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Changes to Ontario’s Endangered Species Act increases risk of extinction, UTM researchers find

Wednesday, July 28, 2021 - 10:28am
Kristy Strauss

The Niagara Region is known for its wineries, tourist attractions, and proximity to the United States border.

But UTM researchers have found that it’s also home to species at risk, and many could be delisted and stripped of protection under the More Homes, More Choice Act – increasing their risk of extirpation (local extinction) and possibly even extinction.

“These changes are really detrimental to the multiple species that reside in the region,” says Allegra Bethlenfalvy. “When I was reading through (the Act), my overall feeling was this is now more of a waiting game. The longer we let these species just be left on their own to survive by themselves, the greater the chance that they could become extinct.”

A UTM Master of Science in Sustainability Management graduate, Bethlenfalvy’s research served as the basis for a co-authored paper with Andrea Olive, an associate professor in Geography, Geomatics and Environment entitled Recent amendments to the Endangered Species Act and an uncertain future for species at risk: a case study of Ontario’s Niagara Region. The paper was recently published in the science journal Facets.

The research looked at the potential impacts of an amendment made to the Ontario Endangered Species Act (OESA) in 2019 called the More Homes, More Choice Act.

As part of the amendment, Bethlenfalvy and Olive learned that developers can now pay into a conservation fund to build on otherwise legally protected species at risk habitat.

“There’s this signal that it sends that you can pay to destroy habitat,” says Olive. “There are other living things that deserve life, and to take that life is actually wrong. These changes are suggesting that it’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of paying to make it seem OK. And that doesn’t sit well with me.”

It also allows people on the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), which is an external scientific body, to now include individuals with community knowledge – which the researchers found concerning.

“Community knowledge is a real thing, and it’s valuable,” says Olive. “But we are a little worried that’s going to open the door to just industry representatives sitting on the committee. It could be the case that they really are going to include people from conservation authorities or environmental groups . . . but I’m just skeptical,” says Olive.

Under the More Homes, More Choice Act, Bethlenfalvy says the committee can also now consider the species’ global range, not their population size in the province. It also allows the committee to reassess currently listed species at any time.

The researchers found there are 71 species at risk in the Niagara region that are either threatened or endangered, and are protected under the pre-amended Ontario Endangered Species Act. But as many as 37 – including three amphibians, 11 birds, two fish, one lichen and moss, one mollusc, 16 plants and three reptiles – are considered a globally stable species, and therefore may not be listed on the Ontario Endangered Species Act if assessed by COSSARO under the new rules.

The amendment also gives the Ministry of Environment and Conservation Parks the power to suspend newly added species at risk from receiving protections for up to five years, and, species at risk may not receive automatic protection if they are newly listed as endangered or threatened.

Bethlenfalvy says this could impact Niagara’s species at risk, particularly as the region sees more development.

“It made me wonder what that could mean for the species, and will they be able to survive with all the development going on,” Bethlenfalvy says, adding they chose to study the Niagara Region, in part, because of its increasing urbanization and resulting economic growth.

“When I was reading through those amendments, I was thinking specifically of the Niagara Region. There’s a lot of change happening within the region where they’re converting natural habitats into homes, or recreational areas or public spaces. That affects (species’) ability to survive,” says Bethlenfalvy.

Through her research, she hopes that she can raise awareness of the new changes – which haven’t been implemented yet.