Ontario not doing enough to protect biodiversity: environmental watchdog

TORONTO – Ontario’s environmental watchdog warns the province needs to do more to stem a 20 per cent drop in the moose population in a decade and steep declines in several species of bats and amphibians.

Environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe said the Liberal government needs to “walk the walk” and put words into action to combat wildlife declines, control invasive species and implement better forest fire management practices.

“The government often talks the talk when it comes to conserving Ontario’s biodiversity, but that’s not enough,” Saxe said as she released her annual report.

“Every single one of the 98,000 licensed moose hunters in Ontario is allowed to kill a calf every year, and that’s three times as many hunters as there are calves born.”

Natural Resources Minister Kathryn McGarry said Ontario shortened the hunt for moose calves to just two weeks last year, and delayed the moose hunt by one week this year, but it is not considering an outright ban to protect the population.

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“At this point no, but we need more research into the subject and we will be looking at the results of this year’s hunt and the numbers,” said McGarry.

Saxe said the ministry had done very little to protect Ontario’s moose.

“They’ve made some small adjustments to moose hunting, but (taken) no action at all to preserve their habitat,” she said. “And the ministry is trying to manage this important species with far too little information.”

NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns agreed the government doesn’t have adequate data to properly manage the risks to Ontario’s moose population.

“They’re flying blind,” said Tabuns. “If you’re not monitoring it, if you’re not keeping track of things, then how do you make an intelligent decision?”

Saxe also reported that eight of 27 amphibian species in Ontario are at risk of being lost from the province, while four of eight bat species are now endangered because of an aggressive fungal disease known as white nose syndrome.

“It really is a terrible tragedy,” she said. “According to one study we’ve seen from the U.S. the decline in bat populations is already costing agricultural more than $3 billion a year.”

READ MORE: Maples could disappear in Ontario without plan for biodiversity: watchdog

Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner accused the Liberals of “gutting” the Endangered Species Act.

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“The fact that industry now is allowed to kill endangered species in order to do development projects is going to make these threats to biodiversity even worse,” said Schreiner.

Saxe said invasive species such as Asian carp, zebra mussels and the emerald ash borer disrupt or destroy entire ecosystems. Zebra mussels alone cost Ontario over $75 million a year as they clog intake pipes at water treatment plants and power generating stations on the Great Lakes.

The province is even dealing with feral pigs in parts of eastern Ontario.

READ MORE: Ontario releases plan to prevent and fight invasive species

“In the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, the ministry of natural resources has given hunters licences to kill feral pigs,” said Saxe. “It sounds like a really good solution.”

Saxe gave the government high marks for passing a new Invasive Species Act last year, but questioned how it would work in practice.

“Most of the hard front-line work is still left to municipalities, conservation authorities and private landowners,” she said. “They can’t do it all without provincial guidance, help, co-ordination or funding.”

The commissioner also said the ministry of natural resources “needs to have the courage” to let some forest fires burn without fighting them because the fires are good for a diversity of trees and help improve the habitat for moose.

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“After 100 years of fire suppression, Ontario has an unnaturally mature forest, loaded with fuel and susceptible to devastating forest fires,” she said. “The best tool that we have to prevent massive, destructive out of control fires is controlled fire.”

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