Take a moment to time travel with me. It’s the early 1980s. One hundred hectares of nearby forest is coveted by developers and home to a salamander threatened with extinction. The government of the day decides to balance ecological and economic values, allocating half the forest to the developers and maintaining half for the salamander.

Fast forward a decade. It’s 1990. Fifty hectares of forest is home to the threatened (and declining) salamander. Development pressures persist. The government again balances the two values; the salamander is left with 25 hectares.

Now it’s 2000. The government applies balance as a management tool, and the salamander is left with 12.5 hectares. You get the picture. (It is, in fact, a pretty accurate picture — the primary reason for species decline in Ontario is historical and continuing habitat loss and fragmentation.)

As the example above shows, balance as a management approach for species at risk offers a landscape of diminishing returns. I reflected on this coming out of a two-day court hearing where Ontario Nature and the Wildlands League, represented by Ecojustice, took Ontario to court over changes it made under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These changes grant exemptions to many types of industrial activity — logging, mining, hydro, quarries, residential development and more — so they no longer have to meet the requirements to protect species at risk habitat as originally set out in the ESA. 

The Ministry of Natural Resources put forward the argument that, as administrator of the act, it needed to balance ecological and economic interests.

Balance has become the buzzword of the day. It is seen as the egalitarian, temperate, reasonable management choice for all decisions in which there are ecological and environmental interests at play. (It is often used by environmentalists too.) But the ESA should not be administered with the aim of balancing the needs of the species with economic interests. For species at risk, it just doesn’t work. They have scientifically based habitat needs that must be met to facilitate their recovery and cannot be successfully managed through balancing acts.

Sure, anyone implementing an Act to protect at-risk species needs to be able to ensure that everything they do is as economical as possible. Sure there should be, and is, an escape hatch that is designed to be narrow — a transparent mechanism through which the government can determine that economic values trump ecological values in some rare instances. (The test in the ESA is that this can only happen if the economic benefit is province-wide.)

Species at risk legislation was created to address the insufficiencies regarding the protection of plants and wildlife in other regulatory regimes. Ontario’s Endangered Species Act has a mandate to prioritize, not balance, the protection and recovery of at-risk species. It is their best, if not only, hope.