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Premier Doug Ford's government is facing vehement opposition from municipalities across Ontario for proposing to weaken legislation protecting endangered species in order to allow mass development to occur in critical habitat for wildlife.
The changes were proposed in a housing bill, Bill 108, that proposes amendments to 15 laws, including 20-pages of sweeping changes to existing protections for endangered wildlife. These protections are spelled out under Schedule 5 of the legislation.
The proposed changes include the creation of a new fund that would allow developers to pay the equivalent of a tax, rather than taking steps to protect and restore habitat of species at risk. The government has also proposed to change the makeup of a scientific committee that reviews the status of species at risk, in order to allow people with no scientific expertise to join and provide scientific advice.
The Ontario municipalities of York, Muskoka Lakes, Oakville, Aurora, Archipelago and Lennox-Addington have all voiced their opposition to Bill 108 and passed motions or resolutions to that effect.
Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas says his municipality was neither consulted nor informed that these changes were coming. He worries that the bill will eliminate the ability of local councils to make decisions about how their natural and wildlife areas are managed.
"At the end of the day, Aurora has a lot of green space in southern parts. We have protected habitats in the Oak Ridges Moraine and there are a lot of species in the area," he said in a phone call. "We need to ensure that we protect those species from harmful development that will take over the area."
Oakville council also opposes Ontario's proposed changes to Endangered Species Act. The city council passed a resolution Monday that urged the province to stop the advancement of Bill 108 and give municipalities more time to review the omnibus bill, comment on and consult with the government on changes to regulations.
The Town of Oakville has one of the most biodiverse environments in the province, home to 900 species of plants, 185 types of birds, 30 species of amphibians and reptiles, 29 types of mammals and 58 different kinds of fish. A number of these species are considered endangered and threatened.
Oakvile Mayor Rob Burton told National Observer that Bill 108 is indicated that Ontario is now under "a centralized authoritarian regime." He called Schedule 5 "pay to slay."
"Mayors have never had powers to protect endangered species. It's always been a provincial power," Burton said. "The damage is going to be immense. The bill to the environment is going to be immense."
Bill 108 is scheduled to go to committee Friday. Only one day has been allocated for public input. It could pass as early as June 4, before the Ontario legislature adjourns for the summer on June 6.
Trakas will be unable to attend the committee meeting because he is attending the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities gathering in Quebec City. (Burton is there as well.)
"So many elected officials won't be available tomorrow," Mrakas said. "I want to speak to the committee but I'm not available to do that. Where is the transparency, the willingness to work with municipalities then?"
Burton says he will join "a rebel alliance" to the Ford government as a gathering of mayors, civil societies, environmental activists and more at Laurier University on June 8.
"I am alarmed at this unconsultative, one-sided, uninformed set of sweeping, draconian measures that will only harm communities and the environment, and will not achieve their stated goals," Burton said. "It's a joke. it's a travesty."
Scientists 'dismayed' by proposed changes
Ontario mayors aren't the only ones rallying against Schedule 5. Over 75 scientists across North America have signed and sent a letter to Environment Minister Rod Phillips, urging him to reconsider and maintain a species at risk recovery program that was "independent and expert-based."
The letter notes that the group of experts were "dismayed" to hear the Ontario government had taken "a considerable step backwards with the inclusion of so many amendments to Ontario's landmark Endangered Species Act in Bill 108 - an omnibus bill about housing."
The scientists make strong reference to the first comprehensive UN biodiversity report that found over one million species were at risk of extinction due to human activity.
The letter notes that "at 1 million km2, Ontario is bigger than many countries, and harbours some of the most unfragmented habitats left on the planet."
"Ontario has a global obligation to protect all (species at risk) within is borders, even in cases where species' total ranges extend beyond Ontario's borders. Ontario cannot simply pass the responsibility to other provinces and countries."
Julee Boan, Ontario's Nature's Boreal Program Manager, told National Observer, it was imperative the government ensure that "the diagnosis of species at risk was kept separate from their treatment." The process of identifying endangered species had to be based in science to ensure they could be protected properly.
By offering the loosened protections in a broad housing bill, Boan said the government was trying to hide the importance of this decision, and misleading Ontarians by saying the proposed changes would improve outcomes for species at risk.
"If the province goes ahead with these proposed changes, their new Endangered Species Act will lack scientific credibility," she said. "We could actually lose species from Ontario entirely."
Here's everything the Ford government is proposing to change about the Endangered Species Act
- Delay listing of species assessed by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO): Currently species must be listed within three months of COSSARO’s submission of an assessment report to the Environment Minister. This will be extended to 12 months, during which time species at risk and their habitats would be unprotected and vulnerable.
- Give the minister the power to overturn assessments by COSSARO: The Endangered Species Act already allows the minister to request a review of a COSSARO decision if “credible scientific information” indicates the listing “is not appropriate." The new language proposed in the Bill changes this to “may not be appropriate." Critics say this may result in delays in recovery planning and protections.
- Delay both Recovery Strategy development and protections if the minister requests a reassessment: Currently, a species would be listed regardless of a request for reassessment. Under the proposed system, if the minister requests a reassessment, the species would not be listed automatically.
- Require that COSSARO assessments be based not on the status of a species in Ontario, but instead on its status across its “biologically relevant geographic range”: Most species now listed as threatened or endangered in Ontario could be delisted if they exist in a nearby North American jurisdiction, and receive no protection as a result. Such species include the Jefferson salamander, bobolink, spiny softshell turtle, American badger and cucumber tree.
- Broaden COSSARO membership so that it includes non-scientific experts: Currently COSSARO members must have expertise in (a) a scientific discipline such as conservation biology, population dynamics, taxonomy, systematics or genetics; or (b) aboriginal traditional knowledge.
- Provide the environment minister greater discretion on protections: The minister would be allowed to suspend species and habitat protections for up to three years based on social or economic considerations.
- Delay the application of automatic protections for newly listed species for one year for existing permit/agreement holders
- Allow the minister to limit protections so that they apply only in specific geographies or in specific circumstances: This could exclude important habitats and species from protection.
- Allow the minister discretion to delay indefinitely the development of Government Response Statements (GRS): These species-specific government policies currently must be produced within nine months of the publication of a Recovery Strategy (for threatened or endangered species) or a Management Plan (for special concern species).
- Remove requirements to post notices on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry when the minister is proposing to delay Recovery Strategies and Management Plans: This change could potentially shut out opportunities for public consultation regarding delays. It is unclear whether notices on the new website will be as transparent and accessible as they currently are on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry.
- Allow the minister to delay carrying out a review of progress towards the protection and recovery of the species: Currently, the minister is required to conduct a review of the progress towards the protection and recovery of the species no later than five years after publication of a government response statement. The proposed amendment allows the Minister to specify any time period to carry out the review in the government response statement
(Note: This list was created with the help of Julee Boan, Ontario's Nature's Boreal Program Manager.)