As the year 2017 was winding down, the host of a TV hunting show posted pictures of himself with a cougar he hunted and shot in Alberta. Hang on; here we go again. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…kaboom. Another social media hunting fiasco erupts. The pictures of the TV host with his cougar went viral. By early January 2018, the story was being picked up and amplified across North America with the all too familiar slant; “trophy hunters are psychotic killers.” The social media coverage elicited the predictable suite of toxic comments and death threats which were mostly levied against the TV host but once again felt by every hunter in North America.
We have seen this “hunter kills animal – promotes self on social media – public goes ape shit on all hunters” story over and over and over. In this post Cecil-the-Lion era, I can’t help but ask, “What did the TV host expect was going to happen?” We heard the standard rebuttals. It was a legal hunt, cougar populations need to be controlled, and hunting is a management tool. Shockingly, none of these responses pacified angry followers on social media. The TV personalty is likely contractually obligated to his sponsors to post pictures after every hunt. As a result of this fiasco, there is major anti-hunting campaign to stop cougar trophy hunting in Alberta now. Geesh, poor Alberta. I don’t think they have even gotten the “No hunting bears with spears” law enacted, and now they have to deal with figuring out what to do with trophy hunters hunting cougars to make stir fry.
The frequency of these hunting social media fiascos is too predictable as are the reactions on both sides of the fence. If the impact of hunter’s promoting themselves on social media is driving North American hunters and our hunting heritage into the ground, why does it continue to happen?
Once Upon a Time
In the “olden days,” hunters would return home after a successful hunt with their deer or moose tied to the hood or roof of their cars. Hunters in that era would drive through town, and everyone in the community would see who got what during hunting season. This ritual was a reenactment of how ancient hunters would return to their camps with their game. A successful hunt meant the people in the camp would not starve to death. A successful hunt was a time for everyone to celebrate. The hunters were celebrated, the animal was celebrated and people were thankful for the gift of wild protein. Modern hunters who returned home with their animal tied to the outside of their cars did it as a matter of necessity because most folks back in those days never owned trucks. But they also did it because it represented one of the last social rituals of hunting that harken back to the ways of our early hunter ancestors.
But times changed. People changed. Communities changed. Society changed. More and more people in communities were becoming upset with seeing dead animals tied to vehicles. Rather than give society the proverbial finger or revert to calling their neighbours “libtards” or “snowflakes,” hunters in the old days did the honourable thing. They changed and began to transport their animals home in less flamboyant ways. Hunters changed not out of shame for being a hunter. They changed out of respect for others in their community who were bothered by the sight of a dead animal or who saw this way of transporting a dead wild animal as disrespectful and indignant. Hunters of the older generation honoured the institution of hunting more than their egos. Being respectful, humble and honourable folk, they made a collective choice to behave differently in light of the community around them that was changing.
Unfortunately, we have come full circle complete with a few modernization updates. The hood of a car has been replaced by social media, and the onlookers are not a just few hundred people in town but a global community of millions. Some hunters today have not honoured the traditions established by our forefathers. Hunters are not using social media to transport their game home. Social media is not a necessity to bring home the meat. Some hunters today don’t limit their use of social media to just close friends and family. As in many other areas of society today, social media use in hunting is far too often used as a means to promote a personal brand or simply provoke a reaction from other people. I can’t even blame millennials on this one because the obsession of hunters promoting themselves on social media includes more generations than just the millennials. As much as hunters claim that we are different than the rest of society, that we are more down to earth, more time honoured, more traditional and more grounded, some hunters sure like this shiny thing society calls social media. There is so much more to hunting than a grip-n-grin photo or a hunting video. Hunters are losing control of the hunting narrative, and the way social media is being used is contributing to our demise.
Beauty and the Beast
For today’s hunter conservationists, the deeper meaning of hunting comes from the activities, traditions and rituals of the hunt. In his book Meditations on Hunting written in 1942, Spanish philosopher and hunter Josè Ortega y Gasset said, “Hunting is hard work that requires effort and skill yet it is not essential that the hunt always be successful for it to have taken place.” Hunters have returned to the woods generation after generation to pursue their own personal traditions and rituals. Hunting is natural, organic and deeply personal. This is the beauty of hunting.
When I was young, hunting magazines, books and actually going outdoors were the main stay of hunting entertainment. It was a simpler time and those employed in the hunting industry at the time were mostly writers. There were the “how-to-where-to” articles and the escapism adventure stories. Through time spent reading, hunters improved and expanded their skills by learning from the writers. A hunter who made his/her living from hunting did so because he/she was well educated on a subject and a great story teller. Some writers could take you on a hunting adventure using only their words. They could paint a vivid picture of the “hunt” that we could all identify with. We didn’t need to see their game animals being shot, we didn’t need to see logos and brand names stenciled across their hunting gear, and we didn’t need to see blood to experience the true meaning of the hunt. It was a time when hunters had control of the hunting narrative. Storytelling was king.
Enter the Beast – American Capitalism
Americans are and have always been in the forefront of wildlife conservation in North America. Canada has always followed their lead albeit far too often we are decades behind the times. The great conservationists, philosophers, wildlife science thinkers and political leaders who made a difference for wildlife in the 19th and 20th centuries were dominated by Americans who cared deeply about wildlife and wild places. Wildlife conservation movements always tended to start in the United States, and when Americans did something, they did it big. That included over exploitation as well as recovering wildlife populations, using science for wildlife management, and funding conservation. The United States of America is the leader in wildlife management in North America.
