant decline—population numbers falling 60 percent over the last three generations (approximately 120 years). The number of bobolinks is estimated to have plummeted 77 percent since 1970 and 33 percent since 2000.
These declines come despite the best effort of conservationists, who also must obtain permits for protection initiatives. According to the audit, 818 protection and recovery permits were approved between 2007 and 2020—30 percent of these permits were for conservation work for the Blanding’s turtle, Jefferson salamander, redside dace and spotted turtle.
The PCs inherited a broken system; they’ve only made it worse
(Photo from Government of Canada)
The neck of a Blanding’s turtle is one of the species’ most distinctive features. The yellow swath of skin covers shell to jawline, wrapping around a mouth that is slightly curved at the edges, giving the appearance this prehistoric creature is smiling up at you. Staring into the face of a Blanding’s turtle, it’s hard not to smile back.
The broken species at risk system in Ontario has particularly devastating impacts on these turtles for a number of reasons. Aside from the external factors, like loss and fragmentation of their habitat, there are a number of evolutionary characteristics that imperil this species in the modern age — particularly when it comes to the threats posed by humans, one of the most prominent being our roadways.
“When those shells evolved over 200 million years ago, the threats to turtles were not the things that are being thrown at them now. Those shells worked quite well back a couple million years ago, but now, when you have roads, you have large vehicles, the shell is no match for that anymore,” Dr. Litzgus explains. “They don’t have the evolutionary capacity to adapt and respond quick enough.”
Because it takes a female Blanding’s turtles 18 years before she will reproduce for the first time, the loss of a single female can be devastating for the population as a whole.
“As soon as a single female Blanding’s turtle is struck on the road, you kill her, you kill the eggs that she’s carrying because she’s probably crossing the road to get to her nesting site, and you kill all the future potential offspring that she would have brought. It’s huge,” Litzgus says. “When you take out the adult females, you lose all of that reproductive potential, those decades of eggs going into the environment. So not just a decline in the turtle population, but this umbrella domino effect on all the other organisms that also rely on the eggs.”
Turtle eggs form part of the food web in the ecosystems where these reptiles breed, and most years, many female turtles will have all of their eggs destroyed or eaten by predators. This has been the natural process for millions of years. But when you tie in the much larger threat of human interaction, it tips the scales in a way that any loss of eggs has a potentially devastating impact.
For example, in Algonquin Park, snapping turtle populations were decimated 20 years ago by an increase in the otter population — who ate a large number of adult turtles. The abundance of the turtles was cut in half, and they still have not recovered.
“It’s an important story because when you harvest, however that harvest happens, when you harvest adult turtles from a population, their slow life history strategy means that they can’t recover,” Dr. Litzgus says. “So when you try to apply Band-Aid solutions after the fact, like overall benefits, or ‘oh my god this population is in decline, we better do something’. It’s too late by that point.”
The impact caused by Ontario’s failed system is hard to measure.
Under the previous Liberal government, permitting and inspections still posed significant problems, but species continued to be added to the at-risk list—meaning they could, in theory, receive some level of protection—and fines were laid on those companies not complying with the Act. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of listed species increased from 184 to 243. Since 2018, no new species have been added to the list. Between 2015 and 2017, 91 charges were laid for violations to the ESA; between 2018 and 2020, only 5 charges were laid.
It signals the PC government under Premier Ford has completely ignored the legislation they are legally bound to enforce. On the contrary, they have taken every opportunity to further weaken the ESA.
Under Bill 108, the PC government eroded many facets of the ESA, including adding new stipulations that would allow developers to pay a fee in lieu of protecting the species at risk that could be harmed by their project. Conservationists labelled this as “pay to slay”.
With close ties to developers, Premier Doug Ford and his PC government have gutted Ontario’s environmental legislation in order to get shovels in the ground much more easily.
(Photo from Government of Ontario)
In Bill 229, approved in December 2020, the PC government permanently exempted logging from complying with restrictions under the ESA—despite the Environment Ministry pointing out this decision would have direct adverse effects on 12 listed species at risk including the boreal caribou (threatened).
The list goes on. Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass—two previously cancelled projects resurrected by the PC government—will destroy the habitat of approximately 40 species at risk, the latter causing direct harm to the provincially protected Greenbelt. The PCs are currently pushing through amendments to the Environmental Assessment Act which would exempt major highway infrastructure, up to 75-kilometres long, from all requirements under the Act, meaning someone could construct a roadway from Mississauga to Hamilton without having to undertake a full Environmental Assessment. The PCs have drastically increased the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs), a previously rarely used planning tool which has directly resulted in damage to the habitat of species at risk.
The PCs have proposed a two-year delay to protections for the Black Ash tree, which COSSARO listed as endangered in 2020, due to the threats from invasive species. The government has said it needs more time to study the potential threats and the impacts the protections could have. The statement would be laughable if the implications were not so severe. The PC government has again and again shown itself to be ambivalent about the amount of studies completed for a project. For the Bradford Bypass, the PCs have exempted it from all requirements under the Environmental Assessment Act, stating that the EA completed close to 20 years ago is sufficient. Further, the PC government opened a hunting season on the double-crested cormorant, despite numerous studies showing the population was not out of control and there was no threat to native fish stocks (as the government was trying to claim).
