By Theresa Peluso

For several years now, as their detailed studies pile up, thousands of expert environmental scientists are imploring governments everywhere to stop their destructive policies and actions and halt our planet’s freefall into environmental collapse.

For the most part, instead of acknowledging their contribution to the problem, these governments – and their citizens – persist in denying, deflecting, and discrediting any blame directed at them.The media are also complicit in understating this crisis, except when some especially shocking natural disaster warrants headlines.

To make this topic of environmental decline manageable, this particular column will focus on the problem of habitat loss.

Eviscerated environmental protections

We like to think that perhaps things are different in Ontario. But, as of June 7, 2018, we have a premier who has declared Ontario “open for business”.  Is this any different from how the President of Brazil is enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? Is it any different from the management of Ontario’s natural resources in the last decade by previous governments?

During the last 10 years or so, our province has had three premiers: Dalton McGuinty (Liberal) 2004-2013; Kathleen Wynne (Liberal) 2013-2018; and now Doug Ford (Conservative), elected in June, 2018.

Now Premier Ford and his majority neo-Conservative government are in power. But perhaps this new Premier is just matching his words to what has been the reality for the last 10 years – at least with respect to habitat destruction.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When Ontario passed the original Endangered Species Act in 1971 (during the term of Bill Davis (Progressive Conservative)), it was the first province in Canada to do so.  As far back as 50 years ago, people around the world were beginning to realize that there was a biodiversity crisis, and that action was needed to reduce the harmful impacts of habitat degradation and loss, invasive species, pollution and illegal trade in wildlife populations around the world.

Our province was ahead of its time back then, and well positioned to take part in the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 to establish legislation to protect species at risk.

Then, as summarized in the report WITHOUT A TRACE? Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, prepared by the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature, and Ecojustice, and published in December 2017:

“In the early 2000s, there was wide recognition that Ontario’s original Endangered Species Act, passed in 1971, wasn’t working to protect the province’s species at risk. Scientists had identified 128 threatened and endangered species in Ontario, and yet only 42 were listed for protection under the law…. Ontario’s new Endangered Species Act 2007 (ESA) represented a significant improvement.

It mandated a science-based approach to listing species protected under the law, required the timely preparation of recovery strategies and automatically protected the habitat of endangered and threatened species. It also offered flexibility to landowners and development proponents, allowing them, under certain conditions, to apply for permits for activities that might harm an at-risk species or its habitat. The new ESA was passed with all-party support, and was widely heralded by environmental organizations as the gold standard in species at risk legislation in Canada.

Nevertheless, even in the earliest days of the new ESA, there were signs that the ministry responsible for its implementation — the Ministry of Natural Resources (since renamed the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) — was headed down the road of troubling concessions. When the law came into force in 2008, the ministry exempted through regulation various development, infrastructure, pits and quarry and hydro projects. It also granted to the forestry industry a special one-year exemption from the rules against harm to species and their habitats.”

Extinct and at-risk species nearly doubled in the last ten years

A Blanding’s turtle near Ottawa. The species is considered “threatened” in Ontario (Brent Eades photo, Millstone)

Ten years later, instead of only 128 species at risk, there are now over 230 species at risk in Ontario.  “At risk” means that these species are endangered, threatened, of special concern, or locally extinct.  The primary cause for this decline is habitat loss and degradation, aggravated by the impact of invasive species, climate change, pollution, disease and over-exploitation.  This is the current status:

  • 40 birds (including the barn swallow, eastern whip-poor-will and Canada warbler);
  • 14 mammals (including the eastern mole, wolverine and beluga whale);
  • 46 fish and mussels (including American eel, lilliput and spotted gar);
  • 8 turtles (including wood turtle, spotted turtle and Blanding’s turtle);
  • 8 amphibians (including Jefferson’s salamander, northern cricket frog and Fowler’s toad);
  • 15 reptiles (including common five-lined skink, Massassauga rattlesnake and eastern foxsnake);
  • 22 insects (including Hine’s emerald dragonfly, gypsy cuckoo bumblebee and monarch butterfly); and
  • 80 plants (including American ginseng, American chestnut and four-leaved milkweed)

Why is the loss of species so important? All living things, including humans, need a functioning, resilient ecosystem to survive and flourish.

Specifically, living things, including humans, depend on the numerous and irreplaceable benefits provided by a healthy ecosystem, such as air and water purification, soil stabilization, flood prevention, climate change mitigation, and opportunities for adaptation. The loss or decline of a species can affect the whole web of life of which it is a part. The loss of an apparently insignificant animal species like the bumblebee or chorus frog could result in a decline in fruit production or a proliferation of disease-carrying insects and ticks.

Considering what is at stake, why are humans so hell-bent on destroying our natural habitat?  In many cases, it’s a question of corporate greed and political apathy and neglect. How is this specifically affecting natural habitat in Ontario?

Habitat Loss in Southern Ontario

Southern Ontario is made up of 85,000 km2 of land stretching from the Quebec border near Ottawa southwest to Windsor, and north from the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to the top of Lake Simcoe.

