Necessary appointments finally made to the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario after more than 2,700 sign open letter

Last month, TransCanada announced it was cancelling plans for an oil export terminal on the St. Lawrence River. The terminal would have serviced its massive, proposed Energy East pipeline that will carry 1.1 million barrels of oil per day across the country. Why was TransCanada forced to abandon plans for this oil port? Because of beluga whales, and the science and laws that help protect them.

The southern beluga, whose numbers scientists estimate have dwindled from a high of 10,000 down to only 1,000, was recently added to Canada’s endangered species list, following the recommendation of a committee of scientists working under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). This development, coupled with staunch local activism, led TransCanada to drop their plans for the port at Cacouna, Quebec, which is located near sensitive beluga calving areas at the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

This is a great example of how science-based decision-making and environmental law can help protect species and their habitats. Science and scientists, in particular, are essential to the proper application of environmental law.

That’s why, at Ecojustice, we’ve been paying attention to the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO).

COSSARO plays a critical role under the province’s Endangered Species Act (ESA). Committee members – all scientists – assess whether a species needs protection based on the best available science. The most vulnerable ones are classified as endangered or threatened. This status unlocks automatic protection for those species and their habitats under the ESA.

But if the Committee cannot hold meetings, it cannot determine which species need our protection.

In March we saw the Committee had only five members – three short of the eight needed to hold its summer meeting. Why does this matter? Because if COSSARO cannot meet, then no vulnerable species can be assessed and classified as endangered or threatened. In other words, species that need a population health check like the Yellow-banded Bumble Bee and the Eastern Wolf remain stuck in the waiting room.

That’s why in March we delivered an open letter, signed by more than 2,700 people, urging Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to expedite appointments to the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO).

We’ve now learned that the necessary appointments have been made, proving once again that people power works. The Committee can now continue its important work determining which at-risk wildlife need our protection.

Delayed appointments part of continuing trend

When the ESA was introduced back in 2007 it was hailed as North American’s “gold standard” for species protection. Unfortunately, recent years have seen Ontario shirk its duties to protect at-risk wildlife.

In 2013, the province introduced a regulation that exempts major industries from strict protection standards under the ESA — in many cases giving them a free pass to kill endangered or threatened species and destroy their habitat, as long as this harm is “minimized.” As a result, environmental groups, represented by Ecojustice lawyers, had no choice but to go to court earlier this year in an effort to quash that regulation. A judgment is pending in that case.

Limited scope of federal Species-At-Risk Act

Defending strong provincial endangered species laws is all the more important given that the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) only applies to migratory birds, aquatic species, and species on federal lands. This means that in British Columbia, which does not have its own standalone species law, 87 per cent of the province’s at-risk wildlife have no legal protection.

To make matters worse, the current federal government has both reduced the number and role of scientists across the board. This decade alone, more than 2,000 scientists working for government have been dismissed. Ottawa has also failed to meet deadlines for recovery planning for endangered species covered by SARA. Fewer scientists working for the federal government will inevitably result in gaps of information which in turn threatens our ability to protect endangered species.

The protection of biodiversity is something Canadians overwhelmingly value and support. A poll commissioned by Ecojustice and Nature Canada found that 85 per cent of Canadians believe “diverse and abundant populations of wildlife play a crucial role in supporting the country’s economy and health.” It’s both a responsibility and one of the major challenges of this era. Worldwide, species are going extinct at such an alarming rate that scientists have described the current era as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction episode in history. A study in Science magazine estimates that between 11,000 and 58,000 species disappear each year worldwide.

We need to do our part in Canada to turn this around. It’s not enough to just have strong science or strong law. You need both. And you need them applied at both the federal and provincial levels of government.

For Ontario’s ESA to work as it’s supposed to, good science sets the table by determining which species need our protection. Then good law ensures those vulnerable species actually get the protection they need. As we saw with the belugas of the St. Lawrence, real change can happen when the recommendations of scientists have the force of law behind them.