How 0.1% of Ontario’s budget could trigger a province-wide environmental restoration
Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer

How 0.1% of Ontario’s budget could trigger a province-wide environmental restoration

Starting in 2022, The Pointer will be covering the 10 themes of the United Nations Decade of Restoration. The global movement was launched with the goal of inspiring initiatives that restore damage done to the planet—work that is necessary in order to halt biodiversity loss and achieve climate change targets aimed at limiting global temperature increase.


In the wetlands of Caledon, it’s pretty easy to save a life. All it takes is a bundle of sticks. 

The northern reaches of Peel are peppered with ponds, swamps, wetlands and other critical havens that provide homes for many species, some critically endangered. 

Climate change is baking these ponds dry and urban development is isolating these oases, cutting them off with motes of pavement patrolled by trucks and cars that harm a disturbing amount of wildlife every year. According to data from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), whose jurisdiction only covers half the northern parts of Peel, approximately 1.1 million animals are killed in collisions with vehicles throughout the spring and early winter (from April to November) each year. A number TRCA officials describe as “staggering”. 

These threats place critical importance on efforts to preserve remaining habitat for wildlife that could potentially disappear from the planet without them—the Jefferson Salamander is one example of a species whose survival hangs in the balance. 


The Jefferson Salamander is one of the GTA’s most critically endangered species.

(Ontario Streams) 


Recent estimates suggest population numbers for the Jefferson Salamander have plummeted 90 percent over the last 33 years. It’s an incredibly shocking drop in a very short period of time, driven mainly by loss of habitat. The staggering loss can be hard to see with a species that spends much of its life in swamps and hidden in the moist underworld that thrives beneath a layer of fallen leaves and branches that coat the forest floor. But imagine 90 percent of Ontario’s trees disappearing in just three decades. The scale of such a loss would be alarming. 

“The vast majority of habitat in Ontario has been cleared, initially for agriculture and subsequently for urban development and there remains high development pressure on the remaining habitat,” reads a government response statement to the status of the endangered salamander. The statement is meant to be a commitment by the government to reverse this troubling decline. 

There are those trying to push back against these pressures and cut off the bleeding. In March of this year, Ontario Streams, an organization dedicated to habitat enhancement in the GTA, received $81,807 from the Ontario government to undertake restoration work within the habitat of the Jefferson Salamander in Caledon. 

These tiny amphibians rely on vernal ponds—seasonal pools of water within or around low-lying wooded areas—for mating and to lay their eggs. During the first spring rains in March and April, the adult salamanders make the trek to these ponds under the cover of darkness. If they survive the journey—many do not—the salamanders rely on shrubs, fallen tree branches and other submerged vegetation to hold their sticky egg masses. It seems like a simple process. 

It’s not. 


Urbanization and agriculture have combined to eliminate vernal ponds like this one above, which are critical to the life cycle of the Jefferson Salamander.

(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer) 


 As the urban environment has intensified, so have the threats to the salamanders and their suitable breeding grounds. 

“Good habitat is getting further and further apart,” says Kat Lucas with Ontario Streams. “They really rely on very specific considerations for their breeding ponds.”

Ontario Streams is looking to make it easier for these salamanders to reach these critical pools of water, and make them more inviting upon arrival. 

Because the number of vernal ponds has drastically decreased over the last two decades, ensuring that the remaining pools are absolutely perfect for salamanders to lay their eggs ups the chances of the species carrying on. 

So workers with Ontario Streams, Credit Valley Conservation Authority, and other partner organizations will be creating small bundles of twigs from native trees like dogwood or red oak, that will be tossed into these pools of water to enhance these ponds and serve as potential egg magnets. 

“It really does help,” Lucas says. “Without the natural vegetation that would otherwise be in the area, they are not able to breed and not able to continue this lifecycle.”

The provincial grant will also support the creation of an eco-passage in Caledon to help the salamanders pass beneath the busy roadway without being smeared to a gooey pulp on the pavement. The passage will be built where studies have found numerous salamander deaths occurring. 