On the flip side, I’ve always joked that if you can put an engine on it and race it, make a TV show about it or turn a hobby or pastime into a billionaire dollar industry, Americans will be the first to do it. Somewhere along the way American business folk saw a big opportunity with the hunter’s affinity for “stuff,” and there was an explosion in the hunting industry. Today the North American hunting industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. The top U.S. hunting retail giants have annual gross revenues that are more than what some countries generate from their entire economies. The hunting industry is a collective term, and it is more than just the retail hunting gear and clothing sectors. It includes guide-outfitting, books, podcasts, magazines, public speakers, education and training programs, game farming, hunting-conservation organizations and, of course, entertainment.
The rise of hunting TV shows is a more recent phenomenon in the hunting industry. It’s only been in the last few decades that hunting moved into our living rooms and the number of shows and their popularity skyrocketed. Hunting shows quickly made the leap from cable network TV to the internet where the freedom to show anything is pretty much untethered. Hunter’s gobbled it up, and the pay-for-view hunting shows support a massive entertainment industry. I’ve wondered why this was even possible. If hunters are the segment of society most closely in tune with and connected to nature, why are they spending so much time glued to the computer and TV? It’s simple. We are human. We are not immune to being manipulated by sophisticated marketing techniques any more or any less than any other consumer. Hunting is a commodity.
The bottom line is that the hunting industry is about making profits. Money from hunters is as green as the money that every other consumer spends. The people that run the hunting industry are first and foremost business people. Business is about making a return on investment, differentiating the market, increasing market share, generating shareholder returns, and making a profit. The hunting industry may differ from a lot of other sectors because it does help to pay for conservation. Excise taxes paid for by the manufactures of firearms, ammunition, boating and fishing gear generate about $1 billion a year for conservation. The only problem with this part of the hunting industry is that it has nothing to do with conservation in Canada. These conservation excise taxes constructed under the user-pay benefit model only exist in the U.S. It’s mostly fish and wildlife in the U.S. that benefit from hunter’s investing in the billion dollar hunting industry. Most of the bucks from Canadian hunting retail sales will find their way back to the pockets of American business people.
The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Marketing is an entire discipline within business that people are specially trained and educated in. Marketing is about understanding how the consumer thinks and how they can be encouraged to spend more money. Marketing professionals study everything from how the human brain works to how the average person goes about their day-to-day living. Marketing puts products in front of consumers that need it; however, marketing is often used to manipulate the consumer into believing they need to buy more stuff.
One of the strategies that marketing campaigns use to push a manufacturer’s product is to use a real person that consumers can fall in love with. Product ambassador, spokesperson, poster child or model. They all mean the same thing; a likeable and believable person who convinces you that you need the product they are endorsing. For some models the product and company has to be something they believe in and actually use before they are willing to personally stand behind it. For other models, product endorsement is means to an end. It’s a job and it pays the bills.
In the hunting industry, they don’t call these people models. They are sponsored hunters, professional hunters, pro staffers or, my personal favorite, hunter athletes. Hunting TV shows are most often where the “pros” are seen by the hunter-consumer. The most typical way that marketers use this strategy is first to make the pros appear like they are just one of us. Next, it is to make them live these amazing extraordinary lives hunting 12 months of the year. Isn’t that the dream of every hunter? Quit your job and get paid to hunt. The pros are made to appear to be living your dream; a dream that you cannot realize so instead you are compelled to live your fantasy vicariously through them. Living vicariously through these TV pro hunters is meant to lead you down the path to buy stuff from their sponsors. It’s not a marketing strategy that is unique to just the hunting industry, but it is a strategy that is highly effective none the less.
Branded hunting gear and clothing nowadays is starting to make us all look more and more like NASCAR drivers. At minimum, it makes us all look like conformists and behave the way the industry wants us to. Far too many hunters have aligned themselves with a corporate brand instead of the institution of hunting, conservation or fair chase. Hunting retail companies commonly have their sponsored hunters hosting their own TV shows as a way to market products and a brand. For most of these paid pro hunters, they need to build a social media following and promote their personal brand and their sponsor’s products. Posting grip-n-grins from their sponsored hunts is one way they do this. This is where the hunter-consumer vicariously lives the dream. But this is also where we are most easily manipulated. Do you ever read what the average hunter posts on many of these sponsored hunter’s social media sites? “Great buck,” “Congrats, way to go,” “What make and caliber is your rifle,” “What brand of binos did you use,” “Where can I buy one of those packs,” “You are so lucky,” “Please take me on a hunt with you,” “I wish I were you.” It’s sad really. Maybe more like pathetic.
On a MeatEater podcast last year, guest speaker Greg Blascovich, a researcher in the United States with a PhD in political communication and President of the Keep it Public campaign, shared the results of a research study he completed on non-hunters reactions to hunters’ arguments. Blascovich’s study looked at how non-hunters attitudes towards hunting changed by accessing their reactions to 5 common arguments hunters use to justify hunting. The study assessed whether non-hunters attitudes toward hunting became more positive or remained unchanged depending on the particular argument provided to them. An interesting aspect of this study was that Blascovich found that the arguments:
- hunting needs to continue because it’s a tradition, and
- hunting is needed to control animal populations,
did not resonate with non-hunters who participated in the study, but they resonated very strongly with hunters. In fact they resonate so strongly with hunters that Blacovitch indicated that the hunting industry specifically uses these themes when it promotes products and brands to hunters.
The institution of hunting, the time-honoured traditions of our hunting heritage, and the unique and personal connections we each have with hunting has been commodified. In a reversal of the laws of nature, hunters are now the prey in the postmodern capitalist society.
Hunting TV – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I’ve been railing on some bad stuff, but don’t get me wrong; the hunting industry does have its good aspects. For decades the hunting industry and its outputs (magazines, etc) have been the forums where hunters learned new things and have simply been entertained. Nothing wrong with that. Teaching hunters new ways to improve their skills, challenging paradigms and educating each other about the challenges facing wildlife conservation are aspects of the hunting industry that are worth preserving and promoting to wider audiences. Social media and TV are just the newest communication tools being used. Social media and TV are actually one of the most efficient and effective communications tools if used constructively by hunters and the industry.
