It helps to be furry and photogenic when you are an endangered species. But it is much harder to muster public support for animals and plants on the verge of extinction that aren’t, such as the northern riffleshell, a freshwater mussel, or the small-flowered lipocarpha, a grass-like plant that grows on an island in northwestern Ontario.
Both the northern riffleshell and lipocarpha are in danger of dying out in Ontario. But they are not protected under the province’s 36-year-old Endangered Species Act, a flimsy law that shields from harm only 42 of the more than 175 species in the province that are considered at risk.
That could soon change under welcome new legislation put forward recently by Ontario Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay aimed at strengthening and expanding protection for the province’s native species. All parties at Queen’s Park should ensure the speedy passage of this bill, which environmentalists agree would be the strongest in Canada.
The proposed law would represent a major improvement on the current endangered species legislation, which has triggered only a handful of prosecutions since it was passed in 1971.
Most important, the new law would rely on science, rather than government whim as the current legislation does, to decide which plants and animals should be safeguarded against risks.
It also would provide $18 million over four years to encourage stewardship. Much of that money would go to help private landowners protect and expand habitats where threatened species live.
The government also proposes a flexible approach to protecting endangered species and helping their numbers recover. That could entail banning human activity entirely when a plant or animal is in imminent danger. But it could mean placing only minimal limits on the way people use a species’ habitat in cases where fewer restrictions are warranted.
These measures are long-overdue as human encroachment, pollution and competition from invasive species put more plants and animals closer to extinction. By Ramsay’s own count, the list of endangered species in Ontario is expected to grow by an average of six a year, putting the province’s rich natural heritage at risk.
That is why the Liberal government and opposition Conservatives and New Democrats should unite to pass these new protections without delay. Once a plant or animal dies out, it is gone forever. We owe it to future generations to do everything we can to pull all endangered species in Ontario back from the brink and nurture them back to health.