“Quite a bit of research goes in ahead of time to identify these high-priority sites where we've witnessed enough road mortality to justify saying this is where they're crossing and this is where we need to help them and protect them,” Lucas says. 

Fencing is constructed for a couple hundred meters on either side of the roadway and acts as a funnel to guide the salamanders safely to the passage under the roadway. 

These restoration efforts are exactly what the United Nations is attempting to promote through its Decade of Restoration launched last year. 

“Restoration is good for the planet and people,” the UN website states, before adding the harsh reality. “Leading on restoration is often not rewarded.” 

After four years of the Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford, that has practically become the provincial motto. 

From top to bottom, the PCs agenda is dedicated to reversing environmental protections, or if that’s not legally possible, hobbling them so severely they are effectively useless. This weakening of environmental legislation has been to the benefit of Ontario’s largest developers, many of which are pushing ahead with unsustainable forms of development—mainly urban sprawl—that destroys large swaths of habitat for low-density communities that perpetuate a reliance on vehicular transport. While developers prosper, the environment suffers, and so do the conservation agencies who see years of valuable work and effort, torn up by the rusted metal teeth of a backhoe. 

In September 2021, Ontario courts ruled that the PC government had violated the Environmental Bill of Rights, legislation that is meant to protect the right of all Ontarians to a healthy environment, when it failed to consult with them on the rampant use of Minister’s Zoning Orders, a tool that was being used excessively to override municipal planning and expedite development, a shortcut that was harming the habitat for many species at risk. 

Andrea Olive is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto Mississauga, she says Ford’s election in 2018 (and now re-election, The Pointer spoke with Olive ahead of the June 2 vote) says more about the priorities of Ontarians, then it does about Ford. 

“It’s not like we didn’t know what this person stood for…he never gave a shit and never said he would and people still voted for him,” she said. “The government is just us, they’re just a reflection of us and our own values.”

Now, with a stronger majority at Queen’s Park, Ontarians can expect to see a lot of the same from Ford and his cabinet over the next four years. Highway 413 was a keystone of his platform, and while it remains stalled at the federal Impact Assessment Agency following a 2021 designation, the PCs will be doing all they can to ensure shovels hit the ground as fast as possible if they ever get the green light. The Bradford Bypass is already seeing early work being completed in preparation for bulldozing a 400-series highway through the provincially significant Holland Marsh wetland complex. Together, these two projects will destroy the habit of more than 40 species at risk, some of the critically endangered. It is the opposite of restoration. 

But as the work of Ontario Streams and others across the province show, there is hope, and it can come pretty cheap. 



Across Ontario, hundreds of organizations do the difficult work of staving off a worldwide biodiversity crisis. 

There are over 200 species of plants, fish, birds, insects and amphibians whose populations have been so decimated by urban development, habitat loss and other threats, that they find their names on Ontario’s Species at Risk list. Every year, the Ontario government provides $4.5 million in grants to agencies across the province to carry out work dedicated to preserving the existence of these species. 


The Pointer’s previous reporting on species at risk in Ontario: 

Nowhere to hide: A look at how lobbyists & the PCs have left species at risk to die & the conservationists trying to save them


While the value of this work, and the efforts of conservationists, environmentalists and wildlife researchers across Ontario can never be understated, this provincial investment has simply not been enough to stall the slow march of death that has been occurring. 

Between 2008 and 2020, the number of species listed as at-risk in Ontario has increased 32 percent, from 184 to 243. In that same time period, the amount of funding dedicated to the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund has dropped from $5 million to $4.5 million—a change that was made in 2016 under the former Liberal government and has yet to be restored by the PCs. 

The PCs have created a new fund designed to gather money for projects to protect species at risk habitat called the Species at Risk Conservation Trust. The details of this new fund remain sparse. 

“The Species at Risk Conservation Trust is still in its early stages. We would be happy to share more information with you when it becomes available,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks told The Pointer. It remains unclear whether the provincial government is aware of how much money this program is expected to bring in, what developments will be expected to contribute and how the money will be allocated. 