“I have colleagues who work for the provincial agencies who are just so defeated. It’s really disappointing because they’re outstanding scientists and incredibly passionate people about what they do and they’re just being stymied and oppressed at every step of the way and it’s really hard for me to watch that happen to my colleagues, when prior to the current situation they were enthusiastic and excited,” Litzgus says. “It’s really a shame that now, that’s what it’s come to.”
The actions of the current Ontario government have been so egregious, the federal government has reached out to them not once, but twice, in response to legislative changes that put them at risk of contravening the federal Species at Risk Act.
In March of last year, the Environment Minister and the Minister for Natural Resources and Forestry received letters from the federal government alerting them that the PC government was risking non-conformity to federal species at risk legislation because habitat for the boreal caribou remained unprotected in Ontario. The feds requested corrective action be taken by November 2021.
The Environment Minister received a follow-up in June 2021, repeating the previous concerns, stating if nothing was done, the federal government would be forced to step in and issue orders for the protection of this critical habitat themselves.
“At the time of our audit, we asked the Environment Ministry and the Natural Resources Ministry for an update and were informed that next steps are under consideration,” Lysyk states. “The Natural Resources Ministry had also received a letter in 2020 from the federal government expressing concern that the proposed changes to exempt forest operations from the Act, which subsequently became law, would weaken regulatory protections for species at risk and their habitat.”
However, when asked if the PCs would review their actions for risks of non-conformity with federal legislation, the provincial government was noncommittal.
“We like to say that we uphold and exceed the standards of the ESA and the Species at Risk Act, but the fact that our government doesn’t even do that, is shocking. These laws, these Acts are in place for a reason,” Smolarz, with Magnetawan First Nation, says.
What’s at stake; the human responsibility
In her book Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-human World, Emma Marris argues that as a result of the irrevocable damage humans have done to Earth and the complete alteration to the habitats of animals across the planet, we now have an enhanced responsibility to respect and protect these creatures…or we will be forced to watch them disappear forever.
“With wild animals squeezed in to narrow slivers of space in between farms and roads and cities, conflicts multiply, populations become fragmented and endangered, and our ethical conundrums multiply. By simply reducing the human footprint and creating more space for other species, we can let them sort out many conflicts and solve many problems on their own rather than having to intensely manage them,” she writes. “Respect for sovereignty can become more common than compassionate intervention. Simply put, the more room animals have, the less micromanaging we will have to do and the easier our ethical decision-making will be.”
Smolarz agrees with Marris’s premise; we must do more as a result of our continued alteration to the world, it is a core belief for First Nations across Canada.
“What I have learned from these incredible, incredible individuals, is that humans have a relationship with the earth, humans have a relationship with Mother Earth and that relationship holds responsibility,” she says. “Regardless of what humans have done, even before all this, before all of this development and everything, that relationship was there. So, it is certainly our responsibility. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you do, what you’re doing now, what you did, it is so important to respect that relationship, or have that relationship with Mother Earth.”
With a quickly growing population—Ontario is expected to reach 20 million people by 2046—this poses the practical issue of how and where these people will live. It requires a province, and municipalities, to be focused on smart growth solutions that favour density over sprawl.
This is not the Doug Ford government.
Time and again, Ford and the PCs have shown their allegiances lie with developers, many of those private companies—big PC donors—are responsible for the majority of Ontario’s sprawling subdivisions.
Both the Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass projects have strong ties to developers who are pushing for these roadways to unlock lands in the area that will make them millions; Ford was caught on video ahead of the 2018 election promising a room full of developers he would open the Greenbelt for development; Ford reverted Ontario’s land use tribunal (altered by the former Liberal government) back to its previous developer-friendly model; and the PCs stripped power away from conservation authorities to intervene when a development may be in a harmful, or even dangerous location.
The government’s lack of compassion for the environment is clear in their responses to Lysyk’s audit, which are filled with empty words that look culled from PC press releases, and commit to none of the major changes recommended, despite the audit being described as one of the most searing indictments against a government department ever recorded.
“I can't recall reading such a scathing indictment in Ontario of a virtually complete and abysmal failure of ministries to oversee and uphold a piece of legislation — a situation confirmed by the vast majority of tax funded civil servants working at the ministry,” says Victor Doyle, a former Ontario government land use planner and author of the Greenbelt Plan. “The Ministries' completely unresponsive reply to these seemingly irrefutable facts and conclusions is pathetic and negligent and a disservice to all Ontarians—not just the species being eradicated—as our biodiversity is fundamental to the long-term sustainability and health of the province.”
The PCs' developer and industry bias is clear in the handling of the committees tasked with advising the government on how to enforce species at risk legislation. For the provincial advisory committee, the auditor found there is no screening criteria for applicants. Seven new members were added in 2019/2020, but the Ministry could not provide any information on how the members were identified or screened. As stated, 10 of the 15 members on the committee work for industry associations, the remaining 5 are from conservation groups. By comparison, 56 percent of the members in the equivalent committee for the federal government are from conservation organizations, the remainder from industry associations.
