Black Ash: A Lesson on How Not to Implement Ontario’s Endangered Species Act

Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) is throwing precaution and good advice to the wind in its approach to protecting the endangered black ash. When the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in January 2022, the ministry chose to delay legal protection for two years. Now that time is almost up, it is proposing to severely limit protection going forward through a “conditional exemption” (ERO 019-7378).

Black ash is recognized as a critically endangered species globally. It is also of great cultural significance to many Indigenous Peoples.

Splitting a black ash strip © Eli Sagor CC BY-NC 2.0

Although widespread and currently abundant, black ash faces a grim future. The primary threat is the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB), which is steadily expanding its range northward, leaving a swath of destruction. Warmer temperatures resulting from climate change will boost the EAB’s spread, with up to almost 100 percent of the range of black ash in Ontario at risk of infestation over the next 80 years.

Climate change impacts (e.g., drought, heatwaves, late spring frosts, erratic winter weather) and habitat loss pose additional threats to black ash, which is found predominantly in wetlands, riparian areas and other seasonally wet areas.

Geographic Scope of Black Ash, Emerald Ash Borer and Areas Receiving Limited Protection

Black ash poses a formidable conservation challenge indeed. MECP’s response? Deny legal protection for most black ash trees and their habitats across their range in Ontario. Here’s what you should know about the proposed exemption:

The proposal fails to acknowledge much less address Ontario’s significant conservation responsibility for black ash: about 25 percent of the global range for the species occurs in the province.

The proposal neither mentions nor considers the cultural importance of black ash to Indigenous Peoples or the potential impacts of the proposed exemption on their interests, rights and responsibilities.

Proposed protections would apply only in a small fraction (about 15 percent) of the species’ range, where it has been most devastated by EAB.

Only “healthy” trees would be protected, even though infested trees may support the recovery of the species. For example, black ash can regenerate through suckers or shoots emerging from the roots, trunks and stumps of infested trees, which may be more important than seed dispersal for the persistence of the species in parts of its range.

Only trees at least eight centimetres in diameter at breast height would be protected, even though smaller trees are considered vital to the persistence of black ash and are known to produce seed.

Habitat protections would apply only within a 30 metre radius around a tree that qualifies for protection (i.e., one that satisfies the location, health and size criteria above). In sharp contrast, the recovery strategy recommends ecosite-level wetland protection where one or more black ash trees are present (p. iv), including young, regenerating trees which “play an important role in securing the future of black ash” (p. 53).

The proposed approach to protecting habitat fails to account for seed dispersal, seedling establishment or the maintenance of wetland conditions that support viable black ash populations. It would invite habitat fragmentation and loss, leaving trees more vulnerable to stressors such as drought and erratic weather.

The proposed approach would undermine the broader biodiversity conservation and climate resilience benefits that would arise through fuller protection of black ash habitat – primarily wetlands.

Black ash in wetland habitat © Eli Sagor CC BY-NC 2.0

MECP’s proposed exemption reveals a disturbing lack of intent to prioritize the survival and recovery of black ash.

If you believe that, instead, Ontario should live up to its responsibility to protect and recover this globally imperiled, culturally significant species, please consider making your voice heard through our action alert. The deadline for comment is November 2, 2023.

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