Habitat crisis sparks unusual alliances despite growing tensions over wildlife management.
ADVERSITY MAKES STRANGE BEDFELLOWS and few are stranger than two recently formed alliances between hunting and trapping organizations and environmental groups. Despite escalating battles over the ethics of trophy hunting, it seems the situation around diminishing habitats is desperate enough to have led to a couple of mergers around the topic.
The Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC), which is focused on big game hunting, has joined forces with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of BC, and Stop Animal Brutality, under the Unlikely Allies banner.
At the same time, the loosely-knit Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Coalition has formed joining pro hunting and fishing organizations, including GOABC, BC Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited and several other bowhunting, trapping and angling organizations, with environmental organizations, including Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Georgia Strait Alliance, and Wildsight.
Both groups aim to put pressure on the BC government to restore and protect wildlife habitat.
Unlikely Allies’ terms of reference say the groups, despite traditionally opposing views, have agreed to work together for long-overdue improvements to habitat management, but emphasize that participation does not indicate any agreement other than the need for better protection and management of wildlife habitat.
A typical image on the website of Guide Outfitters Association of BC makes it seem an unlikely ally of conservationists
“The members of the alliance have agreed to set aside (but, not compromise or relinquish) their differences in order to advance common objectives,” it says.
The Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Coalition position paper says that lack of habitat funding, resource extraction, and a growing population are jeopardizing the future of BC’s wild spaces.
“Our mountains, rivers, lakes and forests are suffering from decades of mismanagement and unsustainable use. For example, in BC, there are over 700,000 kilometres of roads—a footprint large enough to wrap around the Earth more than 17 times. This has permanently impaired our landscapes, fish and wildlife,” says the position paper.
The Coalition wants a new governance model for fish, wildlife and habitat and a permanent endowment for habitat stewardship. It calls for all hunting, guide-outfitting and trapping license fees, industry wildlife compensation dollars and a portion of royalties from new resource extraction projects to go into a dedicated habitat fund.
Have they lost their marbles?
However lofty the aims, the alliances are drawing heavy criticism from other conservation and environmental groups who say such partnerships weaken arguments against commercial exploitation of wildlife and could blur the increasingly-polarized fight against trophy hunting of predators such as wolves, cougars and black bears.
Anne Sherrod of Valhalla Wilderness Society
“What kind of misdirection or misinformation leads environmental groups to think they should join as allies with people trying to overturn our work,” asked Anne Sherrod of Valhalla Wilderness Society, pointing to efforts by the Guide Outfitters to scrap the provincial ban on grizzly bear hunting.
Bear biologist and activist Wayne McCrory, in a blunt letter to Raincoast and the Commercial Bear Viewing Association, said everyone wants more habitat protected, but such partnerships are unnecessary “and most likely to come back to bite you in the ass in ways you cannot anticipate.”
“As my English grandmother Diamond Lil used to say, ‘have you all lost your marbles?’” he wrote.
However, Chris Genovali, Raincoast executive director, said ongoing catastrophic degradation and destruction of wildlife habitat in BC demands urgent action—whatever it takes.
“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” he said, pointing to last year’s report by a team of independent scientists, led by Rachel Holt, that found less than one percent of the forest left in BC is old growth with massive old trees.
The estimate is a far cry from the 23 percent touted by the Province, but Holt found most of that is high elevation tiny trees or bog forests.
Genovali said, “We are in a situation where, if we don’t arrest out of control logging and the clearcutting of old-growth we are not going to have any viable populations of wildlife to argue about. It’s that bad and, because it is that bad, these divergent groups have agreed to disagree on the things we have traditionally disagreed on, but recognize how desperate the situation is.”
No one is likely to suddenly change their views on topics such as wolf hunting, but the groups hope to get the ear of government and put forward alternate views on habitat to those expressed by the forest industry, Genovali said.
“We figure we might have a fighting chance by joining forces rather than continuing on in our own individual silos…We have to do something about this final liquidation of old growth in BC,” he said.
Chris Genovali of Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Genovali is aware of the opposition from some groups, but believes it is essential to look at the big picture.
“We have all been trying to stop the logging industry from this kind of destruction for so long and we haven’t been able to do it, so we need to try something different,” he said.
Kathy MacRae, Commercial Bear Viewing Association executive director, said that for the organizations with opposing viewpoints to come together, underlines the importance of the issue.
“The mission is to have guidelines for forestry companies that have not had them—ever—in BC,” she said.
“We need to make a change and it needs to be done yesterday. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting to receive a different outcome. So why not bring our voices together and try to make change collectively,” she said.