Since the arrival of the first Europeans in Ontario in the 1600s, the almost continuous forests of southern Ontario have dwindled to about 25 percent of forest cover, which is less than the minimum needed to support healthy wildlife and ecosystems. Southwestern Ontario has significantly less – only 12.1 percent forest cover. At present just over 2 million ha, a small percentage of our Province’s 71 million ha of forest, is located in Southern Ontario.

Between the years 2000 and 2011, over 7,000 ha of forested land in Southern Ontario was deforested, at an average of 590 ha per year.  About half of this forest was lost to agriculture, while about one third was related to urban development.

Approximately 600,000 new housing units were built in Ontario between 2007 and 2017 (a rough estimate based on CMHC data for all of Canada).  During this same period, Ontario’s population increased by 11.2 percent to 14,193,384 residents.  In addition to woodlands, these housing developments also destroyed vast areas of prime farmland, removing it from our already meager supply of arable land.

Despite new provincial planning measures in 2005 to restrict development on agricultural land, roughly 200,000 additional hectares of farmland disappeared between 2006 and 2016.  As of 2016, about 107,646,000 ha of the total area of Ontario is designated as agricultural land. On this undeveloped farmland, cropland increased, but woodlands, wetlands and pasture on this farmland (habitat for native species) have decreased.

We have only to consider the vast housing developments, built during the last 50 years, that now envelop the City of Ottawa, to see how much our own region has been affected.

The loss of woodlands also threatens our watersheds.  As we know, trees help to prevent flooding, soil erosion, and contamination of waterways from run-off.  In addition, they help to store water in the soil, stabilize shorelines, slow down evaporation, and absorb pollutants. And yet, the 2018 reports from Ontario’s conservation authorities show that more than half of southern Ontario’s watersheds had 25 percent or less forest cover, and more than one-third had 15 percent or less.

The main culprit is the feeble protection provided by both the provincial and municipal policies for protecting woodlands. These policies don’t prohibit forest clearing, nor do they prohibit destruction of woodlands to build roads, sewage treatment plants, hydro transmission corridors, or land clearing for agriculture.

Both housing developments and agricultural activities are also responsible for a significant percent of wetland loss.

As we know, wetlands are not only vitally important habitat for many species of plants and animals, including 20 percent of Ontario’s species at risk, and including migratory birds.  They purify our groundwater, sequester carbon, act as buffers during periods of flooding and drought, stabilize shorelines and control erosion.

And yet, over 85 percent of the original pre-settlement wetlands have been destroyed, or converted to other uses, in southwestern Ontario, parts of eastern Ontario, and the Niagara and Toronto areas.  Up to 70 percent of this wetland loss occurred by 1982, but even after increased awareness of their importance, these losses have continued, with approximately 77,000 ha of wetlands disappearing between 1982 and 2011.  Most of these losses are the result of land conversion, but pollution, invasive species and global heating are also major contributors.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) 2018 Report states that agricultural activities were the greatest cause of wetland loss in most of southern Ontario, and caused 43 percent of wetland losses across southern Ontario between 2000 and 2010. Despite the fact the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) are fully aware of the impact of even small changes to normal water levels on wetland functions, they have neglected to monitor the impacts of agriculture-related drainage activities on wetlands.  During this same period, housing developments and infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) have resulted in the loss of 24 percent of wetlands.

Habitat Loss in Northern Ontario

Forests and wetlands have also been destroyed at an alarming rate in Northern Ontario as well, as a result of human economic activity, but the circumstances are somewhat different.

Roughly 66 percent (or 71 million ha) of Ontario is forested, with approximately 85 billion trees.  Of these forests, 81 percent (57.5 million ha) are on Crown (aka public forest) land, which, for the most part, is comprised of the boreal forest in northern Ontario.

According to the borealforest.org website, most of Ontario’s 85 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, 80 species of amphibians and reptiles, 160 species of fish and 3,200 species of plants are found here.  Our boreal forest also acts as a huge carbon sink.  And yet, this natural wonder that is Ontario’s boreal forest appears to have been completely divided up among logging companies.

Between 2007 and 2013 (inclusive), approximately 700,000 ha of boreal forest was clear-cut in Ontario. That’s 850 million trees.  (In Ontario 88 percent of forest operations use clear-cutting as their primary method of logging.)

At an average rate of 100,000 ha per year, we can assume that from 2007 to 20017, one million ha of forest was clear-cut.  All this clear-cutting makes it unlikely that the original forest will re-establish itself with the same species, facilitates the penetration of invasive species into the forest, and destroys the homes of cavity-nesting birds, martens and all the other species that rely on that particular habitat.  Wildlife such as the woodland caribou and wolverines, which need large amounts of land, are especially at risk. Reference: The Narwhal.

We’ve heard about the 50 Million Tree Program launched by Forests Ontario in 2007, which has already planted nearly 30 million trees, and aims to complete this program by 2025.  This is the program that was axed by our new Conservative government, but then resuscitated by the Federal government.

