Industry may have to take a step back to preserve wildlife habitat

People have been harvesting wild, natural food from the lands and waters of British Columbia for thousands of years. Mothers and fathers still hunt, fish and forage to feed their families and pass on the skills of self-reliance to their children.   

The 400,000-plus licensed hunters and anglers of B.C. spend time outdoors with their families and friends, cook and eat together. Hunting and fishing remain an important protection against food insecurity in many parts of the province.  

Thousands of members of the B.C. Wildlife Federation volunteer to restore woodland habitat, meadows, streams and wetlands vital to the health of all creatures. But we cannot achieve our conservation goals without the support of sound policy from our provincial government.   

Too many wildlife populations in British Columbia are crashing, but our government is firmly refusing to take the actions necessary to reverse the trend.   

The story is hauntingly familiar across the landscape: Industrial encroachment, roadbuilding, oil & gas exploration, highway collisions, and forestry operations are taking a heavy toll on the health of caribou most egregiously, but others as well. 

Mountain caribou herds in the southern Kootenays are endangered or already extirpated, a fancy word meaning “locally extinct.” Also in the Kootenays, bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer populations are all in decline. Wild sheep are in similarly bad condition in the Okanagan, Thompson and Cariboo regions often due to disease from domestic sheep. Moose are in decline in the Cariboo, Skeena and parts of the Omineca region.    

The government’s only response has been stiffer restrictions on hunter access, typically by ending open season hunts in favour of Limited Entry Hunting in which tags are awarded by lottery. Other regions have been closed altogether to hunting for species of concern. But many of these new restrictions, announced by the provincial government in May, are being applied to wildlife populations that are robust.   

Regulations released this spring suspended the general open season on moose in favour of lottery-based Limited Entry Hunting in a large portion of the Peace Region, cutting moose harvest by 50 per cent and halting the caribou hunt there outright.    

According to government data provided to stakeholders, there are over 60,000 moose in the Peace with a sustainable harvest well over 5,000 moose, yet the province has limited licensed hunters to around 600. While some changes were made after the initial proposal, this decision was based not on science, but politics, as a misguided attempt at reconciliation with the Treaty 8 First Nations. 

We understand that restrictions on hunting and angling are a useful tool in the recovery of local animal populations that are in crisis. But restricting hunter access alone will not work. It is merely the appearance of action.   

The failure of this approach has been amply demonstrated in the Kootenays.   

After two consecutive bad winters in the 1990s, wildlife populations in the Kootenays crashed. Most notably, mule deer and elk died from starvation by the thousands.   

In 1998, the provincial government made drastic changes to elk and mule deer management to create population recovery hunting seasons. Along with these “population recovery seasons,” millions of dollars have been spent on consultants and government staff to write recovery plans to restore wildlife populations.   

Once the population recovered, the plan prescribed a change in hunting regulations. Twenty-four years later, we still have the same population recovery seasons and populations have not recovered.    

The provincial government is failing to properly manage wildlife through science. We need to properly fund wildlife management, focus spending on on-the-ground actions that really make a difference and reconsider our approach to the industrial exploitation of our wilderness. That means limits on roadbuilding, forestry, mining and oil and gas extraction practices that are more friendly to fish and wildlife and their habitats, building wildlife overpasses instead of running over animals on our highways, predator and prey control in some cases, forest fuel-load management and controlled burns to restore wildlife populations and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.     

The BCWF is pursuing all options, including legal remedies, to put science-based wildlife management front and centre.

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