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Future generations of Ontario wildlife lovers will know and appreciate iconic creatures like the monarch butterfly and woodland caribou thanks to new endangered species legislation hailed as the toughest of its kind in North America, environmentalists said Wednesday.

Ontario is home to a vast array of about 15,000 species of animals and plants, but outdated legislation and protections have left the province with the greatest number of endangered species in the country, said Wendy Francis of the group Ontario Nature, which is part of the Save Ontario's Species coalition.

There are now 175 species currently at risk, but the government should be applauded for addressing the problem with a new law that is stronger than anything similar in Canada or the United States, she said.

"Other than British Columbia, Ontario has the greatest biodiversity in Canada so we have a great responsibility to protect the species that we have here," Ms. Francis said.

"I think it's completely appropriate that Ontario is enacting the best endangered species act in the continent."

The update to Ontario's Endangered Species Act, which passed its third and final reading in the legislature Wednesday, expands the number of protected animals and allows scientists to determine which species should be added to the list each year.

Countless unique creatures would one day become nothing more than a memory without the new protections, said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.

"If we want our kids to have butterflies in the future - as opposed to having their wildlife experiences restricted to viewing squirrels and raccoons - we need this endangered species act," he said.

It's important for Ontario residents and everyone around the world that endangered species be protected, even if it comes with a cost, said Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay.

The governing Liberals are pledging $18-million over four years to increase habitat protection for threatened animals, and help farmers, conservation authorities and municipalities absorb the costs of following the new rules.

"I remember in the last century talking about species that didn't need protection and within 50 or 60 years they were gone," Ms. Ramsay said.

"In the 21st century we can no longer treat our environment that way, we need to protect all our biodiversity."

Both opposition parties supported the bill Wednesday, although five members voted against it.

"A number of our members, particularly from rural ridings, are concerned that this could result in farmers or other landowners losing income without adequate compensation from the government," said Conservative critic Tim Hudak.

"The government has not set aside adequate funding to help ... protect areas without hurting farmers' livelihoods."

Farmers aren't against protecting endangered species, but feel they were unfairly targeted by the process, said Paul Mistele, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

"[We]all along have said that we would embrace ... legislation but we wanted to make sure that it didn't put the primary producers in Ontario out on a limb," he said.

"When I come into Toronto a lot of [politicians]have not been on too many farms in their lives, so I don't think they understand really what they're talking about sometimes. And that's something we have to learn how to manage a little better maybe."

The New Democrats had taken some flak from a number of environmental groups for not endorsing the legislation wholeheartedly, which the Liberals have been happy to note.

"I think it's quite obvious the Liberal party ... are the greens in the Ontario legislature," Ms. Ramsay said.

"We've been leading the green revolution here in Ontario."

New Democrat Leader Howard Hampton said the party generally supported the legislation, although there were some complaints about how the government failed to adequately consult with groups in drafting the law.

"Once again, the government has failed to consult with aboriginal people across Ontario, and unless and until they consult, I think they're going to find problems in terms of implementation," he said.



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