Given that between 2007 and 2017 approximately one million ha (or 1.2 billion trees) disappeared from Ontario forests, this program actually replaces less than half of those defunct trees, and with the newly planted trees being small saplings, their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, provide habitat for species, moderate climate events, and improve the soil is marginal. Having said all this, implementing a tree-planting program is certainly better than nothing.

Clear-cutting the Boreal Forest, which stores 34 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, is especially damaging to climate regulation.  In Ontario, the average area per year that is clear-cut releases an average of 8.3 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere on an annual basis. Furthermore, the pollution and altering of the water cycle as a result of cutting these trees has repercussive effects on the areas surrounding the clear-cut forests.

Another cause of forest loss is mine development (approximately 80 percent of mining operations occur in the boreal region), which destroys about 220 ha of forests per year.  Add to this the loss of 2,350 ha of forest between 2009 and 2013, as a result of the construction of permanent roads, which doesn’t include the trees lost as a result of “temporary” logging roads. (This occurs at a rate of 400 ha per year.)

Mining not only strips vegetation, it also damages the environment in other ways.  It involves extensive drilling and the development of tailings ponds containing highly concentrated toxic heavy metals and other waste materials that leach into the soil and groundwater.  The heavy machinery used in mining compacts and erodes soil and creates noise pollution.

The Ring of Fire (the name given to a huge planned mining and smelting development project in the James Bay Lowlands (the third largest wetland in the world) of Northern Ontario)), which started up in 2012, covers the traditional lands of nine First Nations tribes living there.  The concerns expressed by First Nations leaders about sewage, grey-water, oil spills and road clearing will not only affect them, but all the creatures dwelling in the boreal forest.

According to a report published in April 2019 by the Federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand, which assessed government regulation and monitoring of Canada’s 255 mines, our Province has the highest number of mines in all of Canada, but these mines received the lowest number of inspections from Environment Canada – one inspection every 3.6 years.  Inspections are not tracked by mine site, but by company name, so a company with several mine sites may have only one of its sites inspected.

In addition to the forest loss from clear-cutting, there is also forest loss from wildfires, in which the intensity and spread is likely to increase with global heating.  In Ontario, in 2017 alone, 112,337 ha of forest was lost to fire, which seems to be the yearly average between 2007 and 2017.

Trees are also lost as a result of insect attacks, some from invasive species, which, with the warming climate, are increasing.  Between the years 2007 and 2017 inclusive, a total of 9,497,000 ha of Ontario’s forest was defoliated by insects, or killed by beetles. See Canada’s National Forestry Database for the data.

What’s happening to our forests in both Southern and Northern Ontario is tragic.  But in addition to our forests, the wetlands in Northern Ontario are also being destroyed.  Most of Ontario’s wetlands (which cover one-third of our province) are found in Northern Ontario. In fact, the wetlands of Ontario’s Far North are among the most extensive on earth.  Disturbances like logging block the natural flow of water in these wetlands, and can result in flooding and other major disruptions of the normal functioning of these wetlands and the plants and animals that depend on them.

Furthermore, logging and the accompanying road construction can erode soils, which increases sediment runoff into waterways, and leads to mercury contamination of the waterways.  Mercury is everywhere in the environment, even when there are no local mercury sources.  Much of it is the product of fossil-fuel combustion, such as coal-fired plants and incinerators.  Lakes that lie in larger watersheds that are clear-cut are more likely to have higher levels of mercury. Once mercury gets in the water, it moves through the food chain. Up to one milligram of mercury per kilogram was found in fish in heavily logged watersheds, double the amount recommended by the World Health Organization.

The Grassy Narrows community of 900 people living on 400,000 ha within the Boreal forest, already suffered severe poisoning from 10 tonnes of mercury dumped into their river systems by a pulp and paper mill in Dryden 50 years ago.

In 2014 this First Nations community pleaded with Ontario environment officials for an environmental assessment of the clear-cut logging that was planned to take place on THEIR territory, fearing more mercury contamination.  But their concerns didn’t count for much with Ontario environment officials, who denied this request.  (It’s quite evident that habitat and species protection also didn’t count for much with these so-called environment officials.)  Since then, the Grassy Narrows leaders have banned industrial loggers from clear-cutting the Boreal Forest near their territory, which, it is hoped, will endure.

Conclusion

As you can see, the way to environmental destruction has been paved with good intentions.  With the 2018 provincial election of Premier Ford, even the good intentions will disappear. Last year (2019) the Ford government eliminated the office of Ontario’s environmental commissioner (established nearly 25 years ago) and assigned responsibilities for the enforcement and administration of the Environmental Bill of Rights to the Auditor General of Ontario, adding to the AGO’s already numerous responsibilities.

As we know, Premier Ford has also scrapped the cap-and-trade carbon pricing legislation put in place by the previous government and is opposing the federal carbon tax, putting him in the same class as the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been fiddling while his country burns.  And when Premier Ford’s government state that they need to overhaul the current Endangered Species Act because it isn’t effective as written now, you can be very sure they don’t have the welfare of our threatened creatures at heart.

So when scientists warn us that a sixth mass species extinction is well underway, you can see that the province of Ontario is very much complicit in the tragic disappearance of many of our native species of plants and animals.