I can’t argue that the new products that the hunting industry has created and improved upon are not worth their weight in gold. At 50+ years of age, the new, lighter clothing, footwear and packs are examples of products that I appreciate immensely. Benefiting from this technology was only been made possible because the hunting industry has become large enough that manufacturers can invest in extensive R&D for their products.
The most important aspect of a growing hunting industry may be the increasing contribution hunting makes to the overall economy. The fact that hunting supports so many jobs in North America and that a handful of hunters can make a living from promoting products or themselves or by inspiring hunters to stay involved in hunting or to get involved in conservation is important if hunting is to persist in today’s society. While the average hunter is mostly concerned about protecting his/her way of life, the dollars hunters spend on their pursuits does legitimize hunting to politicians and economists who will ultimately decide the fate of hunting. Sadly, things in this world today that have economic value rather than intrinsic value are the ones law makers tend to value and protect the most. The challenge in Canada is to increase the economic value of hunting and catch up to the U.S. in terms of using those dollars to fund conservation and support more jobs.
I think some hunters and TV hunting show hosts must feel that TV and social media somehow legitimizes hunting or that hunting will be relevant to or accepted by society because it’s in main stream media. The hunting industry and its constant sophisticated targeted marketing strategies, or lack thereof, have created a type of pornography in hunting. Consequently, this has also created its fair share of associated addictions, wants, desires and humongous egos in the hunting community which has led to actions and behaviors unacceptable to society.
One of the consequences of hunting TV shows is that non-hunters can watch too. Some will argue that if you don’t like it, no one is making you watch. That’s not the point. The worst thing a hunter can do is to turn a non-hunter into an anti-hunter. Frankly, some of the TV celebrities and hunting shows do a pretty good job at arming anti-hunters’ campaigns. I can’t really blame non-hunters for getting the wrong impression of hunters if their opinions of hunting are formed just by watching a couple of hunting TV shows. Not many of us travel the world and shoot baboons and ant eaters or promote that we hunt so we can feed the local villagers on other continents all while capturing our hunt on film with a professional production and film crew.
Hunting shows and pro hunters using social media might also be creating unrealistic expectations for the average everyday hunter. Like pornography, humans can be conditioned through visual media to the point where the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred to know how to act appropriately or what to expect in the real world. The fact that so many hunting shows show a successful hunt in 22 minutes, show after show and week after week is simply not real. For so many new hunters who have not grown up in hunting families, I feel they might be getting a distorted perception of what is supposed to be happening when they go hunting. I feel too many hunters might have unrealistic expectations because of what they see on TV. Either they expect to see more game than really exists on a given unit of land or they imagine that hunting should be easier. They get frustrated when the real world doesn’t fit what they see on TV. The danger in all of this occurs when this gap between reality and fantasy causes new hunters to give up hunting.
Killing is part of hunting; that’s a fact. But TV’s infatuation with sensationalizing killing has pushed hunting TV into a realm that is simply not rooted in what hunting means to most of us. TV producers and hunting show hosts’ obsession with getting the “kill shot” on film has got to be the most detrimental part of TV hunting shows that is undermining the hunting narrative. Sadly though, this is also what sells.
Last year, hunters across North America got another black eye when a TV hunting host was convicted of poaching in order to make his TV show for a network. We all got painted with that brush. I still can’t believe that in this day and age, the hunting industry endorses old white-haired men hosting these reality TV huntress competition shows. Is it just me or is there something really wrong with this idea? Is this the message we need to be sending to our daughters let alone the general non-hunting public? What next? The Hunting Wives of Dallas? Come on producers; it’s 2018!
The hunting TV world has grown immensely. TV personalities are often even referred to now as “hunting celebrities.” They have fans; fans who want autographs and selfies at event appearances. I see some of these celebrities with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, yet the young wildlife scientists and biologists on social media who are driving the leading edge of wildlife and habitat conservation are lucky to have a few hundred followers of which only a few are hunters. In their desire to promote themselves and their brands, these hunter TV celebrities have even created Hollywood-style award ceremonies for their TV shows. I wonder how that must look from the perspective of a non-hunter. I think I’m in the same camp as comedian Jerry Seinfeld on this one.
By far the most detrimental aspect of this self-promotion culture we see in the pro hunters on social media is the monkey-see monkey-do phenomena. While a few of these professionally produced hunting shows are made by people that know what they are doing, when it comes to telling a story using film media, the hype and advancement in personal technology has spawned a generation of amateur hunting film makers. It’s great that hunters can capture their hunts on film for their own lasting memories. But the ones that feel they should share their [poorly] edited films and photos with the world may be the biggest hammer driving nails in the coffin of the North American Hunting Heritage. There is more than one type of home made film that should just stay in the privacy of the home, and amateur hunting films certainly qualify.
The Power of the Consumer
In Canadian conservationist Shane Mahoney’s Keynote Address at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s 2017 National Convention, he said,
“We have given them [the public] enough fodder in our television shows that we think of them [wild animals] as targets. So maybe after 25 years of that experiment we ought to start telling them [the public] we love them [wild animals]. Because deep down everyone does. We [hunters] have something in common with society.”
Is the current way hunting TV shows and these pro sponsored hunters are portraying hunting and hunters the best way to show society we care and that we really do have something in common with them? Do we have control of our own future when the hunting industry is the one telling our story on TV and social media? Is capturing the kill shot really what hunters need in order to keep society’s support for hunting?
