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The Ontario government is attempting to make logging companies permanently exempt from endangered species law, a move environmental advocates say would hasten the decline of creatures like the woodland caribou.

A similar but temporary exemption has been in place in Ontario since 2013. The province has said making it permanent would help create jobs in the forestry sector.

“It’s not unexpected, but it’s devastating nonetheless,” said Greenpeace Canada nature and food campaigner Reykia Fick.

“The province of Ontario is failing to protect species at risk and to turn around the extinction crisis as it’s playing out here.”

The change was introduced as part of Bill 229, a piece of legislation introduced Nov. 5 to enact measures the Progressive Conservative government outlined in its 2020 budget.

Under the temporary exemption from Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, logging companies follow a different set of rules under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act. In an emailed statement, Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry spokesperson Maimoona Dinani said removing logging companies from the endangered species rules eliminates "duplicative requirements" while "maintaining rigorous oversight and sustainable management of Ontario’s Crown forests."

"The proposed changes do not decrease current protections for species at risk already in place under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA)," Dinani said. "Ontario’s sustainable forest management framework will continue to provide for the consideration of species at risk – as it has done since the passing of the CFSA."

But the guidelines aren’t equivalent, advocates say: Endangered species protections are aimed at helping species at risk recover, while the forestry rules attempt to minimize the impact but don’t stop populations from shrinking.

“Essentially what this means is slowing down extinction, but not reversing it,” Fick said.

“Fast or slow, it’s heading to the same point.”

In a statement, Ontario Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Ford government “continues to clear-cut” protections for endangered species.

The Doug Ford government wants to permanently exempt logging companies from endangered species law. “Essentially what this means is slowing down extinction, but not reversing it,” said Reykia Fick of Greenpeace Canada. #onpoli

“These actions will push the woodland caribou closer to extinction and tarnish Ontario's reputation for sustainable forestry,” he said. “Instead of a rip and ship approach, Ontario should focus on sustainable forestry and value-added production.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Natural Resources and Forestry Minister John Yakabuski at Queen's Park in 2018. The Ford government is attempting to permanently exempt forestry companies from endangered species rules. File photo by Alex Tétreault

‘Scientists are sounding the alarms’

The number of species that are endangered in Ontario is increasing as the province fails to meet its national and international nature protection commitments, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found last year. Of the 88 types of known mammals found in the province, 16 are at risk, she noted. One of them is the woodland caribou, which the province has found to be on the decline thanks to human activities like forestry and road building.

The Ford government previously watered down the Endangered Species Act in 2019. One change gave environment ministers the power to delay protections for endangered species, while another made it possible for developers to pay fees for endangered species recovery instead of following the rules.

The province announced plans to make the logging industry’s exemption from the law permanent in December 2019. In its new forestry strategy, released that month, the government outlined plans to double wood production by 2030 to “attract investments” in Canada and internationally.

The Ontario Forest Industries Association, which represents forestry companies, has said the change would “reduce red tape and administrative burden.”

“Now the forest industry will be free to ignore the plight of woodland caribou and other species that are threatened with extinction or extirpation,” said Tim Gray, the executive director of the non-profit Environmental Defence.

The forest planning process always "begins with considerations of what we must protect," Dinani said, adding that the government's plans aim to keep woodlands "healthy, diverse, and productive."

"Ontario is committed to protecting species at risk and improving environmental outcomes by modernizing and improving the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act, as committed to in our Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan," Dinani said. "The Endangered Species Act continues to apply to all other activities in Crown forests."

The new legislation is likely to pass, as the Progressive Conservatives hold a majority in the legislature.

In some cases, it’s not always clear what a species adds to our ecosystem until they’re gone, Fick said. But a complex web of living things sustains human life, and allowing species to go extinct could have unforeseen consequences.

“This is an existential crisis for humans as well,” she said. “Scientists are sounding the alarms.”

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The sh-t eating grins on the faces of the Premier and Minister Yakabuski say it all. Less of that pesky boreal forest, more money flowing through the party coffers. I don't know if the Minister is connected to the Yakabuski dynasty that sprawled through Pembroke On. once upon a time? If so, he has a conflict of interest with this legislation as it promises to add substance to the family's financial base.