The funding scheme has been heavily criticized by environmental organizations like Ontario Nature and Environmental Defence who have labelled it “blood money” and a “pay to slay” program that simply allows developers to pay a fee in exchange for damaging the habitat of species at risk. The criticisms go further, claiming that there are few restrictions on how the money in the Trust is used, meaning that the species harmed by a development may not be the same one that benefits from the investments, and the money may not be used for restoration efforts in the same area where the development occurs. 

But these failings of the Ontario government are no secret. An auditor general’s report released in November of last year, and heavily reported on by The Pointer since then—driven by the PC government’s refusal to accept the majority of AG Bonnie Lysyk’s recommendations—made it abundantly clear that there needs to be drastic improvements in policy, regulations and processes when it comes to the implementation and enforcement of species at risk law in Ontario. 

What is more of a secret is the abundant successes that are occurring across Ontario—ironically—much of them supported by the provincial government. But this recognition must be put in proper context. Someone would not get credit for trying to put out a house fire with a plastic cup of water while refusing to call 911. 

Put simply, conservationists in Ontario have made a living off of doing more with less. 

Along with the work of Ontario Streams to help the Jefferson Salamander, through the 2020/21 Species at Risk Conservation Fund:

  • the Lambton Shores Phragmites Community Group will be able to remove invasive phragmites

  • the Long Point Basin Land Trust will be able to restore tallgrass prairie, oak savanna and oak woodland habitat throughout Long Point nature reserves

  • the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust can move forward with work to protect the branched bartonia, a small wetland plant that is currently listed as threatened, and will be able to search for two “lost” species of ladybug. The nine-spotted lady beetle and tranverse lady beetle, both previously common across Ontario, are now endangered. 

  • The Nature Conservancy of Canada will be able to manage invasive species and restore breeding ponds in the Happy Valley Forest; a provincially significant ecological area north of Vaughn that serves as a natural oasis for a number of endangered species, including the Jefferson Salamander, blanding’s turtle, and the threatened western chorus frog

  • Wildlife Preservation Canada will be able to undertake a recovery effort to protect, enhance and connect the habitat for the endangered butler’s garter snake

  • the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada will be able to study the needs and abundance of wolverines on the Ontario Shield 


In the same way an abundance of life can go undetected on a hike through an old-growth forest, hidden in the tree canopy above or in the soil below, this conservation work is alive across Ontario. This work can have incredible benefits for the surrounding community—of both people and wildlife—and come relatively cheap for the provincial government. For example, the phragmites removal in Lambton Shores cost only $50,000, and the work of the Haliburton Highlands described above costs just over half that at $28,716. The projects form a fraction of a percentage of the Province’s capital budget. In fact, the $4.5 million designated to the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund in 2022 accounts for only 0.0225 percent of the $20 billion in capital investments planned for this year. 

A boost to this fund could have remarkable impacts across Ontario. Between 2008 and 2020, the fund invested approximately $68 million into 1,170 different projects resulting in the restoration of 55,459 hectares of habitat. At that valuation, the Province is investing approximately $1,226 to restore each hectare of land. A hectare is equal to just under two-and-a-half football fields. A single hectare can support up to 2,300 trees, depending on the species. 



While the number of species at risk in Ontario has increased, so have the permits to harm their habitat. But the funding to reverse this harm has been cut by a half-million dollars.

(Ontario government) 


Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general recommended the Ontario government provide enough funding to the Environment Ministry for it to be able to carry out all of the recommended actions in response statements for species at risk. 

“Reliable, long-term funding for species-at-risk initiatives is critical for protecting and improving the conditions of species and their habitats. Research shows that increasing expenditures on species conservation reduces the likelihood of further species decline,” Lysyk wrote in her audit. “Experts concluded in a 2017 study in the journal Nature that increased spending on biodiversity conservation since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 has prevented species losses.”

The Environment Ministry refused the AG’s recommendation, despite clear evidence the additional funding is desperately needed. 