The way the hunting industry represents hunting and hunters in North America persists because of one reason. Hunters allow it to. If you want to change how hunting is portrayed on TV or in social media, the power to change is in your, the consumer’s, control. If you don’t like what you see on hunting TV shows, write the producer and write the network. If you don’t like the articles, photos or advertisements in magazines, write the editors. If you don’t like a pro hunter’s social media style, write them and tell them to ratchet it down. Ultimately the companies whose brands you choose not to purchase will speak the loudest. If you don’t like how your peers are representing the institution of hunting, then tell them they need to reel it in. If you see hunters getting bullied on social media for standing up for the image of hunting, then support them. If you are okay with hunters hammering nails into our collective coffin, then there is no need to get off the couch.
Many hunter folk find it difficult to put their feelings into words when they want to react to something on social media. Far too often when a hunter does challenge or speak out against the status quo with a different perspective, other hunters simply attack him or her. This type of bullying, I suspect, is keeping many hunters from getting involved in the discussion. So I’ve created these two graphics you can copy and paste to your desktop. Use them when you can’t figure out what to say but want to send a message to your fellow hunters who are using social media. They are simple, honest and to the point. That’s good social media marketing.
Flogging the Proverbial Dead Horse
The grizzly bear hunt debate has been one of the most damaging and divisive issues in conservation in B.C.’s recent history. It’s been a debate filled with toxic public discussions, hate, polarization, death threats, fake information and self-serving interests.
We continue to hear politicians and groups speaking in the media about these “polls” that justified the hunting ban decision. Some people purport that a 2015 poll stated, “91% of British Columbians opposed the trophy hunting of grizzly bears”, when in fact the 2015 poll in question did not draw that conclusion. The 2015 poll often referred to in the media and by politicians was not specifically asking British Columbians about their opinions on the grizzly hunt. The 2015 poll surveyed only 1,003 adult British Columbians and it failed to meet acceptable standards for public opinion polls. The only truthful conclusion that could have been made from the 2015 poll was that: 91% of the 1,003 people surveyed (912 people) were opposed to trophy hunting which was simply defined as killing animals for their fur. This 2015 poll had nothing to do with the current grizzly hunting debate at all.
As the 2017 election was ramping up another poll conveniently surfaced which reported that 74% of rural British Columbians oppose hunting grizzlies. This poll was paid for by the Commercial Bear Viewing Association and a cosmetics company. The poll surveyed voters in 5 electoral districts (there are 85 electoral districts in B.C.). There were approximately 147,000 registered voters in those 5 districts. A total of only 400 voters were selected and the poll failed to achieve the minimum accepted standards for reliable public opinion polls. Even the 74% figure from the 2017 poll was misleading based on the how the survey structured its questions. The only truthful conclusion that could have been made from the 2017 poll was that 51% of the 400 respondents (204 people) were “strongly in favour” of a hunting ban and 23% (92 people) where “somewhat in favour” of a hunting ban. I’m not sure how a person can be somewhat in favour of a hunting ban; however, the option to pick this response was likely a sneaky polling tactic so they could bump up the total. Politicians were often quoting these polls saying that the results represented the opinions of 4.6 million people in B.C.
Another “fact” often quoted in the grizzly hunting debate included statements to the effect that bear viewing generates more revenue than hunting in B.C. This “fact” relied on a single independently conducted study. This study was paid for by the commercial bear viewing industry and only 13 of the 53 bear viewing operators in the Great Bear Rainforest study area provided complete financial reports for the economic analysis. Financial data for the remaining 40 bear viewing operators were “estimated where possible…” The study was not a full economic analysis of bear viewing or hunting across the entire province as some claimed it was.
Is U.S. Style Politics Now the Norm in the Management of Public Wildlife in B.C.?
The truthfulness of the two polls and the bear viewing vs. hunting economic analysis was never independently verified by experts. It appears that not one single elected official or election candidate bothered to look critically at any of these polls or data to ensure a public policy decision was going to be based on factual information. The government stated 78% of the submissions it received in the grizzly policy public comment period that was open in late 2017 supported a full hunting ban (i.e., no meat retention hunt) yet the comment submissions were never set up to be a defensible and unbiased public opinion poll at the start of it all. Sadly, all these things mean that alternative facts and fake news have taken a firm grip on making public policy decisions in natural resource management in B.C.
Public policy decision making for wildlife conservation requires un-biased scientific research in the fields of wildlife ecology/biology and human dimensions (i.e., human values and relationships to wildlife). Part of the controversy over the grizzly hunt has been a large misunderstanding over which type of science should drive public policy in wildlife management. Some people even suggested that science should not be used at all in making public decisions about wildlife management especially when it comes to the topic of hunting large carnivores. A world class wildlife management program will use both types of science equally for policy decision making. What we had happen with the grizzly hunt ban decision was a failure of government and the public to stand up for the truth and advocate for the use of proper science in public policy decision making. Regardless of personal values, positions or opinions people on both sides of the fence should always demand the truth. The people of B.C. deserve verifiable and defensible facts be brought to the table for any public policy discussion. Fake news and alternative facts are what hunter conservationists need to fight against in 2018 whether the mis-information is coming from within the hunting community or outside of it.
