On the issue of an independent wildlife agency: some reference points. (Part 1)

THE ISSUE

When the government announced that all hunting license revenue, plus $5 million in government start-up money, would be invested in an independent agency to manage BC wildlife, we in the wildlife advocacy community asked: how could such a critical public policy decision about the future of B.C. wildlife be decided upon by a lobby group whose primary interest was managing game populations for hunting and trapping? 

Tracking the paper trail of this idea reveals that the people driving this model of wildlife management have a particular mindset that is inconsistent with contemporary social values of British Columbians and out of sync with a broader vision for ecosystem health.  Instead, it has roots deeply buried in historic sportsmen ideology and a combative win/lose model.   

A COMBATIVE MODEL

Guides are not the enemy of resident hunters. Anti-hunters are the enemy. Let’s unite against them rather than continuing with this old unproductive feud between the two groups of British Columbians who actually believe in hunting.”   

                                                                                                   ~ Bill Bennett, huntingbc.ca, 2015 ~

As early as 2002, Bill Bennett had his private member’s bill The Hunting and Fishing Heritage Act passed, for which he was awarded a life membership in the BC Wildlife Federation.  Over a tumultuous political career, Mr. Bennett repeatedly injected himself into policy related to wildlife.  When the government released changes to B.C.’s wildlife allocations in December 2014, Mr. Bennett waded into the fray to defend resident hunter’s rights.  Along with the BCWF, he was successful in having the allocations revised.  By February 2015, the government increased shares for resident hunters, who were somewhat appeased but vowed to continue fighting for greater recognition of their resident hunting rights.  The strong influence of Bill Bennett on issues to do with hunting rights, allocations and the grizzly trophy hunt ascended to even higher profile at this point. His self-image as a “street fighter” and resident hunter fueled his determination to have all hunters unite against non-hunters:

It is tempting for many hunters to think that BC could do without the guide outfitting business, but that is short sighted. Hunters are a tiny minority of the overall population in BC. We need all the allies we can get and the guides are as committed to the future of hunting as us resident hunters are. For example, they have resources to defend the grizzly bear hunt that we benefit from. Guides also bring a lot of valuable intelligence on local wildlife to government managers. I know this because government wildlife biologists tell me that. Frankly, we need to bury the hatchet with the guiding industry and work together on issues important to all hunters, like growing the populations and controlling predators. We’ll all be better off for it and so will wildlife.

                                                                                              ~ Bill Bennett, huntingbc.ca, 2015 ~

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

The wildlife allocation skirmish of 2015 seems to be the flash point for a “dedicated funding model”, which eventually led to the independent wildlife agency currently proposed.   Bill Bennett even assumed personal credit, saying “It is something I have personally been working on for two years, following a recommendation I made in my Core Review Report in December 2015 (NB: for which no reference is sourced).  I’ve been working on the idea for a decade and it is an important part of my legacy as a B.C. MLA.” In fact, he admits that the proposal is a major shift in policy:  “It is not in response to the current concern about wildlife populations and is not simply an election announcement.  It is an important public policy announcement, a major change in direction.” The BCWF echoed a similar sentiment, saying “A dedicated funding model is a concept the BCWF has been promoting for the past two years.”

A major change in public policy direction for which only the hunting/trapping organizations had initial input!

In the two years between 2015 and 2017, several major initiatives emerged that did put pressure on both government and hunter organizations to want to secure their entitlement to hunt for sport, recreation and profit, as well as food.  Here is a timeline of events:

Dec./14-Feb./15  Wildlife allocations are disputed between resident/non-resident organizations

April 2016  NDP MLA Katrine Conroy introduces her bill, the Sustainable Wildlife Management Act

June 2016    At the request of the David Suzuki Foundation and the Victoria Environmental Law Centre, the Auditor-general opens her investigation into provincial management of the controversial grizzly trophy hunt

November 2016  John Horgan announces that, if elected in 2017, his government would end the grizzly trophy hunt

March/16-May/17  NGOs and citizen groups wage concerted opposition to the BC grizzly trophy hunt through social media, petition, press, letters, film, etc. aimed at making the grizzly hunt an election issue

Feb. 2017  The Grizzly Bear Foundation Report comes out with comprehensive recommendations, including termination of the BC grizzly hunt.  NB:  In their response to the Grizzly Bear Foundation report, BCWF makes public mention of having long advocated for a new wildlife management funding model in B.C.

March 13 2017  Bill Bennett hints at a new wildlife management model being discussed between the BCWF and the government

March 22 2017  Government announces the new independent wildlife agency.  Bill Bennett applauds the move stating that an agency that is separate from government would do a better job of managing animal populations because they would be relieved of the politics and precautionary principle that prevent aggressive/lethal control of predators such as wolves and grizzlies.

March 23-April 26 2017  BCWF holds town hall meetings throughout the province, galvanizing members to comment on declining game populations, declining budgets for wildlife conservation and “lack of science” for wildlife management

May 4 2017  Five hunting organizations (The BC Wildlife Federation, Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia, Wild Sheep Society of British Columbia, Wildlife Stewardship Council and the B.C. Trappers Association) announce their signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, cementing their solidarity to make sure the province follows up on their commitment to grow wildlife populations.

SCIENCE AND PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

The Liberal government insists their wildlife decisions are based upon “best available science” but we have to wonder how reliable that science can be.  A 2013 report from Evidence for Democracy, based on a survey of 1159 government scientists across BC ministries, reveals that the majority of government scientists feel severely hampered by lack of funding for their research and by restrictions on what they are allowed to report about their findings.  They also evidence concerns about increased outsourcing to external professionals who may have a conflict of interest “when those same professionals are employed by the same industry the government is required to regulate.”

We have to wonder also about who the government chooses to partner with when outsourcing authority to private organizations.  The template for the new independent wildlife agency is based on the Freshwater Fisheries Society, an agency created in 2015 that receives all money raised through the sale of BC freshwater fishing licences, and which benefits the angling industry.  The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which receives funding via surcharges on hunting and fishing licenses, is dominated by directors from hunting organizations and other government partners.  A review of directors on each of these private agencies shows cross-pollination of hunting and fishing sportsmen ideology that may be limited in scope and not representative of the majority social-ecological values held by British Columbians.  Indeed, The Freshwater Fisheries Society, along with two other fishing organizations, has gained support from Destination BC to ..”expand the reach of BC’s dynamic tourism brand” through better alignment of marketing messages.  One cannot help but wonder if the same marketing messages would be extended through an independent wildlife agency, to recruit more hunters to B.C.

NEW VISION

It’s not possible to advance new vision using old constructs.  Living in an age of rapidly changing social and environmental realities requires us to innovate models that fit new realities – because old models will only give us the same results.  Our collective reality now is that if we want clean air, clean technology, healthy ecosystems and a balance of human-to-nonhuman coexistence, then we must find ways to build bridges across the values of consumptive and non-consumptive ways of viewing the world.  A model based primarily on historic sportsmen ideology simply is not the way forward for healthy ecosystems; it’s going to take a mulit-disciplinary approach.  The role for NGOs and civic groups is to bring citizen concerns forward to government, to monitor and advocate for fair, reasonable and contemporary public policy and to expand public awareness.  We are early warning systems that send up red flags when public policy decisions are being made that are not in the best interest of social-ecological values.

Having a minority-coalition government is the perfect opportunity to practice methods of bridging across diverse ideologies and to cultivate new reference points for public policy that are consistent with British Columbian’s values and ecological ethics.

V.M. May 26/17

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