When new development is being considered in Northern Ontario, who speaks for threatened animal species like woodland caribou? You may believe that our elected governments are looking after the interests of dwindling herds, but changes to federal and provincial rules have essentially left caribou to fend for themselves.
A December, 2013 study, “Population Critical: How are caribou faring?”, released by the Canadian Parks and Wildlands Society and the David Suzuki Foundation, evaluated the caribou conservation efforts of our governments and found them wanting. While no province scored a high grade in this study, Ontario was identified as one of the worst jurisdictions for caribou conservation. In part, Ontario’s low score comes thanks to changes made to rules in 2013 which exempt conservation efforts from provincial oversight.
Gord Miller, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, in a special report to the province, referred to these changes as “an attack on Ontario’s species at risk”. Miller and other conservationists had initially praised Ontario’s cutting-edge 2007 Endangered Species Act, which called for meaningful habitat protection and the production of recovery plans for species at risk. The Endangered Species Act had been the subject of significant public consultation before being enacted by parliament.
In 2009, the province released its caribou conservation plan, which called for a recovery strategy to bring caribou back to parts of Northern Ontario where they once roamed. Caribou are very skittish animals, and generally avoid human habitation. It’s estimated that almost 40% of the habitat of woodland caribou has been lost, in part due to fragmentation as a result of resource development activities such as forestry, mining, roads and pipelines.
The recovery strategy found detractors in resource industries, northern businesses and municipal and provincial politicians, who feared that preserving caribou habitat could lead to a loss of jobs in the forestry, mining and energy sectors - all sectors which some economic analysts expect to grow in the coming decade. Planning to protect caribou came into direct conflict with planning to protect jobs.
In July, 2013, the Minister of Natural Resources quietly published regulations that exempted a broad range of development from provincial oversight. In the past, industries looking to develop within the habitat of threatened and endangered species were required to obtain a permit from the ministry after working together to identify opportunities to minimize risk. Now, as long as developers follow generic compliance rules, developments can generally proceed.
Not only has the province abandoned its traditional role of oversight, it’s deprived itself of the ability to say “No” to any development project.
“In effect, every place, no matter how unique or important, will be open to activities with the potential to adversely affect species at risk,” wrote Miller “No place is untouchable or special. (see: "Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence”, Section 6, Page 31, inset box)
The province’s rule change prompted Ecojustice, Ontario Nature and the Wildlands League to file a lawsuit against the province (see: "EcoJustice sues to save endangered species", Environmental Law and Litigation, Diane Saxe, September 16, 2013), based in part on the idea that the government cannot make policy decisions which increase the danger to species the government had originally set out to protect.
For woodland caribou, the writing may be on the wall. A lower Canadian dollar and a housing boom in the United States is already boosting Ontario’s forestry sector (see: "Rise in profit hint at forestry sector turnaround", PwC press release, March 24, 2014). Mineral development in the Ring of Fire, and transportation and energy corridors to service the new mines will lead to ever more fragmentation of critical caribou habitat.
There may very well be opportunities to facilitate development while protecting caribou. However, with rules that so heavily favour development over conservation, it seems pretty clear that our elected governments are not speaking for Northern Ontario’s threatened species. Perhaps it will be left to the courts to take on that role.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, March 29, 2014 (online: “May: Who is looking after the woodland caribou?", March 28, 2014), without hyperlinks.