The folks that are happy with the grizzly hunt ban likely say, “So what? We won”. After all, the polls said what they wanted them to say. If the post truth era approach is the path we as a province want to go down for wildlife conservation then we should expect to continue to witness further declines in biodiversity. Decision making based on the populist approach and substandard social science will, in the long run, hurt wildlife more than it will benefit wildlife. As a society, if our basic decision making premise is flawed who really wins? Win-lose outcomes never stand the test of time and often these decisions get reversed by another populist decision which is exactly what happen last time B.C. imposed a ban on grizzly hunting. Wildlife management in this province desperately needs to become non-partisan which means more decisions about conservation need to be made at the regional or community-levels using social and wildlife science as well as First Nations Traditional Ecological Knowledge as the basis for facts. The goal for wildlife conservation needs to be about finding win-win solutions at the community level. Wildlife conservation is not straight forward. It is has many complex layers like an onion or puzzle whose layers and pieces don’t perfectly fit together. Often the human side of wildlife conservation is the toughest nut to crack and human values, goals, needs and wants are the most difficult aspects of conservation to reconcile. What we do know is that examples of modern wildlife conservation success stories from around the world are showing us that communities must find their own win-win solutions if they want to achieve the collective goal of protecting and sustaining wildlife populations. Finding win-win solutions mean that all sides of any wildlife management debate need to give a bit in order to find the middle ground in the personal values, goals, wants and needs arena.
The True Cost of the Debate
The grizzly hunt debate has come at the expense of the big picture problem facing wildlife conversation in British Columbia. B.C. is the most diverse and biologically rich jurisdiction in North America yet B.C. invests the least amount into conservation, science and the management of the public’s natural resources. For example, B.C. invests about $36 per square km of land into wildlife management yet Idaho with less than a quarter of our land area and a third of B.C.’s population invests approximately $488 per square km of land into wildlife management.
How does funding for wildlife management in B.C. stack up?
The grizzly debate in 2017 and the lingering odor of it in 2018 is coming at the expense of figuring out how hunting license and tags fees can all be put back into conservation. If this could ever be realized it would immediately add about another $12-13 million to conservation. Once all tags and license fees are dedicated back to wildlife conservation most hunters I believe will accept an increase in the cost of their license and tags. We could easily within 12 months double the provincial funding available to wildlife management. We have yet to have meaningful dialogue in this province on how other outdoor users and commercial eco-businesses can pay into conversation too. But the grizzly bear debate was and continues to be a boat anchor for this bigger discussion. If we can get past the strife that this grizzly hunt debate has created, B.C. could easily rank number 1 in wildlife funding which, given our landmass and biodiversity it should be.
Some folks say now that the grizzly ban is in place it’s time to move onto these other more important issues. Like the Cecil-the-lion, Namibia black rhino hunt, bear 148 and Alberta cougar hunt social media fiascos society as whole has proven this will not happen. Consequently we will continue to lose the things that make B.C. Super Natural including steelhead, salmon, caribou and moose because the majority of people tend to lose interest in conservation (and paying for conservation) once the sensationalized aspects of a controversy fades away. If you are a non-hunter concerned about funding for wildlife conservation please prove me wrong.
The grizzly hunt ban is a loss of opportunity for resident hunters and it will make the next few years or even the next decade much harder for many of the province’s small family run Guide-Outfitter businesses to make ends meet in their households. I know hunter conservationists and scientists will continue to work together on grizzly bear conservation and I predict that a version of the grizzly hunt will eventually return to B.C. as a means to support conservation. Wide swings in the pendulum eventually find the middle ground. It just needs time for some rational discussion, more listening to each other and a higher level of respect for one another. However, we must all continue to focus on making the big picture of wildlife management a priority in B.C. and that it is operated under a framework that is much better supported by world-class funding and science including wildlife and social science.
It is time for B.C. to mature and for the grizzly bear hunting debate to die.
A typical landscape in B.C. with a high density of resource roads.
The Road Density Dilemma
Road density is an important consideration in natural resource management because high road densities can lead to negative impacts on fish and wildlife populations. Road density is reported as kilometers of road per square kilometer of land. High road densities can increase vulnerability of wildlife to hunting during hunting seasons. Lots of roads in an area can lead to high levels of recreational motor vehicle and human activity that can disrupt wildlife while they are trying to use their winter, natal or pre-natal habitats. Human activity in regions with high road densities can push wildlife away from valuable foraging habitats and mortality from vehicle collisions can increase in areas that have more roads. High road densities reduce the productive capability of the land and can affect migration behavior and movement patterns of wildlife. Roads increase the spread of invasive weeds into the back country and areas with high road densities can increase the effectiveness of natural predators when they are hunting. High road density is also correlated with impacts to some types of fish and aquatic habitats. Roads can create fish migration barriers when culverts are used instead of bridges, increase erosion into spawning habitat and water temperature can increase near stream crossings when the riparian vegetation cover is removed.
Seismic lines and roads from oil and gas development in north eastern British Columbia increase the efficiency at which wolves hunt and kill the endangered boreal caribou. Roads also disrupt water flow in the ancient bogs and fens and that can cause declines in reindeer lichen communities which are important forage sites for caribou.
Running Out of Room
A new research paper titled: Effects of habitat quality and access management on the density of a recovering grizzly bear population highlights the negative impacts roads are having on grizzly bears in a study area in B.C. including displacing bears from high quality habitats. The study shows human use of roads reduces the density of grizzly bears but closing roads increased bear density in the closure areas by 27% compared to areas with no road closures. An easy to read synopsis of the new research paper can be found here.
Effects of habitat quality and access management on the density of a recovering grizzly bear population. January 2018. Authors: Clayton T. Lamb, Garth Mowat, Aaron Reid, Laura Smit, Michael Proctor, Bruce N. McLellan, Scott E. Nielsen, and Stan Boutin. Graphic courtesy of Clayton T. Lamb
The Cumulative Problem
In British Columbia, resource roads are created by many industries including: mining exploration, oil and gas development, utility corridor construction, forest fire suppression and logging. In most places in B.C., timber harvesting creates the most amounts of roads on the land base. When science is telling us that high road densities can impact fish and wildlife why aren’t more roads being closed or reclaimed?
The reasons more roads are not being reclaimed include:
- There are no legislated objectives for road density that ensure road building doesn’t adversely impact fish and wildlife.
