MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT
ENVIRONMENT REPORTER
 
Ontario’s Endangered Species Act is a piece of legislation that has the look of an afterthought. It’s only 1¼ pages long, making it one of Canada’s shortest laws, and it was written back in 1971, well before most people cared much about wildlife dying out.
But the Liberal government, with an eye on an election this fall and eager to curry favour with the province’s powerful environmental movement, unveiled a massive overhaul of the act yesterday that it contends will be the best law in North America for protecting vulnerable species. In Ontario, that ranges from eight clam-like mollusks to prothonotary warblers, a golden yellow swamp-dwelling songbird.
The law will expand from only six sections now to 60, and the government plans to more than quadruple spending on endangered species to $18-million spread over four years. Much of this money will be earmarked to help landowners preserve or expand habitat on which vulnerable species depend.
“This government is setting a gold standard for species protection and recovery that we believe will be an example for other jurisdictions right around the world,” the province’s Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay said at a news conference yesterday.
Normally, environmentalists reflexively criticize as inadequate almost all actions governments take.
But many conservationists had been lobbying for improvements to the antiquated legislation for years, and they greeted the province’s announcement with lavish praise.
“If this law is passed in its current form, it will be the best in the country,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based group.
The province co-operated closely with environmentalists in drafting the new law, and the Ministry of Natural Resources issued a press release containing endorsements of the new act by eight prominent environmentalists, including Mr. Smith.
But it irked some union and business groups. The Ontario Forestry Coalition assailed the legislation, worried that it could harm resource companies. It called for more consultation on the act.
The new measures must still be passed into law by the provincial legislature, expected before the summer.
The lack of up-to-date species protection has long been a sore point with environmentalists in Ontario. There are nearly 200 species considered at risk in the province, about half the country’s total, and about six new ones are added every year. Despite this, only 42 species have been granted formal protection under the province’s existing law.
Relatively few of those protected are the photogenic wildlife species, such as polar bears and beluga whales, that are usually associated with endangered animals. Most of Ontario’s protected species are plants, one is a moss, and the only big mammal is the eastern cougar, which is known elsewhere in Canada as the mountain lion and is infrequently sighted in the province’s back woods.
By winning over so many environmentalists now, it’s unlikely the Liberals will be facing much criticism on endangered species during the election set for October.
By almost any measure, Ontario, like much of Canada, has a problem trying to make sure key wildlife species don’t die out. Although Ontario has about 30,000 species, many critical animals, such as golden eagles and polar bears, are at such low numbers that there are worries for their future.
Hunting usually isn’t the culprit causing species to become endangered. Typically, animals are put on the defensive by habitat losses or pollutants. Ontario polar bears, for instance, are the world’s most southerly population of the big predator, and are vulnerable to global warming melting the sea ice on which they hunt seals.
Under the new act, Mr. Ramsay said, there will be provisions that allow development in areas where there are endangered species, provided steps are taken to create offsetting habitat elsewhere to compensate for land losses due to such activities as mining and quarrying.
Because Ontario occupies such width and breadth of North America, it has an unusual mix of species, ranging from those in the Arctic, such as polar bears, to those typical of the southeastern U.S., such as possums.
Among the species at risk in Ontario are:
Atlantic salmon. These fish were once plentiful in Lake Ontario, but were wiped out during pioneer times by habitat destruction of the streams on which they depended. Currently, rivers are in much better shape and the province is trying to re-establish a viable population using salmon from Nova Scotia.
Peregrine falcon. This is the fastest bird in the world, but nearly all of them in Ontario died out because of exposure to pesticides such as DDT in the 1960s and 1970s. Reintroductions of captive-bred birds have led to a population rebound: more than 70 breeding pairs now live in the province.
American badger. This rodent-eating carnivore has few predators, but is frequently run over by cars as it travels looking for suitable habitat. Only about 200 remain.
Prothonotary warbler. This brightly coloured songbird is restricted to five sites near Lake Erie. Only about 20 pairs are seen in any given year. They are threatened by habitat loss and competition from wrens and cowbirds. The province hopes to eventually have 40 breeding pairs, double the current number, but a big reduction from the former population of 100 pairs.
Grey fox. This tree-climbing fox was thought to be as common as the red fox before European settlement. Little is known about the only resident breeding population in Southwestern Ontario.
Blanding’s turtle. These colourful and friendly reptiles are being captured and sold as pets. Only about 10,000 remain, and populations are falling due to habitat loss. Because they don’t breed until they are 14 to 25 years old, the loss of even a few adults to the pet trade can have a big impact on local populations.