The Ontario government is doing a "terrible job" of protecting species at risk and it has weakened its own Endangered Species Act in an effort to promote development, environmental groups say.
The criticism comes after Ontario's Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released her annual report of environmental audits on Monday. One audit, "Protecting and Recovering Species at Risk," says not only is the provincial environment ministry failing to protect species at risk as required by the act, the government is actually enabling harm.
"It's really dismantling almost every single possible protection measure that the Endangered Species Act was intended to provide and it's approving any possible habitat destruction initiative without a second thought," said Rachel Plotkin, a wildlife campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation.
The province, meanwhile, maintains it is meeting all of its legislated obligations — though Lysyk's report raises a number of questions.
According to the audit, the ministry automatically approved all development projects that may harm species at risk. The number of approvals for projects that harm protected species has increased by more than 6,000 per cent. The number of species at risk has increased by 22 per cent.
Immediate action is needed to prevent further wildlife loss, according to the David Suzuki Foundation and WWF-Canada.
Plotkin noted that species at risk are threatened or endangered in Ontario because of habitat loss and degradation. That means habitat is being destroyed and fragmented. The only way that species recover is through improvements or additions to their habitat, she said.
Ministry is doing nothing, wildlife advocate says
In Ontario, there is very little oversight, transparency and accountability over development, Plotkin said. Exemptions have been granted to developers and industrial companies to enable them to build their projects by only minimizing the harm they are causing, she added. "They are trying to soften the edges of the harm they are causing," she said.
The cumulative impacts of habitat destruction, however, lead to the extinction of species, she added.
An example of cumulative impacts has happened in the habitat of Blanding's turtles, where there have been more than 1,400 approvals of permits for development since 2007, according to the audit. The species has declined by more than 60 per cent in its last three generations because of habitat loss.
"The ministry is doing nothing to monitor cumulative impacts. It doesn't say no when there's a project that would like to go ahead in the known habitat of a species at risk," she said.
When the act came into force, Plotkin said she was optimistic. But she said the government is engaging in "doublespeak" now.
"It's very, very heartbreaking to watch this act just become completely eroded for people who care about wildlife and for people who are invested in the recovery of wildlife," she said. "I think it's pretty clearly evident that the province is doing a terrible job to uphold its responsibility to protect species at risk."
In a news release on Tuesday, James Snider, vice president of science, knowledge and innovation at WWF-Canada, said the government is essentially no longer implementing the Endangered Species Act. The lack of action has implications for climate change, he said.
"Species in Ontario are already experiencing dramatic declines in population numbers, and their habitats are being further destroyed or degraded as a result of development in the province," Snider said.
"Ignoring wildlife and habitat protection not only puts species at risk, it can exacerbate the effects of climate change on the province and the world because Canada, and Ontario in particular, store globally significant amounts of carbon in our ecosystems."
As of 2021, 117 species are endangered in Ontario, 54 are threatened, 56 are of special concern, which means they may become endangered or threatened, and 16 are extirpated, which means they once lived in the wild in Ontario but now no longer do.
Endangered species include the barn owl and mountain lion, while threatened species include the Algonquin wolf and Lake Huron grasshopper.
Ministry defends record
In an emailed statement sent to CBC News Wednesday, spokesperson Andrew Kennedy defended the province's track record.
"We are meeting every one of our legislated obligations," he said, calling Ontario a "leader in species at risk protection and legislation" with a "mandatory science-based assessment and classification process."
He said the province has modernized and improved the effectiveness of the Endangered Species act, and improved transparency when it comes to notifications of new species listings and enhancing enforcement.
"There is a lot of good work happening on species at risk and we will continue to do that work with accountability and transparency, as we have to date," he said.
But in her report and the news release, Lysyk says the following:
"No new species at risk were regulated in 2019 and 2020 because the committee that assesses and classifies species lacked quorum to function."
"Changes in 2019 to Ontario's criteria for classifying species are inconsistent with the science-based criteria in other provinces in Canada — and may result in some species losing existing protections."
"The minister's species-at-risk advisory committee is now dominated by industry representatives. Six members were appointed to the committee in 2019 and 2020 without the standard screening and recommendation process."
"The number of species at risk has increased since 2009, but funding for the stewardship program has decreased by 10 per cent in the same period."
"Forestry operations on Crown land are now exempt from the Endangered Species Act, despite the Environment Ministry warning that this may cause significant adverse effects on 12 endangered or threatened species such as boreal caribou and Blanding's turtle."
"The province's plans for species protection and recovery are usually less ambitious than what independent scientific experts recommend."
In her conclusion, Lysyk says: "The overarching goal of the Endangered Species Act, 2007 is to protect Ontario's species at risk and to promote their recovery for future generations. Yet, the Environment Ministry's species at risk program misses achieving its central purpose..
"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."
Ministry goes through 'robust oversight,' minister says
Environment Minister David Piccini, however, defended the actions of the ministry on Monday at Queen's Park. He said the ministry would consider the 21 recommendations of the audit.
"We're letting conservationists guide conservation," Piccini told reporters.
When asked why the ministry allows permits for development that harm species at risk, Piccini said: "That's completely incorrect. The ministry goes through robust oversight for species at risk."
Dianne Saxe, deputy leader of the Green Party, said the situation is actually worse than reported by the auditor general because the audit didn't take into account the impacts of major projects such as Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass.
The province is not enforcing the law, she added.
"It's basically handing the province over to big polluters and big developers to make as much money as they like and leaving the public with all the costs and consequences," Saxe said.