- There are no legal requirements for wildlife scientists to be involved in providing advice to natural resource management decision makers in B.C.
- There are no legislated objectives for fish or wildlife populations in B.C.
- There are no landscape-scale wildlife management plans that prioritize areas needing intensive access management .
- Wildlife managers do not have statutory authority to implement motor vehicle restrictions to protect fish, wildlife or habitat values. Restricting the use of motor vehicles on resource roads has to be legislated by government.
- Cumulative effects of road construction across the various resource industries are not regulated under a single legislation framework. Every industry has different legislation it needs to follow with respect to managing access and wildlife values.
How Does the Timber Appraisal System Affect Whether Logging Roads are Reclaimed?
The timber appraisal system in B.C. is essentially an accounting manual that guides the forest industry on the amounts they can claim as deductions against the price they have to pay the province for cutting crown timber. The higher the “deductions” that get factored into the valuation of timber the lower the amount the timber royalty (stumpage) will be that a forest company has to pay the province.
Every year the major forest companies in the province submit annual costs incurred during forest management including costs for logging, road building, reforestation and road management. These costs are analyzed and compiled by government statisticians in the timber pricing branch to produce average costs for each given Timber Supply Area (TSA) in the province. These cost deductions are called stumpage or appraisal allowances and there are specific allowances for the different activities related to timber harvesting including: logging on different slopes types, choice of harvesting systems (conventional vs. cable logging), road construction on different slope types and the amount of rock encountered during road building as well as the reforestation method that will be used (natural vs. planting).
Some timber appraisal allowances are calculated by lumping several forest management activities into one appraisal allowance category. Road management is an example of a lumped stumpage allowance category. Road management includes an average all-found cost for grading, drainage management, grass seeding, snow plowing, road signage and access management which includes road deactivation. In fact, in B.C.’s interior the allowance given for road management has to cover 25 different forest road management activities. There is a financial disincentive for forest companies when it comes to reducing road density because road deactivation costs are lumped into this general road maintenance category. If road maintenance ends up costing more than the appraisal allowance then a forest company can potentially lose money logging a particular area if they also reclaim all their roads.
What Triggers a Forest Company to Have to Reclaim its Roads?
A forest company receives an allowance for road maintenance whether they do any road reclamation or not because access management is factored into the general road maintenance appraisal category. There should be legal mechanisms to ensure companies are reclaiming roads at least to the degree equal to what they were given in their road maintenance stumpage allowance. The only trigger, however, that obligates a forest company to reclaim roads is whether they identified it in their Forest Stewardship Plan (FSP). A Forest Stewardship Plan is a document that broadly defines where timber harvesting and road building are going to take place each year. If road reclamation is identified in a forest company’s FSP the commitment to reduce road density becomes a legal obligation that the forest company has to uphold. Some forest companies are trying to reduce their operating costs so they do not commit to doing much or any road reclamation in their FSPs. Newly constructed roads simply get left and added to the cumulative road density of the area that was logged. Wildlife managers are then left with few options to protect wildlife and habitat values in highly roaded environments. Sometimes it is a struggle for wildlife managers to get the government to consider passing legislation to restrict motor vehicle use in sensitive wildlife habitats. Often politicians don’t see enacting new motor vehicle restrictions for wildlife management as a priority topic to be discussing in the legislature. In other cases, politicians distance themselves from making these types of decisions because of the controversy surrounding road closures created by interest groups that want to be able to drive on new roads especially roads that allow them to get to high alpine vistas.
In some areas of the province where other values and social pressures are high, forest companies may be forced by social license to fully deactivate roads after logging is finished. In Timber Supply Areas (TSA) where forest companies are forced into doing higher amounts of road reclamation the average road maintenance costs reported to the government statisticians are higher. The statisticians convert those higher costs to a higher stumpage allowance. Once a forest company receives a higher stumpage allowance for road deactivation there is more incentive for the forest company to deactivate roads after logging is completed. The more roads that are deactivated the higher the cost allowance is the next time the allowances are calculated. Consequently when the allowances go up the easier it is for forest companies to commit to road reclamation. It is a kind of positive feedback loop. But without firm legislated objectives governing road density the whole process of reducing roads on the land base needs to be initiated by conservationists demanding that more road reclamation take place in a particular area of concern.
The Future Problem
Timber supply is tight in the province and competition for fibre is intense. There is no overarching legal mechanism requiring forest companies to maintain or reduce road densities below thresholds that scientists tell us are better for wildlife populations. Because of timber supply shortages in some parts of B.C., forest companies are building roads to every merchantable patch of timber they can find which is pushing them into areas they never would have traditionally tried to access. The result is more roads are being built in the high mountainous and remotest regions of the province where many of the more sensitive wildlife species live including mountain sheep, mountain goats, caribou and grizzly bears. LiDar (an air-borne mapping system) is emerging as a new technology that cost-effectively identifies patches of merchantable timber in remote hard to get to areas. New techniques for cost effectively logging on very steep slopes are also emerging. New types of logging equipment are being designed that could potentially replace human operated equipment with unmanned robotic drones that are guided through the forest by GPS and computer programs. In the absence of legislation that is more protective of fish and wildlife the long-term outlook for forest roads in B.C. is a trend of increasing road density and increasing negative impacts to fish and wildlife.
What can you do to help turn this around?
- Meet with your elected officials and tell them B.C. needs legislation to limit the cumulative effects of roads on fish and wildlife.
- Report people who ignore mandatory road closures put in place to protect wildlife. Report abusers using the Provincial Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) hotline at 1-877-952-7277 or use the BC Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Reporting app that can be installed on your smart phone.
- Get together with other like-minded conservation stakeholders and become involved in reviewing Forest Stewardship Plans. Advocate to forest companies and government officials where access management is needed to protect sensitive fish and wildlife populations.
