Yesterday I had the distinct honour of addressing delegates at the British Columbia Wildlife Federation (BCWF) Annual General Meeting & Convention in Kamloops. Below I reproduce the text of my speech.
Prior to my speech, I offered a brief explanation of what motivated me to get into politics. I then spent a few minutes discussing our Confidence and Supply Agreement with the BC NDP and our role as an opposition party.
At the time of European contact, wildlife were so abundant in British Columbia that early explorers marveled at the richness of the land.
But, by the late 1800’s wildlife losses were so widespread, the public began demanding an end to the free-for-all.
In 1859 the first ordinances “providing for the protection of game” were passed in B.C.
In 1905 the government organized wildlife management, establishing the Department for the Protection of Game and Forests, although it didn’t get funding until 1908.
The annual budget: $10,000.
In 1933 Aldo Leopold, an American conservationist and writer, published Game Management, a book that has been credited with creating the discipline of wildlife management through the application of scientific principles. Indeed, his work planted the seeds of what would eventually become the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
One of the key tenets of the model, which is now widely applied across the continent, is that science – not the dictates of special interest groups – should guide wildlife policy.
I have dedicated my carreer to understanding our world and its problems through science and have been surprised at how difficult it is to convince governments to consistently follow scientific reasoning. While the concept of science-based wildlife management has generally been endorsed in B.C. it has not always been applied.
There have been some successes. But its selective use has led to more disasters.
Many wildlife populations are in jeopardy today. Mountain caribou are facing extirpation, wild salmon – a foundation species – are in shocking decline, spotted owls are virtually extinct, and moose populations, which many families rely on for sustenance, are in trouble across the province.
What we find in almost all of these instances is that there has been inadequate science, particularly concerning cumulative impacts, and that an unacceptable loss of vital habitat has occurred.
The management of wildlife, and the application, or not, of scientific principles, continues to stir great controversy and emotional debate in B.C. Understandably so.
Wildlife management conflicts in which species are pitted against one another are truly challenging, but I have always maintained that humans – elected representatives in particular – have a moral obligation to prevent endangered species from going extinct.
Often, extreme situations are created because government has failed to act. They are typically situations that – for a variety of industrial, social, or budgeting excuses – have been allowed to escalate far past a point of simpler intervention.
When you start rationalizing culling one species to protect another you also introduce an ethical element that needs to be considered alongside scientific findings. Let one – or both – of those species become threatened or endangered and your situation becomes immensely worse.
Some say that humans should not interfere with nature, but sadly, intervention is sometimes necessary. Simply put, many ecosystems have been altered so drastically that we can no longer just stand by and let nature take its course.
If we don’t continue to intervene with the mountain caribou crisis we are currently facing, for example, it will not be long before the remaining herds in the South Selkirk and Peace regions are extirpated.
Predator control, hunting closures, and restrictions that stop industries from undertaking resource developments are all difficult matters for governments to deal with.
But things aren’t going to get easier. The management of wildlife is becoming increasingly complex and fraught with risk.
Habitat loss is mounting.
The human population is growing.
Roads and pipelines have been spreading into the farthest reaches of the province, and researchers have discovered how such developments increase predation, shift wildlife distribution, and impact abundance.
Wolves, as many of you know, use road and pipeline clearings to get a good line of sight on caribou, expanding into new territory to more efficiently track down their prey.
Increased road densities and human activity in wilderness areas elevates human-caused mortality of grizzly bears and reduces the number of bears in the area, scientists at the University of Alberta have recently found.
I believe some of those scientists are here today – thank you for your work!
In a paper recently published in the journal Conservation Biology, scientists wrote about threats to biodiversity from cumulative human impacts in B.C., “one of North America’s last wildlife frontiers.”
“Land-use change is the largest proximate threat to biodiversity yet remains one of the most complex to manage,” they wrote.
“For ecosystems, we found that bunchgrass, coastal Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine have been subjected to over 50% land-use conversion, and over 85% of their spatial extent has undergone either direct or estimated indirect impacts.”
Adding to all these other stressors now is climate change. The full implications aren’t yet clear, but we cannot situate our wildlife strategies in the past. Our environment is changing and will continue to do so.
Government must be prudent and precautionary as we manage our changing landscape as the planet warms. The timing and abundance of food availability, for instance, will shift for some plants and animals. Species reliant on their stability will need space and additional resources if they are to adapt.
In many respects, Northern BC, the Interior, and the people who live off those lands are on the frontier of climate change. You will be the first to feel the effects of climate change.
You are the ones fighting forest fires and flooding.
You are the boots on the ground when government is slow to act.
A few years ago, with concerns growing about how B.C. was managing wildlife in the face of growing pressures, the Liberal B.C. government assigned an MLA to do a comprehensive review of its policies.
“There has never been a time in British Columbia’s history where balancing the cumulative impact of resource development and biodiversity has been so complex.” Liberal MLA Mike Morris wrote in his 2015 report, Getting the Balance Right: Improving Wildlife Habitat Management in British Columbia.
