The Ford government has slashed funding for at least nine programs devoted to combating the spread of invasive species and promoting native biodiversity, cuts that organizers say will compromise Ontario’s capacity to respond to major ecological threats.
The Ontario Invasive Plant Council, one of the impacted groups, saw its funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry reduced from $100,000 last year to zero this year, forcing the organization to consider shutting down. It provided research, education and outreach on controlling invasives like dog-strangling vine and garlic mustard.
“This is important to the people of Ontario because it impacts anybody who wants to be or likes to be outside,” including fishers, cottagers, hikers and beachgoers, says Belinda Junkin, the council’s executive director.
She gave the example of invasive phragmites, a Eurasian grass species that spreads aggressively across beaches and wetlands, growing up to five metres high and killing other plants. The grass can break up road beds, clog drain pipes, create fires, mar recreational landscapes and threaten at-risk species like turtles.
“The longer they are left to get settled, the greater the cost will be to remove them … Do you pay up front, or do you wait and pay a bigger tab tomorrow?” said Junkin.
Ministry spokesperson Justine Lewkowicz said the government is “committed to balancing the budget in a responsible manner to protect critical public services like health care and education.”
“We were elected to clean up 15 years of irresponsible fiscal mismanagement on the part of the previous Liberal government. The $347 billion long-term debt they left to our children and grandchildren is a direct threat to critical public services Ontarians depend on. As part of our commitment to protect critical services, difficult decisions must be made to ensure fiscal responsibility.”
The Ontario Biodiversity Council and the Biodiversity Education and Awareness Network also saw their ministry funding eliminated.
Canada is a signatory to a major international agreement called the Convention on Biological Diversity, which requires each nation to meet a series of conservation targets by 2020, including protecting 17 per cent of all lands, controlling invasive species, and integrating and respecting Indigenous knowledge and practices. The importance of these targets was brought into stark relief by a major global assessment released this month that showed the Earth is facing an unprecedented extinction crisis.
The Ontario Biodiversity Council’s job is to guide and implement the province’s own biodiversity strategy, which reflects those national and international targets. It produces a report every five years on Ontario’s progress.
Steve Hounsell, the council’s chair, says the release of the next report in 2020 could be threatened by the cuts. “I can only hope that we continue to receive some support on an issue of international importance (biodiversity loss) that is truly a ‘public good.’”
“The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry continues to promote public education on the negative impacts of invasive species. We continue to support the Ontario Biodiversity Council,” spokesperson Lewkowicz said.
The Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre was surprised by a 70 per cent budget cut in the second year of a three-year agreement, from a promised $860,000 to $250,000, with no funding commitments for next year. The Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program and the Wind Energy Bird and Bat Monitoring Database project each saw a $25,000 cut. Funding for the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations’ invasive species programs was eliminated. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH)’s invasive species program was cut by 43 per cent.
“The OFAH was disappointed to be blindsided by the extent of the cut,” said Chris Robinson, conservation programs manager, adding that Ontario’s natural resources matter greatly to hunters and anglers and provide significant economic and social benefits.
“We’ve had a 27-year partnership with the province on the program, and while we understood no ministry or program was likely immune to cutbacks in this budget, we expected we would be engaged in discussions if significant change was coming … Instead, we received no word until the day after the budget was released that cuts were coming and would be significant to the program. If dialogue and planning occurred, we weren’t a part of it.”
Earlier this month, Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski announced an $850,000 investment in the Invasive Species Centre, a Sault Ste. Marie-based organization. That investment is a $50,000 reduction in funding from last year.
“We recognize the importance of prevention, early detection, response, and eradication of invasive species for our natural environment and the people of Ontario,” Yakabuski said in a statement, adding that the province was investing $2 million in invasive species programs and education this year.
A 10th program called the Early Detection and Rapid Response Network, which trains and equips people to prevent the spread of invasives in the province, is funded by a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, an agency of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport; the grant will run out in August.
Kate Allen is a Toronto-based reporter covering science and technology. Follow her on Twitter: @katecallen