“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.
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.
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?”