November 27, 2006

Advisory panel supports stronger, science-based legislation to protect species, habitat at risk

A government-appointed advisory panel reviewing Ontario's Endangered Species Act has recommended new legislation based on sound scientific assessments in order to provide a higher level of protection for all of the province's endangered species and their habitats. Its report, made public earlier this month by Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay, says the new legislation should also incorporate a broad and generous regime of incentives and funding measures to foster stewardship of threatened species and natural spaces.

The panel's recommendations address ten key areas, including scientific listing, landowner stewardship, financing, habitat protection and recovery and Aboriginal matters. The report points out that Ontario's current Endangered Species Act (ESA) has changed very little since it was passed in 1971. A brief summary of the current ESA's approach reveals numerous inadequacies when contrasted to the far more inclusive approach proposed by the panel for a new ESA.

For example, the current ESA restricts its coverage to endangered species and provides for protection, the panel advocates coverage for all species and communities at risk and calls for the legislation to provide both protection and recovery of both endangered and threatened species. As called for in the panel's report, the new act would enshrine a science-based listing of species and communities, rather than the discretionary listing now in place. It would provide for a stewardship role, recognition of an Aboriginal role in species protection and recovery, and modernized enforcement - none of which are part of the current ESA. Finally, a new ESA should include provisions for adequate resource allocations and public reporting (also missing from the existing legislation).

The panel has endorsed many of the legislative proposals drafted by the government, and recommends that the new ESA ensure the expert, independent status of the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO). It should update the list of species at risk in Ontario (SARO) annually, with this list to include all Ontario species designated by the national Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSSARO would retain the option of assigning the level of risk provincially, however.

(The SARO list contains 182 native species, with several more to be added soon. Six species on the list are already extinct, and only 42 species are provided any protection under Ontario's current ESA.)

Another recommendation would add special concern species as a listing category, with a requirement that the province participate in the development of management plans mandated under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) for special concern species. The province should also be required to develop provincial plans for special concern species not covered under SARA.

The new ESA should recognize and encourage stewardship of species and ecological communities at risk through measures such as voluntary conservation donations and easements and "safe harbour" restoration agreements and plans, which protect landowners undertaking stewardship practices from legal liability arising from enhancing habitat. The panel also recommends that various tax benefits and incentives linked to conservation easements and donations be implemented through amendments to the relevant provincial statutory regimes.

The report further supports legislative proposals relating to emergency orders to protect species and habitat and calls for a broader power for preventive measures. It recommends the inclusion of schedules for preparing and carrying out recovery action plans, and says the ESA should include a requirement that plans and strategies be kept up to date as circumstances change.

Finally, the panel supports the province's legislative proposal for stronger enforcement and stiffer penalties, including removal of a requirement to prove wilfil intent in prosecuting ESA offences.

The report was welcomed by Ontario's leading environmental groups, including Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature, Sierra Legal, the David Suzuki Foundation and CPAWS-Wildlands League. The groups are partners in a Save Ontario's Species (SOS) campaign (www.saveontariospecies.ca).

"If the government passes an Act consistent with the Advisory Panel's report, then Ontario will have the best endangered species law in the country," said Aaron Freeman, policy director for Environmental Defence. "Based on the Minister's recent comments in the Legislature, we are confident that the government will listen to these recommendations."

The Ontario government set up the advisory panel this past April and launched a public review of its species at risk legislation in May, inviting comments on a discussion paper in a posting on the Environmental Bill of Rights registry. In October, Ramsay told the Legislature that the government is "looking at ways to put in effective measures to protect species at risk, including a science-based process to list species and to develop effective tools to help them recover." He added that the Advisory Panel is providing good advice on how to strengthen the Act. Introduction of a formal bill is expected this fall.

Basing species protection and recovery on a rigorous scientific assessment "would be a huge improvement over the current situation, which protects less than a quarter of the province's identified species at risk," Wendy Francis, director of conservation and science for Ontario Nature, observed. Sierra Legal counsel Robert Wright commended the panel for recognizing a full range of tool for implementing endangered species legislation. "The report also highlights the importance of encouraging stewardship and providing landowners with the tools and incentives they need to play their part in protecting endangered species," he said.

"Significantly, the report addresses not only the issue of species survival, but also that of species recovery," says Janet Sumner, Executive Director of CPAWS-Wildlands League. "The new Act must ensure that woodland caribou, peregrine falcons and other species in trouble recover to healthy population levels."

Along with the panel's report, the government has released a summary of the hundreds of public comments received during the 60-day public consultation period on new species at risk legislation. The report may be viewed on-line at www.mnr.gov.on.ca/mnr/speciesatrisk/ESA_Advisory_Panel_Report.pdf.

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