“There is an urgency and heightened concern amongst resident hunters, guide outfitters, trappers, the wildlife viewing industry and conservationists that the province is not acting quickly enough to address the decrease in wildlife populations and the degradation of wildlife habitat,” Morris wrote.
He called for more wildlife management staff and “better planning, better science and more timely and effective implementation of policies and programs.”
But the government never delivered.
“B.C. balks at changing law to protect wildlife and biodiversity” said The Vancouver Sun headline at the time.
“The B.C. government will not be changing laws or considering hiring more staff as recommended in a report by one of its own MLAs on how to protect wildlife and biodiversity from the effects of resource industries,” the story said.
For far too long government has shortchanged wildlife management in B.C.
It’s fine for Ministers to say they support science-based decisions – but where is the science? Where are the field researchers? Where are the basic boots on the ground that are needed to keep a close watch on our wildlife populations and habitat? I’d say many of them are in this room.
The necessary funding just isn’t there.
B.C. ranks behind its neighbours in the northwest when it comes to investment in wildlife management. Alberta, Washington, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Utah – all spend more on managing less.
The shameful underfunding of wildlife management has taken place under successive Liberal regimes. Now we have a new NDP government, but it has yet to show if it will embrace – and fund – science-based management.
So far, things aren’t looking great. Recently, as you are all keenly aware, the government has struggled with its policy on grizzly hunting. The BC NDP campaigned on “banning the grizzly bear trophy hunt” without defining what that is or was. They came up with an initial cockamany idea of requiring people to surrender the head and coat and pack out the meat. Then they decided to ban all grizzly hunting.
I stood alone in the legislature for three years trying to get emotion out of the discussion of wildlife management but the Liberals and NDP wouldn’t budge from their divisive positions.
There is no doubt that the decision to ban the hunt was purely populist and was not informed by science. Unfortunately, by ignoring public opinion for so long, pent up opposition became overwhelming and rational discussion was thrown under the bus.
Government let that discord fester for so long – often putting people in this room in a challenging position, I would imagine – that it was really hard to find an appropriate balance between science and representing the views of people in my riding.
I am really worried that this populist approach to wildlife management will continue. I don’t think it serves anyone.
Not the people in this room, certainly, but I don’t think it serves the people advocating for it either, because it rarely helps protect animals in the long term.
To be blunt, I am willing to go out on a limb and suggest that the number of grizzlies that are shot on an annual basis will barely remain unchanged (after an initial short term drop). Conservation officer grizzly mortalities will go up as these officers deal with problem bears (as in the US); poaching will go up too.
B.C. is Canada’s most ecologically diverse province but if we are to maintain that rich biodiversity, we need to see a serious commitment to science-based, evidence-based wildlife management – and we need to have dedicated wildlife funding put in place, so managers have the budgets, and the staff, required to do the job.
As the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services recommended in its Report on the Budget 2017 Consultations, license fees collected from natural resource users (hunters, anglers, ecotourists, etc.) should be directed into conservation and wildlife management services, rehabilitation, enforcement and education.
Effective natural resource management is reliant on funding, science, and social support. We seem to have consensus on this within the B.C. government, but it needs to be put into action.
Prior to the election, I campaigned on establishing a Natural Resource Commissioner who could lead a Natural Resources Board responsible for establishing sustainable harvest and extraction levels and reporting on the state of B.C.’s environment and natural assets. The NRB, I proposed, would conduct cumulative impact assessments, and oversee the application of the professional reliance model.
Since the election, the government has been working with us to improve the professional reliance model and B.C.’s environmental assessment process.
There is much we can do to advance the values of scientific monitoring, reporting, and cumulative assessment.
Managing wildlife has always been difficult, but never more so than now, in the face of climate change. According to data released by scientists at NASA, 2017 was the second warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880, second only to 2016. And Arctic sea ice is at record lows.
In the face of great challenges, it is clear to me that we need a comprehensive science- and ecosystem-based approach to wildlife management. We simply cannot continue to perpetuate the slow, methodical extirpation of native species in B.C.
Ecosystem-based management calls for natural resources, habitat, and species to be managed collectively, over a long time frame, rather than just looking at a single sector or single species.
Cumulative impacts are assessed – an approach which B.C. urgently must follow because of the sweep of industrial development now taking place in many sectors of the province.
Given the myriad challenges facing wildlife in our province, two of the most important things we can do to protect biodiversity is to leave key habitat areas intact and restore and improve funding to conservation, monitoring and scientific management efforts.
As British Columbia continues to warm and precipitation patterns continue to change,
as flooding and drought becomes more frequent and extreme,
as out of control wildfires become more common and more damaging,
as pest infestations become more diverse
and as between 20 and 30% of the world’s plants and animals becoming at risk of extinction by mid century,
we have a responsibility to take steps now.
It won’t be easy. But proactively protecting ecosystems to improve resiliency and adaptive capacity to the changes a warming climate will bring is vital.
And the continued good work of the BCWF will play a critical role in these conservation efforts.