Why can't they just be more patient? That's what the Ontario government is asking the province's endangered plants and animals.
But the woodland caribou, which has already been pushed out of 40 per cent of its range in the province, doesn't have time. Nor does the spiny softshell turtle, also known as the pancake turtle because of its flat, round body.
This species has disappeared from much of its former range throughout the Great Lakes as a result of habitat loss caused by shoreline development, agriculture, motorboating and pollution.
Although scientists long ago determined that the two are at risk, these and many other creatures receive no protection under Ontario's Endangered Species Act. The law, brought in at the dawn of disco in 1971, is strong on paper, providing for immediate habitat protection, but it lacks proper implementation mechanisms. Just two pages long, it has no provisions to identify the habitat the government is supposed to protect.
And because the decision of whether or not to list a species is at the government's sole discretion, more than three-quarters of scientifically listed species at risk are not protected under the act.
Ontario's Liberal government promised during the last election to overhaul the legislation and make it effective and science-based. Minister of Natural Resources David Ramsay appointed a blue-ribbon panel of experts to recommend changes to the law. The report, released recently, is very encouraging.
The panel learned from mistakes made in other jurisdictions, including the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), passed in 2002. The act aimed to make listing decisions more science-based, but bureaucrats have found loopholes to delay listing a number of important species. The feds' habitat protections also don't fully kick in until habitat is identified, a process that can take many years under the act.
To make sure Ontario does not repeat these mistakes, the panel recommended that species at risk should be listed for protection following a scientific assessment of their status. Once listed, there would be prohibitions on harming the species or its habitat.
There would be provisions to grant exemptions in certain cases, and significant financial incentives to encourage farmers, foresters and other land users to protect species on their property.
For the most part, the panel has it right. But with a fixed election date set for the fall of next year, a new bill will have to pass through the legislature before the summer if it's to become law. This means it should be introduced immediately, to allow for the inevitable legislative snags that any major bill encounters.
Some people in government ministries argue that the Liberals should take time to allow the idea of a new act to "ripen" among government officials and land-use industries. However, the federal experience with SARA is instructive. For seven years, bureaucrats successfully delayed passage of the law using the same argument.
The Ontario government should learn from this experience. Ministry officials who are now opposed to having meaningful protections will probably still be opposed no matter when the law is passed.
What is needed is a strong signal from the provincial government that this law is a priority, a signal saying we can discuss how to implement it but that the debate on whether to have it is over.
Ontario has already lost 16 species forever. The ones we are close to losing, like the woodland caribou and the spiny softshell turtle, can't afford to wait for another election cycle. Neither can the Liberals if they want to keep their promise.