The public has the power to give or take away social license. Advocating for reduced road densities can be done in the board room. Taking away social license can be done in the voting booth.
“Managing to Zero” is when;
- Wildlife populations are in a long-term decline,
- There is no plan to recover the populations to former levels and,
- The only management action is to continually ratchet hunting seasons down so that hunting is not a cause of the population declines.
Are Hunters Contributing to the “Managing to Zero” Approach?
The problem with trying to get government committed to science-based wildlife management is compounded when hunters are only advocating for reductions in hunting seasons. More and more I am seeing that the standard “go-to” response from hunters is to advocate for shortening the hunting seasons and ask that government take hunting opportunities away. The most concerning part of this approach to hunter advocacy is there is often no solid evidence showing that hunting regulations are causing the declines in the first place. This is a dangerous approach to advocacy because it is driving hunters, wildlife managers and politicians down the road of endorsing populist wildlife management like we saw with the grizzly hunting ban decision.
If all hunters want is less hunting and they hassle and embarrass government to get their way the easiest cost-effective way for government to fix the problem is to take hunting away rather than invest in recovering wildlife populations. If a little bit less hunting is good for wildlife then is a lot less hunting even better? The messages we should be telling politicians are: Declining populations are the problem not hunting and investing in wildlife management is what it will take to recover wildlife populations.
Managing to Zero – Case in Point
In British Columbia, some wildlife populations and hunter harvest levels have been on a downward trend for many decades. For example, in B.C.’s Region 5 wildlife management unit the moose population suffered significant multiple population crashes over the last several decades. After each successive crash attempts were made to recover the moose population by eliminating antlerless seasons, closing the any bull GOS season, shortening the length of the bull seasons and putting bulls on Limited Entry. None of these changes to the hunting regulations caused the population to rebound. With minimal science and investment in moose management we don’t know exactly what is causing the moose declines or what combinations of factors or conditions are limiting their population recovery. The total moose harvest in Region 5 went from 3000+ moose to a few hundred in a period of 25 years yet there is still no formal science-based management plan to recover moose in Region 5. Research is under way to find out the answers but it’s only been started recently as a result of hunters raising concerns about moose numbers.
Region 5 moose harvest trends. Moose are victims of the Managing to Zero approach.
Wildlife Management Regions in British Columbia
In British Columbia’s Region 4 wildlife management unit the mule deer population crashed after the severe winter of 1996/1997 and consequently the hunter harvest crashed. The seasons were shortened in length, mule deer does seasons were closed and bucks were restricted to 4 points. With all these changes to the hunting regulations over the years mule deer have never recovered in Region 4. B.C. has not invested enough in mule deer research to know what factors are preventing the population from rebounding. Consequently we do not know how to recover the deer populations. Mule deer in Region 4 are a victim of the Managing to Zero approach and some hunters continue to advocate for more hunting restrictions on mule deer rather than demanding a science-based recovery plan.
Hunters recognized these declines decades ago and they have been demanding that the government take action to rebuild the populations. Hunters, guides and trappers are very in tune with what is going on in the areas they are familiar with. Local knowledge can be the early warning red flags that signal when more intense management is needed. This is why hunter’s field observations need to be documented in a systematic, objective and meaningful way to help verify wildlife monitoring data.
Region 4 mule deer harvest trends. Mule deer are a victim of the Managing to Zero approach.
Obviously, when a wildlife population continues to decline hunting will need to stop at some point. Some hunters in B.C. continue to suggest white-tailed deer populations are crashing but harvest data suggest the long-term trend is one of increasing harvest and increasing populations. Many of the Bighorn Sheep herds in Region 4 have fallen below the threshold of 75 animals where provincial harvest policy says that hunting needs to be suspended. There are no science-based recovery plans being developed for sheep but this fact garners little protest from hunters. Bighorn sheep of the Rocky Mountains and Purcell Mountains of southeastern B.C. are victims of the Managing to Zero approach, lack of funding for sheep management and hunter apathy.
The Real Big Picture
Wildlife scientists are starting to tell us they are seeing similar patterns in the ups and downs of wildlife populations across western North America. There are no solid explanations yet but the oscillation of long-term continental weather patterns is one theory being looked at. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a 30-40 year natural oscillation in the warm currents of the Pacific Ocean. The PDO has already been linked to wildfire cycles as well as population fluctuations in Dall’s Sheep in North America. Wildlife populations across the continent are managed by many different approaches to regulating hunting. It is highly unlikely that with today’s conservation and science-based hunting regulations that hunting seasons in any one jurisdiction plays such a major role in influencing the long-term population trends of wildlife across such large regions.
What are We Trying to Accomplish?
If wildlife populations are going to be restored there has to be clearly defined objectives for what wildlife managers need to achieve. Without objectives there can be no detailed management plans. Without detailed management plans wildlife management is ad hoc and directionless. Did you know that it is law in B.C. that protecting wildlife or habitat cannot be done in a way that unduly impacts timber supply? There is no legislation that says timber extraction must not unduly impact wildlife populations. That’s right. Wildlife managers cannot make decisions in the best interest of wildlife that impact timber supply. There is no legislation in B.C. that says mule deer, moose or any other wildlife species must be maintained at specific population levels. Without legislated objectives for wildlife populations as the starting point every other discussion about wildlife management is pretty much a moot discussion.
When it comes to advocating for the recovery of declining wildlife populations there are three general camps on the issue.
