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Ecosystem protection focus of new legislation

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IN what it called a North American first, the Selinger government introduced legislation Monday to create ecosystem-protection zones on Crown land to protect endangered plants and wildlife.

The proposed Endangered Species Amendment Act would create a new designation for species at risk of becoming threatened, requiring action to prevent further loss.

It would also empower Manitoba Conversation officials, pre-emptively, to halt activities that would endanger habitat and ecosystems.

And it would impose harsher fines for individuals and companies that destroy endangered species -- with maximums of $50,000 for individuals and $250,000 for companies.

"Today Manitoba is making international environment news," Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh said at a news conference shortly before introducing Bill 24 in the legislature on Monday.

Then, in a shot at the Harper government, he vowed the province would not abandon the environment during tough fiscal times. "We're sending a clear signal that, unlike in Ottawa, we're not weakening environmental legislation or abandoning areas for protection," Mackintosh said, noting his department's operating budget has been trimmed by six per cent this year.

Mackintosh said high on Manitoba's list of vulnerable ecosystems to protect are the tall grass prairie preserve in the Pansy and Gardenton areas of southeastern Manitoba and close to 4,000 hectares of alvar, a rare ecosystem with unique plants and mosses that grow in 10 centimetres or less of soil over limestone bedrock in the Interlake. The latter was discovered only in the past year.

Robert Wrigley, a retired biologist and a former director of the Oak Hammock Marsh interpretive centre, said determining the status of species at risk is "a constant, time-consuming and daunting task" requiring study by many scientists.

The Government of Canada has so far listed 649 species that are at risk or extinct, while Manitoba lists 61 in this category, including 10 that have been lost to the province.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), which works with private landowners -- and purchases land -- to conserve biodiversity, applauded the new proposed legislation.

"Focusing on landscape is, in our view, the way to go," said the NCC's regional vice-president, Jeff Polakoff.

According to the NCC, there are few areas in the world with alvar, a unique combination of plants, mosses and lichen that provides habitat for a variety of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects.

Alvar is found in the Hodgson, Fisher Branch and Inwood areas among other locations in the Interlake.

Meanwhile, the province announced Monday that due to budget cuts, it was delaying the provision of $2 million of $7 million promised to the Nature Conservancy to acquire and preserve ecologically significant lands. The money was to have been paid out between 2009 and this past March. The remainder will now be paid between now and 2018.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2013 A2

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