When Ontario passed the Endangered Species Act in 2007, the law was lauded as the gold standard for species protection. But it hasn’t lived up to its promise.

Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) marked its tenth anniversary this year.

Unfortunately, thanks to widespread delays and exemptions on the part of the government, the once-lauded Act has not aged well.

According to a report released today, the Ontario government has fundamentally undermined the ESA’s protections for the province’s most vulnerable species since first passing the Act in 2007.

Written by the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature and Ecojustice, the report follows the ESA’s ten-year progression from a “gold standard” law to one in need of major improvements.

A promising start
When Ontario passed the ESA in 2007, the Act was widely lauded as the gold standard for species protection in Canada.

Under the new ESA, the decision to list at-risk species was put in the hands of scientists, not politicians. Recovery strategies for listed species were to be prepared within strict timelines, and the habitat of threatened and endangered species were to receive automatic protection. Landowners and development proponents could apply for permits for activities that might harm at-risk species or their habitat, but only under strict conditions.

Sadly, the promise of a golden future for Ontario’s species did not last long. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) soon began dragging its feet on issuing recovery strategies for threatened and endangered species.

Recovery strategies are a vital part of the ESA’s scheme – they present science-based recommendations on protecting and recovering species. That is why the ESA requires the Minister to issue them within strict deadlines.

But instead of meeting these deadlines, delayed action by the MNRF has left numerous species in the lurch. As of June 2017, when Ecojustice lawyers filed a lawsuit against the Minister, recovery strategies were overdue for more than 40 threatened and endangered species. In some cases, MNRF has missed its deadline by more than seven years.

That is way too long for species at imminent risk of disappearing from the province or from the planet.

Opening the door for exemptions
To make matters worse, in 2013 the provincial Cabinet approved a broad suite of regulatory exemptions to the ESA.

A wide variety of industries, including forestry, aggregate pits and quarries, early exploration mining, and hydroelectric generation can now operate without permits under the Act even when they harm species at risk and their habitat. All operators have to do is register for an exemption and create a plan to “minimize harm” to species at risk.

Given that the exempted industries include many of the most common activities that harm species at risk, it is hard to see how these requirements could allow vulnerable species to survive and recover.

Why we need to do better
The world is currently losing species at an astounding rate. Human-induced factors such as habitat loss, pollution, and climate change are driving unprecedented numbers of species to extinction, and causing catastrophic population declines among many others.

Ontario is no stranger to this crisis. There are more than 200 species at risk listed under the ESA.

For the sake of these species, we need to do better.

We believe that a fully implemented ESA could provide effective protection for our imperilled species. But the MNRF has chosen again and again to put industry’s interests first. In the meantime, Ontario’s species continue to decline as they wait for the protections they were promised ten years ago.

Ontario set the standard for species protection in Canada when it passed the ESA in 2007. Ten years later, we need the provincial government to rise to the occasion once more by prioritizing the protection and recovery of our most vulnerable species.