Camp 1. Hunters with a Heart
“Hunters with a Heart” are the hunters who honestly feel if giving up hunting will bring back wildlife populations they are willing to forego their own opportunities. During the unregulated exploitation periods of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the history of conservation in Canada included placing restrictions on hunting so wildlife populations could recover. The “Hunters with a Heart” mean well. They are unselfish and willing to give up something important to them for conservation. But they have fallen into the trap of believing that hunting in the 21st century under strict conservation principles and regulatory controls is the cause of population declines. The overall wildlife management model in B.C. has failed these hunters by allowing them to feel they are the problem. Hunters are bombarded with anti-hunting messages, negative media coverage and even substandard research that paints the picture that hunting is now bad for conservation. Wildlife managers and biologists should be clearly standing up and telling the government, public and media that hunting is sustainable and there is no reason to keep taking away from hunters. Too many hunters seem to believe they are the cause of wildlife problems and hunting regulations are seen by many as the only way to recover declining populations.
Camp 2. Hunter Hating Hunters
There is a small subculture in the hunting community comprised of hunters who hate other hunters being out in the mountains and enjoying success. There are folks who would like nothing more than hunting to be so restrictive that they are the only ones in the woods. In other areas of society this elitism manifests itself when the cost of an activity becomes a barrier to entry and only the rich can enjoy it. In hunting, making hunting regulations so restrictive that hunters say, “Screw it” and quit is something the “Hunter Hating Hunters” actually want to have happen. The real sinister part of this subculture is when folks use the situation of declining wildlife populations to advocate for shorter seasons, more restrictions, less opportunity and advocate for pretty much anything that reduces the number of hunters. These folks might not even be interested in having populations rebound so more people can enjoy success and the number of hunters can increase. Rather they might hope for the opposite. Often these hunter haters stand out in the crowd because they are the loudest ones at public meetings or they are the ones pushing their opinions over and over again in the local newspapers. They use the word “I” a lot and often use coercive tactics to get a group of people aligned with their way of thinking. Often their arguments lack logic and their opinions on hunting regulations are self-serving. You can often recognize these hunters because they advocate for restrictions that affect everyone else except them. For example, I recently read a submission where hunters said: “spike elk should be closed, hunting bull elk in the rut should be closed, the elk season should be shortened by 10 days and the remaining cow permits should be revoked”. At the same time the submission said, “Senior hunters should be allowed to hunt any elk at any elevation all season long”.
Camp 3. Hunters-4-Science
The “Hunters-4-Science” are the folks that want science and objectives to drive wildlife management. They are critical thinkers and well-versed in the scientific literature as well as being knowledgeable about wildlife management concepts and government policy. Some of these hunters are actual wildlife scientists. “Hunters-4-Science” believe that wildlife policy needs to be based on solid wildlife and human dimensions research. The “Hunters-4-Science” are often the ones asking questions rather than stating opinions at public meetings. They are the ones most proactive in engaging with biologists and politicians to find solutions to problems. “Hunters-4-Science” recognize that the future of hunting relies on sustainable wildlife populations and they know that sustainable wildlife populations rely on world-class funding for wildlife management, lots of science and lots of voters who care deeply about wildlife.
Does your Dog Bite?
There are many more examples of Managing to Zero in B.C. including salmon and steelhead populations that are on the brink of extinction because recovering their populations have never been a conservation priority. But all these examples share the same theme; our management approach in B.C. far too often involves watching fish and wildlife disappear from the land and then simply restricting fishing and hunting opportunities.
We risk getting bit in our collective asses when hunters take to the airwaves to start publicly stating that they want hunting regulations to be more restrictive or for hunting seasons to be shortened because hunting is causing wildlife declines. Some hunters believe that if they give up something in the name of conservation that the relinquished opportunity will be given back to them in the future when populations rebound. History has shown this does not happen. These folks trust that the media will report their claims something like this:
Headlines: “Hunters generously ask for reduced hunting seasons to help recover wildlife populations.”
When in today’s explosive and emotionally charged public forums the hunter’s words are more likely going to be turned against us something like:
Headlines: “Hunters admit they are devastating wildlife populations – Is it time to ban all hunting forever?”
Once this kind of headline hits the media there is no going back. Hunters have no control over what the media or social media does with their statements and we once again risk losing control of the hunting narrative. The media is most interested in reporting the angle of a story that creates controversy. In the eyes of B.C.’s media right now hunters are the evil doers and that’s the angle that sells papers. The anti-hunters are looking for anything hunters do or say so they can pounce and continue to drive nails in the coffin of our hunting heritage. I ask that hunters stop handing the anti-hunters nails and that they begin to work more collaboratively with biologists, scientists and other stakeholder groups so we can solve our most critical wildlife population problems using science and the roundtable approach. This doesn’t mean discounting hunter’s field observations, ideas or opinions but it does mean harnessing them and integrating them with sound wildlife science. This is how hunter conservationists and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation got us to the 21st century. As much as some folks state that the good old days of hunting are gone I firmly believe that things are pretty damn good right now! There are some wildlife populations in B.C. that are in need of intensive management and recovery but there are also many species and populations that are doing quite well. We still have an amazing landscape to hunt and some of the best opportunities in all of North America. For our youth hunters just starting out in hunting today is their good old days. Let’s not keep discouraging them by saying the good old days are gone.
What can you do to help? In my previous article I outlined 12 things hunters can do to create a positive change in 2018. These twelve mantras can also be applied to the issue of Managing to Zero.
Additional steps hunters can take to help include:
- Approaching issues with “eyes-wide-open” so you are aware of power plays.
- Focusing on the “Big Picture” vision for hunting and wildlife conservation.
- Presenting well-thought out messages in public forums that cannot be spun by the media.
- Demanding people speak the truth and back up opinions with facts.
- Shifting the discussion away from hunting regulations to that of science-based wildlife management.
- Telling your elected officials you want government to create legislated objectives for fish and wildlife populations.
Is it time we stopped pulling on the lever marked “hunting regulations?”