The auditor recommended reviewing the current mix of the provincial committee, as well as implementing transparent appointment processes—the PCs refused.
Similar issues exist with the Ontario assessment committee, COSSARO. The 12-member committee was unable to achieve a quorum to hold meetings between 2018 and 2020, and as a result, no new species were listed as at risk—despite the fact there were some that easily could have been.
“Two populations of threatened lake whitefish, found in a deep, cold inland lake in Ontario, would have otherwise been assessed in fall 2019 and therefore protected starting in January 2021. Instead, these fish will not be protected under the Act until January 2022,” the audit states.
The committee has also made it clear it requires further resources in order to do the job it is legislated to do, including additional funds to conduct species assessments—a need that has existed since 2017 but has not been addressed.
The ongoing impacts of the status quo
The story of the Blanding’s turtle and its continued population decline is a microcosm of the larger problem facing all species at risk in Ontario. Despite the best efforts of compassionate conservationists in this province, the cumulative impacts of years of urbanization are simply too much to reverse the downward trend.
The overall toll taken on the Blanding’s turtle by the government’s lack of action remains unknown.
(Photo courtesy of Alanna Smolarz)
What is the overall death toll caused by the actions of the Ontario government? It doesn’t know, and as the auditor general discovered, it doesn’t want to know.
“Approvals are not assessed for how they cumulatively affect species at risk and their habitats. The Environment Ministry does not assess the total impact of all agreements, permits and conditional exemptions over time on regulated species. Instead, approvals are considered in isolation,” the audit states. “Yet the cumulative effects of multiple stressors—particularly those involving habitat loss—are what pose a significant threat to species. For example, Blanding’s turtles have been impacted by 1,403 approvals since 2007; this species has declined by more than 60% over the last three generations because of ongoing habitat loss in Ontario.”
Changes made by the PC government will make this even more difficult to determine.
There are a number of criteria that are used when considering whether a species is deserving of protection, including population size, trends and distribution. For example, a species may be listed as threatened in Ontario if its numbers have declined by more than 50 percent in a decade, or endangered if that decline is more than 70 percent.
Previously, the population numbers used were those for Ontario alone—not the species as a whole, which may be thriving in another location. As a result of legislative changes in 2019, assessments must now be done using population numbers across a species range, not just in Ontario. This poses a number of issues.
By diluting the potential threat to a species in Ontario, by using population data from elsewhere, species that may be in need of protection in the province will lose that legislative armour.
For example: “Hairy valerian (a plant)…met the criteria for endangered in Ontario based on the small area in which it is found, but its classification was reduced to threatened based on its lower risk status in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. In both cases, the classification of threatened instead of endangered results in a one-year delay in the deadline for preparing a recovery strategy,” the audit states.
This can potentially do significantly more damage in the years ahead as species adapt to climate change. Those Ontario dwellers called “edge of range” species—so an animal that may be abundant elsewhere, but only has a small geographic range in the province—can have significant benefits for the broader health of the species as a whole when it comes to adapting to climate change.
“Populations of species like these that live at the edge of their geographical range, can have unique genetic traits, be especially well adapted to northward range shifts because of climate change, not be functionally connected to other populations, and also face different threats than elsewhere,” the audit states. Despite this fact: “The Assessment Committee was required to classify two species at lower risk levels in 2020 after the legislative change because populations other than those in Ontario were considered.”
Lysyk’s audit is an indictment of the way successive Ontario government’s have handled species at risk, and it has left many working within the environmental ministries at Queen’s Park disillusioned with the work they are hired to do.
On the front lines, those working to save species like the Blanding’s turtle try to remain optimistic that eventually things will turn the corner.
“I think what we try and focus more on is what can we do with our expertise, with our collaborations, that improve things, rather than focus as much on the negatives, because there are some things, at least as an individual, they’re out of our hands,” McCurdy-Adams, with WPC, says. “There is a lot of good work happening and I think if that continues and we keep talking to the public and we keep showing our excitement to the public, telling these stories, then we have more people involved, more people exited about this and more people who think it’s very important and then that can bubble up to people with power.”
Dr. Litzgus shares a similar sentiment, but it also requires the public to get engaged—something she admits can be difficult in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Somehow we need to get it on people’s radars. We need to get people paying attention to it,” she says. “I can’t make the decisions because I’m not the regulator, but what I can do is the best science possible so that decisions that do get made, at least have the evidence in front of them.”
For Anne Bell with Ontario Nature, there is no better time to get the public engaged than now, as the province stares down the barrel of a provincial election less than 6 month away.
“There’s one thing that will get the government to change its mind and that’s if constituents are outraged,” she says. ““We have elections coming up (this) year. We have the provincial election, we have municipal elections, who are the political candidates that will take this problem seriously? Let’s find out. Let’s ask them when they come knocking at the door…Where is this among all political parties and candidates, where are the champions for species at risk?”
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