The AG reviewed a sampling of 30 response statements for species at risk which came with 249 government supported actions; no progress had been made for 15 percent or 37 of these actions—eight of these were listed as high priority. 

It’s unclear why the government has refused to provide proper funding for a strategy it has approved, but following the COVID-19 pandemic, it can no longer claim the excuse of unavailable dollars. 

For the 2022-23 year alone, the Province is providing approximately $6.9 billion in contributors to its various Ministries under the label of “COVID-19 Time Limited Funding”. For the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks this has resulted in $6 million in additional funds in 2021-21 and $2 million in 2021-22. It’s unclear how much of this money is derived from contributions made by the federal government, but it’s clear the Ontario government has been able to come up with a significant amount of money to deal with the ongoing public health crisis. 

If the Ontario government decided to simply leave the $2 million in place for next year, and instead allow that money to be allocated as part of the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund, using the valuation seen throughout 12 years of the program’s allocations, that money could be used to restore approximately 1,631 hectares of habitat. In fact, if the PC government were to allocate just 0.01 percent of its capital budget over the next decade to species at risk habitat restoration, the benefits to the Ontario environment, its climate change efforts and species at risk, could transform the province. 

Over the next 10 years, Ontario’s capital budget is forecasted to be $159 billion. Allocatting 0.1 percent of this funding to species at risk projects would provide $159 million dollars over next years, or about $15.9 million annually. Directed solely to habitat restoration for species at risk, this decade of restoration—if the province were to borrow the UN’s term—could restore nearly 130,000 hectares of vital habitat for species at risk. That’s a land area larger than the countries of Singapore, Barbados, Bermuda, Monaco, Gibraltar and San Marino combined. 

If not solely dedicated to habitat restoration, the increased funding could support incredibly valuable studies to improve knowledge about the threats and needs of species at risk; promote knowledge and conservation efforts; or study the best practices for conservation work like prescribed burns or incubation programs for the eggs of endangered turtles or other species which require vast amounts of knowledge and experience to pull off successfully. 

But these benefits would extend far beyond the natural world.

Between 2015 and 2020, 235 stewardship projects funded by the Ontario government created approximately 502 full-time jobs and 374 part time positions. They attracted 11,526 volunteers, including over 3,000 youth. This volunteer work was valued at over $4.5 million and in-kind donations were valued at more than $6.6 million, according to numbers from Lysyk’s report. 

This is in addition to the life-saving benefits that come with preserving the natural world, which in turn mitigates the dangerous impacts of climate change and the loss of biodiversity. 

The PC government provided no reasons to the AG to support its decision not to support further stewardship programming through this fund. 



The Jefferson Salamander is a determined amphibian. 

A report from Ontario’s Greenbelt describes homeowners within the protected greenspace finding these salamanders crawling through the basement of their homes. These houses were built in the way of their migration pathway to their breeding grounds. 

If these salamanders were to disappear for good, the impact could ripple throughout the ecosystems where these small creatures reside. 

“When an animal or plant goes extinct, its ecosystem is torn apart in ways large and small,” reads a report from the Centre for Biological Diversity. 

The report uses the example of the passenger pigeon. At one time, it was one of the most abundant birds in the world—“flocks over a billion strong darkened the skies over North America for days on end”, the report states—but in under 100 years, European settlers hunted the bird to extinction. The last of the species died in captivity in 1914. 

“Without the passenger pigeon to consume the bounty of acorns and chestnuts produced by eastern forests, small rodent populations exploded, which in turn apparently increased the population of ticks carrying Lyme disease,” the report states. “Although we cannot always predict with certainty the specific consequences when we destroy pieces of the natural world, we know they exist and are often significant and profound.”

It’s hard to say what the impact of losing the Jefferson Salamander could be on the province of Ontario. But what is known is, it would not take much of an investment from the provincial government to reverse course on its troubling decline. Or the decline of any of the more than 200 animals on its Species at Risk list for that matter. 



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @JoeljWittnebel 

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