Jesse Zeman, BCWF director of fish and wildlife restoration, believes the alliances are a recognition that the groups have more in common than separates them.
“There’s a synergy in that. There’s a place we could be working together and probably be far more effective,” he said.
Jesse Zeman of BC Wildlife Federation
BCWF, although largely a hunting and fishing organization, has always been involved in habitat conservation, while fees from hunting and fishing licences go towards conservation and habitat projects, he said.
“It’s certainly not just hunting. It’s species at risk and sustainability issues,” Zeman said.
Ministry biased towards consumption rather than protection of wildlife
The urgency of protecting habitat in BC was emphasized this week with the release of a new study, published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, that found endangered caribou of Western Canada have lost twice as much habitat as they have gained over the last 12 years, with logging, road building, forest fires and climate change identified as the major culprits.
Caribou are on the road to extinction unless changes are made and predator reduction programs—such as the provincial wolf cull—will only delay that extinction “in the absence of well-considered habitat management,” the study says.
“We have species that are endangered and blinking out and no one seems to want to talk about that,” Zeman said. “It will be a sad day when your grandkids realize we could have done something to have caribou in southern BC and we didn’t do anything.”
But, that common interest does not dampen the concern of some environmental groups, which do not want to see organizations such as GOABC or BCWF—which see wildlife as a resource to be harvested—given more of a voice.
Opponents say those organizations already have government’s ear to the detriment of wildlife protection groups and that the culture within ministries and the Conservation Officer Service swings towards hunting and commercial activities.
Environmental organizations point out that programs and legislation tip towards the “consumptive” rather than the protective groups and, although both sides describe themselves as conservationists, many find it tough to accept that animals should be killed in order to conserve them.
Valhalla Wilderness Society, which, like many groups, is not opposed to hunting for meat, but opposes trophy hunting and predator killing, points to government panels and hand-picked stakeholder groups that the organization believes are already dominated by hunter/trapper groups.
For example, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Katrine Conroy recently said she would work to close loopholes in wolf-killing regulations in BC and that she would consult with the BCWF and the BC Trappers Association.
That brought a flurry of objections from environmental and wildlife groups, which wanted to be included in the consultations. A ministry spokesman told Focus this week that Conroy is continuing to work with “stakeholders.” “We’ll continue to engage and work together to find a solution that works for everyone…The BCWF is an important partner in our wildlife stewardship and their interests and input into wildlife management are greatly valued,” he said.
Sara Dubois, BC Society for the Protection of Animals chief scientific officer, said BCWF has had a significant influence on the ministry for the last two decades and, during that time, there have been few policy changes—with the exception of ending the grizzly bear hunt after inexorable public pressure.
Sara Dubois, BC Society for the Protection of Animals chief scientific officer
“It’s definitely not tied to politics, it’s tied to staff in the ministry,” said Dubois who, in 2012, was turned down when she applied to sit on the provincial hunting and trapping advisory team because, she was told, it would make other organizations uncomfortable.
Wildlife management is not the same as conservation management and BC continues to manage wildlife by looking at the number of animals in a unit that can be hunted or trapped, even though it is often not clear how many animals are on the landscape, she said.
Most British Columbians do not realize that BCWF wants healthy populations of wildlife in order to be able to hunt them and that the organization was adamantly opposed to ending the grizzly bear hunt, Dubois said.
“That, of course, doesn’t align with some of the BC SPCA’s values,” she said.
Zeman said the history of BC shows that it was the hunters and anglers that stepped in a century ago to demand rules to stop over-exploitation and the federation continues to work with government to ensure sustainability.
“The reality is that if fish and wildlife is not managed sustainably you won’t get to hunt and fish in the future,” he said.
BCWF programs include many programs that have nothing to do with hunting and fishing and a sizeable number of the 43,000 members do not hunt or fish, Zeman said.
BCWF has played a central role in programs ranging from helping with the recovery of the Vancouver Island marmot to creation of the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which has helped acquire 25,000 hectares of conservation land, Zeman said. “Hunters fund non-hunted species because they care and because it’s important,” he added.
But, assurances that habitat is at the heart of concerns of groups such as BCWF and GOABC provide little comfort to Sherrod of Valhalla Wilderness Society.
“We rely on the public and media to help us convince government of the need for environmental protection,” said Sherrod. “People make associations when they see the names of organizations linked to one another. I fear it sends a message to the public, media and government that trophy hunting and its associated predator culls must be ok.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith