A Vision for a Modern Wildlife Habitat Management Framework for British Columbia

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British Columbia is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America

The BC government is embarking on a new initiative to develop an updated wildlife & habitat management framework and wildlife conservation funding model for the the province. It is an exciting initiative and it is has become a reality as a result of the years of advocacy led by the BC Wildlife Federation. The article below is from a submission I made to the province during the open public consultation phase of the  Wildlife and Habitat Engagement process currently underway until July 31st, 2018. The article outlines 12 components of a modern habitat management framework for BC.

Where Are We At With Habitat Management in British Columbia?

British Columbia is one of North America’s most biologically diverse jurisdictions; however, the province has an ever-increasing list of species at risk, declining fish and wildlife populations, and is at an all-time low in terms of funding and capacity related to natural resource management and enforcement. The investment going back into the land is declining while the pressures on the land are increasing. The August 2015 report – Getting the Balance Right: Improving Wildlife Habitat Management in British Columbia[1] was a first step in addressing this imbalance, but misses the mark when it comes to improving biodiversity outcomes. In the following sections of this report the author proposes twelve elements for a modern habitat management framework for the province.

[1] Morris, M. 2015. Strategic Advice to the Minister of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations. Getting the Balance Right: Improving Wildlife Habitat Management in British Columbia.  WWW Document. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw/wildlife/management-issues/docs/getting_the_balance_right_improving_wildlife_habitat_management_in_british_columbia.pdf

Does BC Need a New Habitat Management Framework?

British Columbia’s approach to managing the environment and its’ natural resources is based on mainstream economics (Figure 1). In this economic model the objective is to manage the economy for continuous growth and the environment is considered a sub-set of the economy. Some aspects of the environment (i.e., salmon and forests) are treated as commodities in economic analyses. In the case of environmental protection, the environment is one aspect of the economy that needs to be “accommodated” or “considered” depending on supply and demand market pressures for environmental commodities. This model assumes the environment is unlimited and that it can support unlimited economic growth because technology and economic efficiencies will compensate for the pressures placed on the environment.

The current mainstream economic model views the environment as just one subset of the economy and it assumes that the economy can expand without any limits to growth.

The ecological economic model views the economy of a subset of the environment (the biosphere) and ultimately world economic growth is limited by the capability of the earth to replenish renewable resources and assimilate pollution.

The ecological economic model (Figure 2) is the basis for sustainable development where the economy is treated as a subset of the environment.  This model recognizes that the environment sustains the economy and the parts of environment providing goods and services are valued as capital assets (i.e., “natural capital”) not commodities. The environment is finite; therefore, it will ultimately control how much an economy can grow before there is an ecological, economic and or social collapse (consider the case of the Atlantic Cod fishery).  Non-renewable resources are finite and the environment has limited ability to regenerate and replenish itself, to assimilate pollution, and to sustain the ecological services that supports society.  Ecological economics is not intended to prevent economic growth rather it is designed to ensure the environment is capable of sustaining a rate of growth that meets the basic needs of today without compromising inter generational equity.

A Vision for a Modern Wildlife Habitat Management Framework for BC

  1. Measure Biodiversity

Managing for biodiversity objectives must be the driver of a modern habitat management program for the province. Biodiversity conservation should be the measure that defines the limits of development at any scale. Managing for biodiversity is often stated as an overarching objective in land and resource management; however, B.C.’s regulatory framework does not recognize the types of biodiversity established by science or the methods used in science for measuring them. There are four commonly described measures for inventorying biodiversity and each measure corresponds roughly with the four levels of biotic systems:

  • Point diversity is species richness (a simple measure of all the different kinds of species found in a defined area) at small scales of 10 to 100 m2.
  • Alpha diversity species richness at scales of 0.1 to 1000ha.
  • Gamma diversity is species diversity at scales of 1000 to 1,000,000 ha (i.e., regional).
  • Epsilon diversity is species diversity at scales of 1,000,000 to 100,000,000 ha (i.e., geographic).

There are also three common measures of species diversity used for comparing the change is species composition between habitats at different scales.

  • Pattern diversity is the change in species diversity between points within a biotic community (small scale).
  • Beta diversity is the variation in species between adjacent communities or habitats. (landscape scale).
  • Delta diversity is the change in species diversity across major climatic or physiographic gradients (geographic scale).

Species diversity is made up of two basic elements; 1) species richness which is the number of different species in a planning area, and 2) species evenness which is the relative abundance of species.  There are mathematical methods to describe species diversity including measures for combining species richness and evenness into a single diversity index (i.e., Shannon-Weaver Index). It is clearly established in science that biodiversity can be measured, managed and monitored; therefore, biodiversity objectives can be legislated and managed at any given spatial scale in B.C. Habitat programs for specific fish and wildlife (i.e., species-by-species management) play an important role in biodiversity conservation. Species specific habitat management; however, shouldn’t drive the overall habitat management process rather it should logically fit within a framework driven by biodiversity conservation.

  1. Create a Legal Framework for Biodiversity Conservation

As most often applied in natural resource management, biodiversity simply implies species diversity, which is only a list of species occurring in a given area that does not account for relative abundance. Biodiversity needs to be concisely defined and measurable objectives must be established in Canadian federal and provincial law and environmental policy. Other seemingly nebulous concepts such as “fairness” and “efficiency” are defined for the legal or policy contexts to which they are applied. The Constitution of Canada, through division of powers, provides the federal and provincial governments with jurisdictional and proprietary rights over natural resources and the environment. Through these powers, both levels of government can create legislation that can be used as legal tools to manage and protect biodiversity depending on how it is defined and measured within the legal frameworks. Biodiversity is a value-laden concept and within each policy that it is applied to, the underlying values must be explicit. The scientific literature does not substantiate that “more biodiversity” (i.e., high species richness) is equivalent to healthy, stable, or productive ecosystems; therefore, the underlying values that drive biodiversity conservation (i.e., aesthetic, ethical or economic) must be explicitly stated in the policies that direct the management of common pool resources so that the benefits and costs of any given policy can be effectively analyzed.

  1. Define Limits for Development

To ensure that inter generational equity and biodiversity conservation are forefront in land and resource decisions, a modern habitat management program must serve to define the limit of economic growth that the environment (at varying spatial and temporal scales) is capable of sustaining. All natural resources extracted from the environment flow through society end up as pollution that is discharged back into the environment. A habitat management framework must balance the environment’s ability to regenerate from resource extraction with its ability to simultaneously assimilate pollution. By using an ecological economic approach to define the extent of economic growth at any given spatial or temporal scale will represent a fundamental shift towards a more sustainable economy in BC.

  1. Mandate Cumulative Effects Assessments for Statutory Decisions

Cumulative Effects Assessments is an emerging initiative in British Columbia that was implemented in response to an Auditor General report released in May of 2015. The province started with three official pilot projects and one unofficial pilot project later in 2015. Pilot projects were tasked with assessing cumulative effects on a small set of valued ecosystem components and providing recommendations to be considered in future management decisions. As of 2016, cumulative effects assessments are under way in each region of the province. The province is moving in the right direction on this initiative; however, as capacity and expertise in cumulative effects grows, the province will need to transition from a cumulative effects assessment process that looks at isolated parts of an ecosystem to more complex holistic relationships between biodiversity and the human footprint. Cumulative effects assessment should not become the pinnacle of habitat management in the province rather it should form one component of a provincial habitat management framework.  Cumulative effects assessment will need to be incorporated into legislation and become a mandated decision making platform for making statutory decisions. The risk assessment component of the province’s cumulative effects assessment framework must be captured by legislation and used to define the point when a geographic area can no longer sustain development, increased use or extraction of natural resources. The Natural Resource and Environment Ministries need clear lines where permits, tenures, authorizations or applications for projects can no longer be issued or considered. For continuity purposes, cumulative effective assessments conducted for major projects under review by BC Environmental Assessment Office should be required to use the same approach and data sets adopted by the province.    As an immediate short-term priority, the province’s cumulative effects assessment framework needs to be expanded to freshwater, including groundwater and marine ecosystems as well as, to fish and wildlife populations.

  1. Manage Habitat Systems

Historically, landscape planning in British Columbia has been based on defined geographic areas or jurisdictional units such as landscape units, watersheds, biogeoclimatic zones, and forest districts.  Land and resource planning is generally driven by the needs of the resource industries, especially the forest industry, and not by the habitat needs of fish and wildlife or for biodiversity conservation. More often than not fish, wildlife and biodiversity are values that need to be “considered” or “accommodated” when planning resource extraction or major projects.  Strategic plans created by government cannot commit Ministries to additional fiscal expenditures so strategic plans created by the province are generally informative and not binding. Landscape planning in the province is commonly based on mechanistic or reductionist approaches to habitat management.  Ecosystems are broken down into parts such as, riparian areas, vegetation types, rock outcrops or biogeoclimatic subzones. The bias for selecting measurement endpoints is typically based on choosing habitat attributes that can be observed, physically measured and spatially mapped. These ecological parts are typically expressed in terms of surface area or as percentages of the overall planning unit. Management objectives are then typically based on creating or maintaining target hectares or percentages of each selected ecological part (i.e., percent retention for old growth forest).  The mechanistic/reductionist approach is synonymous with the paradigm: a whole is equal to the sum of its parts.  Ecosystem restoration represents a shift away from the mechanistic/reductionist approach because it attempts to manage ecosystems based on natural processes (i.e., fire-maintained ecosystems). Habitat management in the province needs to be based on managing habitat systems rather than managing selected parts of an ecosystem.  This shift will require a transformation from mechanistic/reductionist thinking to a systems thinking approach to habitat management. Systems thinking is a concept well established in the literature dating back to the 1920’s. System thinking can be applied to any type of system (i.e., ecological, social, economic) and it has the potential to significantly improve biodiversity conservation in the province. Key concepts of system thinking that relate to habitat management include:

  • A system is a dynamic community that functions as unit.
  • Systems are comprised of smaller nested sub systems.
  • A system is composed of direct or indirectly related parts.
  • A system can overlap with another system.
  • A system is bounded in time and space but the parts do not have to be connected.
  • A system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs.
  • Systems are often composed of entities trending toward equilibrium but can exhibit patterns, cycling, oscillation, randomness, or exponential behavior.

Habitat systems should be used as the basis for developing detailed habitat management plans rather than using static planning boundaries based on geographic or socio-political boundaries. Managing habitat systems aligns better with the concepts of biodiversity conservation. Managers and legislators will need to adapt to the idea that habitat systems will overlap each other, contain nested subsystems, will transcend socio-political jurisdictions and, will change with time and vary in scale across the province. The shift from managing habitats using the mechanistic/reductionist approach to a systems thinking approach will require resource managers to place greater emphasis on managing ecological processes and interdependent ecological relationships such as, the relationship between ecosystem inputs and outputs.

  1. Use Science and True Adaptive Management

A habitat management framework for the province needs to be supported by a robust applied science program that is linked to the habitat management information needs in this province. A series of research stations should be established across the province with the purpose of providing baseline inventories, conducting applied research, monitoring change and reducing critical uncertainties underlying important habitat management decisions. Adaptive management is a concept that is largely misunderstood in natural resource management in BC. Adaptive management is not accomplished by status quo practices or by trial-and-error, nor is adaptive management simply the means of adapting policies as we go to see what happens. Resource management, like most business models, generally follows the plan-implement-monitor-adapt management cycle; therefore, managers often refer to their programs as embracing adaptive management. This approach; however, leaves adaptive management to chance. If something new is learned from an operational outcome then new ways of doing business may evolve. With this approach there is no purposeful link between applied science and management uncertainty. Consequently, the process of continuous improvement is slow when adaptive management is left to chance and business-as-usual prevails. True adaptive management is a purposely designed management effort. It is a systematic, rigorous approach for designing and implementing programs to maximize learning about the critical uncertainties that affect decisions on policy or on-the-ground practices. Once critical uncertainties are reduced, the knowledge gained will lead to a different management approach, or to confirmation that current management approaches are appropriate. The true adaptive management cycle builds on most general management feedback loops (i.e., plan-implement-monitor-adapt) by reducing management uncertainty through the testing of hypotheses and by comparing the results of different management strategies tested at an operational scale. The true adaptive management cycle also differs from the general management cycle because the true adaptive management cycle is driven by questions of what is not known and by what managers need to know in order to meet objectives. The true adaptive management cycle can be thought of as being a more detailed cycle nested within the general management cycle. Once critical uncertainties are answered or sufficiently reduced, the adaptive management cycle for a given management uncertainty can exit from the general management cycle. A long-term sustainable applied research program coupled with the uncertainties that underlie habitat management decisions is an integral part of a modern habitat management framework for the province of BC. To prevent political agendas and interference, the applied science research function of a provincial habitat management program needs to be independent of government but its mandate and funding needs to be legislated.

  1. Mandate for No Net Loss and Net Positive Impact

The human footprint creates risks to biodiversity and these risks can lead to residual impacts to biodiversity that are permanent. Around the world, momentum is growing in biodiversity conservation through the application of No Net Loss and Net Positive Impact objectives in sectors such as forestry and mining.  Negative biodiversity impacts are either balanced (i.e., No Net Loss) by avoidance, minimization, or restoration strategies or outweighed (i.e., Net Positive Impact) with offsets in the region where the impacts occur (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The Mitigation Hierarchy for Managing Biodiversity Risk[1]

The No Net Loss and Net Positive Benefit principles are being used in more places in the world today especially in sustainable forestry and mining initiatives. The principle is currently being used by the mining industry in The Elk Valley of BC to plan coal mine reclamation.

The concept of Net in the No Net Loss and Net Positive Impact principles recognizes some losses to biodiversity are inevitable and that the gains might not necessarily be evenly balanced in time, space, or with the type of biodiversity that is impacted. Overcompensating for residual impacts to biodiversity by achieving a Net Positive Impact is a cautionary way of achieving No Net Loss.  In other words, compensate for more than what has been lost. The No Net Loss and Net Positive Impact principles need to be a fundamental part of a habitat management framework for the province.  Provincial and federal laws need to be structured so that No Net Loss and Net Positive Impacts are defined and measurable for all the natural resource sectors.

  1. Create a Real-Time Dynamic Planning Model

The output of land and resource planning initiatives in the province were often just sets of maps and reports that typically ended up filed away in government and industry offices.  A habitat management framework driven by biodiversity conservation across multi-dimensional habitat systems will require a new mindset as to what the “product” of a modern habitat planning process should look like. Rather that the product of habitat planning being maps and reports, a modern habitat management program should create a dynamic and all-encompassing electronic platform that is accessible to everyone through open-source data/information sharing and real-time spatial databases. A modern habitat management program needs to focus on creating a dynamic geospatial model covering the entire province that is capable of site-level and landscape-scale resolution. The world today runs on data and the rapid assimilation and dissemination of information. The pace of the modern world is fast; therefore, a modern habitat management program needs to be in step with the current pace of demand for information and knowledge. A habitat management program needs to operate on information and a planning platform that is based on up to date data and state-of-the-art habitat simulation models and leading-edge science. Inventory data, monitoring results and changes to the land base need to be uploaded to the habitat model on a continual ongoing basis.  Managers need to have as close to “real time” snapshots of the province’s habitat and wildlife population as possible to make timely environmental decisions.  Biodiversity information and knowledge can no longer afford to be decades behind the pace of development, resource extraction and pollution discharge.      

  1. Invest in Advanced Inventory and Monitoring Technologies

To cost effectively operate a modern habitat management program in a world that demands almost instantaneous information, the province of BC needs to invest in and rely heavily on advanced and emerging technologies that can rapidly capture habitat and wildlife-related data and make it available to land managers, decision makers and industry. Remote sensing is the science of obtaining information about areas of the earth from a distance using aircraft or satellites. Remote sensing collects data by capturing natural energy emitted from the earth surface or by measuring the time it takes for directed energy to reflect back to the sensors.  Remote sensing can be used to monitor many environmental indicators including shoreline changes, water temperature, sediment transport, changes in land uses and habitat fragmentation. Remotes sensing can be used to measure stress in vegetation which may allow managers to detect changes in habitat quality years in advance of any impacts to fish, wildlife or biodiversity.  Imagine biologists having had the ability to detect stress in the lodgepole pine forests of central BC years before the mountain pine epidemic.  Had that technology been employed in the province, impacts and mitigation strategies could have been analyzed and put in place to protect moose populations long before the first pine beetle killed trees were logged. In Idaho and Montana, for example, wildlife managers use vegetation indexed data collected by NASA satellites to predict forage quality and model population dynamics of mule-deer on an annual basis. LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a form of remote sensing using laser pulses to map features on the earth. Recent advances in LIDAR allow it to precisely map riparian habitats through a process called WAM – Wet Area Mapping. WAM is more accurate than the Terrestrial Ecosystem Mapping (TEM) or Predictive Ecosystem Mapping (PEM) tools currently used for riparian habitat in the province. LIDAR can map vegetation layers down to small ground plants (i.e., 10cm) even through heavy forest canopies. Remote sensing and other cutting edge technologies need to be readily-accessible tools for habitat managers in the province. Large areas of the province need to be mapped faster, more economically and more accurately than the current approaches. Ultimately, data needs to be more comprehensive and more readily available for analysis and decision making much sooner that what is available to biologists today.

  1. Consolidate Habitat Management Programs

While attempts have been made to amalgamate natural resource Ministries in the province, BC still has conflicting polices, legislation, budgets and organizational mandates that puts fish, wildlife and biodiversity values at odds with economic goals and resource extraction practices. To fill the gaps, non-government organizations and industry are playing increasing lead roles in funding, planning, monitoring, and habitat management.  Some of these habitat programs are   made up of government stakeholder and First Nations partnerships intended to ensure the benefits of habitat investment serve the greater public interest. However, setting priorities and actively managing public resources based on the agendas of non-government funding agencies or private interests has been referred to as the tail wagging the dog approach to fish, wildlife and habitat management in BC. The overall result of decentralized habitat management across the province is that the approach to big picture biodiversity conservation is also fragmented. Regional and local habitat management efforts operate in silos and are still focused on species-by-species type management in isolation of the big picture. Workshops and multi-stakeholder meetings are sometimes held so that all the players (inside and outside government) can learn what each other is up to. There is no overarching system in BC to direct and coordinate all the dozens of NGOs involved in habitat management. A modern habitat management program for the province needs to fall under one framework guided by legislated objectives for biodiversity conservation. There needs to be a single organizational hierarchy, clear lines of accountability and clear responsibility for decision making whether the habitat management initiatives are led by government, NGOs or industry, so that the management of habitat in the province is not inefficient, counter-productive or fragmented.

  1. Dedicate Funding to Biodiversity Conservation

The precipitous decline in investment in fish, wildlife and biodiversity conservation is well documented in the 2014 report – Trends in Renewable Resource Management in British Columbia[2]. While legal responsibilities have increased, the budgets and staffing of government biologists have declined since 1997.  In contrast, budgets for other sectors of government have more than doubled. Most fish and wildlife departments across North America operate on budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, including jurisdictions with smaller land bases and less diverse ecosystems than BC.  In contrast, BC operates on a budget in the range of tens of millions of dollars. While most jurisdictions in North America have dedicated funding models for fish and wildlife management, BC has no such model. Current renewable and non-renewable resource use and extraction policies are not contributing to successful province-wide biodiversity conservation. The author is concerned that BC’s lack of investment and approach to resource use and extraction has come at the expense of biodiversity. Many government biologists must apply to outside funding organizations to try and secure the financial resources needed to properly manage public fish and wildlife habitat programs.     Biodiversity conservation needs to be funded by the money collected from all consumptive and non-consumptive resource users as well as, from all land/resource rent, pollution discharge, environmental fines and administrative penalties. For example, fees collected for the discharge of pollution and contaminants into the environment authorized under BC’s Environmental Management Act are used to pay for staffing and administration programs within the Ministry of Environment’s Environmental Protection Divisions. The fees collected for pollution discharged into the environment need to go back to the Ministries that are responsible to mitigate or reverse the cumulative impacts of pollution on habitat, fish and wildlife.   Compensation payments should also be established for all projects and resource uses that impact biodiversity so that Net Positive Impact offsets can be created. BC needs to create a type of Biodiversity Security Bond, similar to the province’s mining reclamation bonds for all industries and sectors posing risks to biodiversity conservation. Security bonds should be used for No Net Loss or Net Positive Impact habitat management initiatives when a responsible party fails to meet legal habitat objectives.

BC is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America yet has one of the lowest levels of funding for wildlife management. The province’s new Wildlife and Habitat Engagement initiative is looking at how to change that.

  1. Shift from Stakeholder Input to a Social Governance Model

British Columbia, like many regions of the world, went through an environmental revolution marked by conflict and protest. The benefit of this revolution was that it brought about greater social awareness around the ideas of environmental protection and sustainable development which opened up dialogue on environmental issues important to British Columbians. Over successive decades, the courts of Canada and the province also settled questions of Aboriginal Rights and Title.  These turning points in BC’s history precipitated change in environmental practices, policy and regulations and these changes lead to greater engagement of public stakeholders and First Nations. Round tables, consultation, multi-stakeholder committees and public review processes are more common in natural resource management in the province; however, questions whether the engagement is meaningful to all those affected by natural resource decisions including First Nations and all British Columbians is becoming more prevalent in natural resource management.   The current stakeholder input model is, however, creating its share of the conflict, inefficiencies and inequities in allocation of natural resources. A stakeholder, by definition, is someone with a vested interest in the outcome.  As natural resources become scarce, multi-stakeholder processes have become increasing self-interest driven and position-based in BC.  More often than not, an interest represents a here-and-now economic interest which is manifested by the efforts of stakeholders to protect their own status quo.   A modern habitat management framework needs to have social support and it needs to incorporate the knowledge and objectives of British Columbians and First Nations. However, the approach needs to shift from the current stakeholder input model where stakeholders advocate their interests to a social governance model where the individuals at the table are engaged in dialogue about inter generational equity. This means that future provincial, regional and local round tables designed to support natural resource decisions should not be made up of industry and user group representatives. Future round table and stakeholder processes need to made up of members of First Nations and non-partisan members of the public chosen by citizens to represent the interests of future British Columbians.

[1] No Net Loss and Net Positive Impact Approaches for Biodiversity. Exploring the potential application of these approaches in the commercial agriculture and forestry sectors. 2015. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

[2] Archibald, R., D.S. Eastman, R. Ellis, & B. Nyberg. 2014. Trends in renewable resource management in British Columbia. Journal of Ecosystems and Management 14(3):1–10. Published by FORREX Forum for Research and Extension in Natural Resources. http://jem.forrex.org/index.php/jem/article/viewFile/556/498

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British Columbia’s War on Moose (Guest Article)

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A guest article by James Steidle from Prince George, BC

I grew up in the forest industry in Prince George, BC. We lived out in the middle of the woods near Punchaw Lake, and my dad worked at Clear Lake sawmill, where I caught the school bus with all the mill kids who lived in a trailer park there. The smell of the fresh cut conifers was there when we went to school, and was there when we came home.  It was the “smell of money” I was always told.  As a teenager I worked in the mill during the summers and the weekends and after high school I worked full time for half a year before heading off to university.  During the summers between university semesters I would plant trees. I did that for three summers.

During this time, aspen trees, or poplar as we called them, were never given much attention.  As far as I knew, the timber was completely worthless.  I imagined it falling apart in your hands.  We never made anything out of it, planted it, or harvested it.  We never even cut it for firewood, even though we burned lots of spruce, a wood that is actually inferior to aspen for that purpose. I don’t recall ever seeing a piece of aspen lumber anywhere, throughout all my years working in the sawmill and taking woodworking shop classes in high school. If I were asked to identify the wood, I would have said it was something exotic, as foreign as a tropical hardwood.

Aspen forests are one of the most biologically diverse and important habitat types for many wildlife species in British Columbia.

BC’s forest industry seen here spraying chemical herbicides in the forest to kill aspen, willow and other deciduous trees and shrubs important to wildlife.

That isn’t to say I never appreciated the beauty of aspen trees or aspen forests.  There was an aspen stand near the place I grew up, a place called Rosebud Mountain that is as beautiful a place as anywhere in the world. It was part of our range land for our cattle, and I knew the forest was as important for the cow’s summer forage as it was for wildlife and birds.  That was something that was just an obvious fact of the natural world, a fact that was recognized by all our neighbours who called Rosebud the choicest range land in the whole area. Aspen, and the rich understory that occurred with it, made it so.

An old military transport truck is used to move tanker loads of chemical herbicides into the forests near Prince George

It was not until around 2010 after the Pine Beetle had decimated the mixed pine/spruce/aspen stands that I started to think about aspen as something more than just a pretty picture.  At that time a herbicide spraying helicopter landed at our farm, and parked there for the night. ‘What were they spraying?’ I wondered. The aspen, we were told. I vaguely knew about this practice but had never seen it in action. It got me thinking. I watched the places they sprayed turn into pine monocultures.  ‘Wouldn’t it make sense to leave different trees on the landscape?’ I thought. ‘What if the pine beetle returns?’ The only pine tree that I saw that survived on our property was surrounded by aspen. Sure, it was just an anecdote, but it made sense. Wouldn’t a mosaic of trees on the landscape likewise complicate things for pests like pine beetles?

I’d done some journalism and thought it would be an interesting story.  I started researching the history of the practice, and found out about Suzanne Simard, a professor at UBC.  I learned from people like her there was no real apparent benefit from eliminating these important trees from our forests.  Short term increases in conifer growth seemed to be counteracted by increased risk of disease and other forest health issues.  The Bobtail Fire would later demonstrate that naturally regrowing forests with lots of so called “weeds” like aspen actually stood up better to the fire.  Aspen during leaf out are far less likely to burn. Then there were the numerous environmental risks of spraying, including harm to amphibians by the legal and common practice of spraying wetlands and seasonal creeks.

With a completed article, I shopped it around, but in the spring of 2011 there was apparently little interest in the subject. Neither the Tyee, BC Business, nor a few other publications returned my calls or emails.  With a healthy amount of research and a belief that there was a true injustice being inflicted upon our forests, I felt the only thing left to do was to take the activist route.  I started a website, www.stopthespraybc.com, filled it with scientific facts, and with the help of Dr. Suzanne Simard, put out a press release that turned into a big article in the Globe and Mail.  From this we received a grant from West Coast Environmental Law and some wind in our sails. However, a legal objection to the practice didn’t pan out, as everything was fully legal. The government, and a mysterious group of unelected “experts” in Victoria, remains fully in support of spraying our forests to destroy biodiversity and make plantations of primarily pine, and they have taken great care to ensure the legislative framework to protect this practice is bulletproof.  They have also taken great care to avoid any accountability for this practice.  Who decides aspen is a pest and must be sprayed? All we have found out is that is is an agreement with industry, done in secret by unnamed officials, and is beyond reproach.

Recent research is showing that starvation is a significant cause of moose mortality in the Prince George Region

During this whole time I was slowly establishing a woodworking shop and business (www.steidlewoodworking.com). I had still not worked with aspen, as it was unavailable in any BC lumber store.  But through my research I came to know one of the people who mills aspen and I was able to source aspen finally.  I began making a number of projects out of aspen and was struck by how supple and elegant the wood grain was. I made a bunch of LP crates out of the wood, furniture, and mixed it with cedar for my cutting boards. Realizing aspen was actually a great wood, the reason it was eliminated from our forests, and why neither academics, foresters, nor environmentalists seemed to want to champion the tree, became even more mysterious.

In the last 34 years, the forestry industry has sprayed chemical herbicides on 179,226 ha of forest near Prince George. The red polygon represents what this area looks like compared to BC’s Lower Mainland where most of the province’s population lives.

Northern BC public forest land is sprayed with chemical herbicides more than any other region in BC.

As everyone else seemed to keep dismissing and ignoring aspen, I was delving deeper into the aspen rabbit hole. I bought a movie camera and began working on a documentary about it. I interviewed architects, sawmillers, woodworkers, forest scientists, students, and hunters and trappers.  The documentary took me to Utah and Colorado where I investigated the largest and oldest known organism on the planet – an aspen forest near Fish Lake, Utah called Pando. I became immersed in all things aspen.  Following BC aspen expert Dr. Mike Carlson’s recommendation I went to Fort Nelson and Fort Liard, where I saw the world’s largest known aspen, now a stump down a forgotten trail that should be a national landmark but which apparently only people like Mike and myself were excited about. I found out about the crooked aspen in Hafford, Saskatchewan from Dr. Ted Hogg, a federal scientist in Edmonton who studies aspen.  I went to Hafford and did a short documentary called “The Mysteries of the Crooked Aspen” that was screened at the Yorkton Film Festival. The larger documentary about aspen is still in the works, waiting for time and money.

Region 5 moose harvest trends. This is an example of what is happening to your moose in British Columbia as a result of land lanagement practices which includes spraying chemical herbicides over vast areas of public forest land.

A regenerating cutblock northwest of Fort Nelson BC, near the junction of the Liard and Ft. Nelson Rivers, was aerially sprayed with herbicides. It shows the complete mortality of all deciduous moose browse that happens after an aerial application of chemical herbicides

To get caught up in a tree, especially one as derided and dismissed as Aspen, is a strange thing that only happens to a few of us.  Maybe it’s our character, to champion the underdog, and to find value in what nobody else does.  Maybe it’s just a testament to the sway nature holds over us. In any case, the aspen is a majestic, amazing species, a tree that is the true tree of Canada, one of the few that gets bigger and stronger the further north it goes, that exists in quantity in all Canadian Provinces and Territories, one that the vast majority of wildlife, and especially moose, in our country depends on, and one that has the potential to address climate change and help us adapt to it.  If there ever was a truly national tree of great environmental and cultural significance, it is the aspen.

The fight for aspen and a new approach to forestry in Canada that values all tree species is only just begun.  In the past year Stop the Spray BC has moved onto social media where you can follow us @stopthespraybc on facebook and on twitter.  I teamed up with another anti-spray activist, silviculture contractor Herb Martin, and we’ve been giving a presentation around the Central Interior on this topic, showing some of the documentary footage and making the case for how important aspen in to wildlife in our province and country, especially to moose, birds, insects, and a countless array of plants.

Yours in Conservation,

James Steidle

 

AFTERWARD

In my opinion, James’ Stop the Spray campaign aimed at getting the spraying of chemical herbicides in public forests banned in British Columbia is an excellent example of an individual citizen’s dedication to the protection of wildlife and habitat that belong to the people of BC. He is focused on a single issue and he consistently targets his messages anywhere and everywhere he has a chance to. The bigger lesson here is that he is getting involved.  He is focused on 1 issue that means a lot to him and to many other conservationists in BC. He is relentless in hammering away on his key messages. Hunters and conservationists in BC should take inspiration from James’ focus on a single cause and his commitment and passion for protecting biodiversity in BC’s forests. I encourage you to follow Stop the Spray BC on Social Media and help James spread his messages. Consider having making a donation to help him cover the expenses of this important conservation campaign.

Please write the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNROD) and the Minister of Environment and demand this practice be stopped on your public forests.

Sincerely,

Mark Hall

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The Burnt Forest is Alive – A Photo Essay

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Wildfires burning across the province of British Columbia dominated the news during the summer of 2017. The smoke hadn’t cleared and private forest companies and the government’s BC Timber Sales division announced their plans to expedite clearing the burnt forests. In early September 2017, I wrote the article – Salvage Logging British Columbia’s Wildfires – Will Wildlife Conservation and Science Matter?  In the article I expressed a concern whether science would play a role in protecting wildlife habitat in the logging of these burned habitats.

This photo essay is intended to let you be the judge of that.

Language like – “the forest fires were catastrophic”, “unprecedented damage”, “economic collapse”, “fire destroys forests”, “the impacts were devastating”, “we must salvage the timber before it rots”, “salvaging burnt timber is race against time”, “there is no time for drawn out public consultation”, “we will always meet the minimum standards for forest management”, “we are not required to use science”, “we will rely on Professional Foresters to protect wildlife values”, “we need to sanitize and clean up the forests to prevent outbreaks of forest insects”  and  “clearcutting forest fires is required to reduce fuel loading to prevent future fires” were all common phrases communicated by the forest industry, media and government.

Even fires ecologists and fire scientists used language like “unprecedented”, “ these fires are a result of climate change”, “it’s going to get worse” and “forest fires destroy the soil”.

I recently even heard a government wildlife biologist say that wildlife doesn’t use burnt forests because the burnt forests become tangled and criss-crossed and it’s impossible for wildlife to get around in them.

I heard others say that, “all the wildlife got displaced by fires” and that “wildlife abandoned the valleys”.

I’m not sure if it’s the optimist, the ecologist or the artist in me but I see the burnt forests for what they really are. A natural and necessary process that nature is adapted to handle. I see a burnt forest for the life and beauty it possesses, the future habitat that will develop and the abundance of life living in the burnt forest. I don’t’ see the recent scale of forest fires in B.C. as unprecedented destruction of the land but rather I see it as nature finally reverting back to what she is meant to do – right the wrongs of human interference in biodiversity.

For me, burnt forests are not dead, sterile zones devoid of wildlife and plants. In fact, to me they are the complete opposite of that.

The burnt forest is alive.

Tree cones survive the fire and this squirrel midden shows that squirrels are actively living in the burnt forest. If squirrels and other rodents are present, then so will their predators including birds of prey and small furbearers. But the squirrels need some cover and vertical standing trees for habitat.

New plants spring to life making use of small micro sites where the soil is moister.

Burnt forests still retain a lot of vertical structure for a variety of wildlife species including enough cover to reduce line of sight so large animals like moose, elk and bears feel secure knowing they are not exposed in the wide open when they forage around in their new habitat.

There are lot of deer still living in the burnt forest.

Fires burn with varying intensity which creates a variety of new micro topography features for different types of plants to regenerate on. Wherever fire burned up all the forest floor organic material, the dead needles soon carpet those areas as the process of replacing soil organics and protecting soil from erosion continues.

The hoof action of the large feet of a moose are acting to mix soil and incorporate organic material into the new forest floor.

Elk are helping to continue the process of nutrient cycling in the burnt forest.

Bunchberry will produce berries this year and the seeds will be spread around the forest by birds, bears and rodents that consume the fruits.

Fungi are one of the most important components of forest soils because they convert nutrients in the soil into the forms that trees can use. Soil fungi are thought to be the reason why northern hemisphere forests are as productive as they are. Soil fungi may be among the oldest living organisms in the world. These “morel mushrooms” are the fruiting structures of soil fungi whose job it is to spread spores so the underground fungi can colonize new zones within the forest. Soil fungi may not survive the harsh impacts of clearcutting and road building.

This small wetland located in the middle of the forest fire was protected by the wet habitat that surrounded it. This habitat will be home to amphibians and a source for water for many wildlife. Situated in the burnt forest surrounded by dead standing trees, this small piece of habitat will remain protected and functional. In the middle of a clearcut it will likely dry up and amphibians and other wildlife will not be able to benefit from its continued presence in the forest.

The fruiting “cups” of more soil fungi are sprouting up from an area that some would say is sterilized soil where the fire burned “too hot”.

Conifer seedlings carpet the forest floor in the burnt forest. A study done in the 2002 “Biscut Fire” in Oregon showed that “salvage logging” destroyed 71% of the new seedlings which meant that trees had to be artificially planted after logging instead of letting nature do it for free.

Moss completely carpets an area of forest floor where some say the fire has “cooked the soil”. All this was accomplished by nature in a matter of few months after the fire.

A small stream continues to flow through the burnt forest – running clear and pure.

Red needles blanket the forest floor helping to restore nutrients and providing protection from erosion.

Where some may say the fire burned the soil too hot and deep, others may see new possibilities for habitat for small wildlife species.

This is the artist in me…but to me that’s not a burnt tree. It’s a black bear looking at me.

More varieties of fungi and jelly molds seal over and help restore soil that was subject to intense heat. Nature has positive responses for everything. Even in the most intense forest fires, rarely does the heat pulse further than 2 cm into the soil exceed temperatures that are lethal to living plant tissue.  Biodiversity needs the variety of disturbances that fire creates. There is no good and bad in nature.

A small wet area in the forest recovers quickly after the fire. Even this small patch of willow shrubs (middle left) survived and they will help create more food for moose in the coming years if they are left to grow in this undisturbed environment.

Charred logs attract certain type of insects that only lay their eggs in burnt wood. Woodpeckers are making use of this cycle  and still happily making a living in the midst of a burnt forest.

Moose are by far the most common large ungulate living in this valley bottom zone of the burnt forest. Some biologists think that the long legs of a moose are partly adapted to living in old burns where once the trees fall over and become criss-crossed short legged ungulates can’t get around as easily. Living in tangled old burns where the willow are abundant might be an evolutionary adaptation of moose to avoid predation. Cearcutting this forest will expose moose to wide open habitat where they have little defense against predators like wolves. Nature knows how to “manage” moose. But do we listen?

What appears to be just a dry spot under this log is actually a type of mold. It takes a myriad of species in all the kingdoms across all the taxonomic phyla to make a forest. This is biodiversity. Does modern forest management practices promote this kind of biodiversity or degrade it?

The un-burnt cone of lodgepole pine will help with the renewal of the next forest. Lodgepole pine and their cones are designed to survive fire and open by heat. They are a symbol of the adaptation of certain plants to fire in fire-driven ecosystems.

Wild flowers like this shooting star are often considered “fragile” and “delicate” yet it is among the first plants to colonize the newly burnt forest in what some call a harsh and degraded ecosystem. Resolve, tenacity and strength lies in the beauty of nature.

This rare Sphagnum-Labrador Tea bog in the Rocky Mountains survived this forest fire and it helps to maintain plant diversity in the forest. If the area is clearcut and the bog is exposed to a hot open environment it will dry out and die.

Wild strawberry flourish in the burnt forest. Their fruit will be eaten by birds this summer and this will spread the seeds thus helping this strawberry colonize new areas in the burnt forest.

This hen spruce grouse sits on clutch of eggs hidden under a dead spruce tree in the middle of the burnt forest. It became so obvious to me after seeing her in this environment that the colouration and patterns of her plumage are completely adapted to the exact patterns and colours of the dead spruce tree that has fallen over in the middle of the burnt forest. She is adapted to living and rearing her young in a burnt forest. If this area is clearcut, the wide open area that is devoid of this type of hiding cover will not support her and her effort to perpetuate the grouse population.

The exposed yellow wood of a burnt log where the bark is sloughing off creates an interesting colour contrast in the burnt black forest. The loose bark on burnt trees creates habitat for many small species of wildlife including bats, birds, insects and amphibians. But once the “timber” is salvaged this habitat that was created by the fire will be gone.

Some would look at the red in the soil and say the fire “baked” the soil. But this is the natural colour of the soil. The reddish colour is part of a soil forming process called “podsolization” and in 11,000 years since the glacier laid the raw un-weathered soil material on the land, these few centimeters of reddish soil is all that nature has managed to weather into soil that plants can get nutrients from. The whitish-green-grey soil is the raw un-weathered glacial material that plants cannot yet extract nutrients from. This is why soil fungi are so important to forest productivity and the survival of future trees. Large logs that remain in the forest so they can rot into the soil is a key element that soil fungi require for survival in a forest. Timber salvaging removes all the large logs and along with it the habitat that soil fungi need.

More moss and plants blanket soil that was completely exposed by the fire. The sealing off of the exposed soil happens rapidly in just a few months. On top of the moss lays the remnant of a shrub killed by the fire. Research has shown that after salvage logging a burnt forest, shrubs are the plant species that have the hardest time recovering.

After a forest fire comes the forest industry. There is no legal requirement for best available science to be incorporated into the planning of timber extraction from burnt forests in BC. British Columbia has no formal way of measuring or protecting biodiversity in a forest whether its burnt or not.

A large burnt “snag” recently felled and dumped on the ground. This dead standing tree will never be a future wildlife tree for cavity nesting birds.

Soil erosion is rapidly starting where industrial equipment has degraded the soil.

In the foreground, the large indentation in the soil is compaction from the heavy logging equipment that logged this burnt forest. Compacted soil inhibits future plant growth and can accelerate soil erosion.

This area in the recently logged part of a forest fire is much more devoid of new plant life compared to the adjacent burnt forest that is still intact.

The soil after salvage logging is churned up like an agriculture field and is likely going to bake rock hard this summer making the recolonization of this ground by plants slower and more difficult.

Clearcut salvage logging in the Upper Bull River in Southeast BC looks like the surface of the moon. The entire valley from rock line to rock line is clearcut and devoid of all the habitat features nature created in the burnt forest.

The land is cleared of all woody logs and churned up by logging equipment. The forest floor has become homogenized and all the diverse micro sites and hiding cover needed by plants and ground nesting birds like the spruce grouse shown in previous photos are absent.

In an arrogant symbolic gesture of modern forest management, the used oil from logging equipment is illegally dumped on the ground in this remote location in the Bull River. Compliments of a big forest company in Cranbrook, BC who markets its lumber with the FSC Sustainable Forest Certification product label.

The burnt forest is “cleaned up”. Every last merchantable-sized tree is taken away and those trees not large enough for timber are gathered up and piled so they can be burnt this fall. The soil is exposed more now to erosion since the woody debris in a burnt forest helps protect the soil. The hill slopes in the background show the scars of where operators of logging equipment chewed their way up the steep slopes to cut burnt timber. These scars will rapidly create soil erosion. This barren wide open clear cut will be too inhospitable for many plants, mosses or fungi to survive this year as ground temperatures will soar this summer in the absence of any type of residual cover. Many wildlife species will no longer be able to use this habitat either. This valley has seen a decrease in the moose population over 50% in the last 12 years and now the ones that are left have a barren landscape to contend with. Sadly, there is little the Natural Resource Compliance Officers can do as all of this is legally authorized under the province’s “Professional Reliance” model in forestry.

The management of British Columbia’s wildlife habitat and biodiversity in burnt forests is at a cross roads. Will the public continue to allow these logging practices on their public land? Will the government of the day change the professional reliance model and enact legislation to protect wildlife, habitat and biodiversity in forest management? What are you willing to do to stand up for your land?

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How Big Should Wildlife Habitat Burns Be? [spoiler alert] Really Effin Big!

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10,000 Years in the Making

It has been suggested that the extinction of the Mammoth led to an increase in vegetation biomass which is then said to have given rise to the era of fire. Over the last 10 to 11,000 years, almost every ecosystem in British Columbia has evolved with its own unique fire regime. Because of this evolution, a significant proportion B.C.’s flora and fauna are adapted to or dependent on fire in some way or another.

British Columbia is one of the most biologically rich regions in North America. Most of its ecosystems have evolved with fire.

Strategies in an Era of Fire

In the era of fire, some plant species have evolved to be fire resistant while others have become fire dependent, or fire tolerant. A few have not changed, so they are classified as fire intolerant.

Fire resistant plants have evolved strategies to resist the lethal effects of fire, such as thick bark that insulates living tissue from lethal temperatures.

Fire dependent plants require fire to perpetuate at least one stage of their life cycle, such as using fire to make sure their seeds germinate. Fire dependent wildlife needs the types of habitat that fire creates. Without fire, fire dependent plants and wildlife species disappear.

Fire tolerant plants can withstand being burned, and they recover quickly after the fire because of their ability to re-sprout from their roots. An example of a fire tolerant plant in is the iconic Trembling aspen tree.

Fire intolerant plants and wildlife are very sensitive to changes in their habitat caused by fire. Fire can cause fire intolerant species to decline or even disappear.

Animals aren’t resistant to or tolerant of fire per se; they are actually fairly flammable.  However,  their tolerance to fire is due to their avoidance strategies such as retreating to or living in habitats where the lethal effects of fire cannot physically harm them.  Plants can also use avoidance strategies to tolerate living in fire prone regions by growing strictly in the habitats where fire cannot burn into very easily, such as riparian areas and rocky habitat.

What is a Fire Regime?

A fire regime is a combination of two factors.

1) The severity of the fire, which is measured by the amount of vegetation mortality caused by a fire and,

2) How often fire occurs.

Fire severity is controlled by the amount and type of combustible vegetation on the landscape and the sensitivity of that vegetation (i.e., resistant, tolerant or intolerant). How often fire occurs on the landscape is expressed as a “fire return interval” or “fire frequency.”  Fire frequency is regulated by the interactions of climate and weather in the way that creates lightning – nature’s way of starting fires. Some ecosystems are more “lighting prone” than others, so they experience more frequent fires. Science also recognizes the use of fire by First Nations as contributing to the uniqueness of some of North America’s historical fire regimes. The other variables that help define a fire regime include the pattern, size, continuity and season of burning. All these factors work together to create unique fire regimes across the landscape at different points in time.

Generally, low severity fires that occur frequently create what are referred to as “Fire-Maintained Ecosystems.”  Fire-maintained ecosystems are characterized by fire that is predominantly non-lethal to most of the vegetation in the ecosystem. On the other side of the coin, high severity fires that burn less frequently tend to be lethal to most of the vegetation, so they are often referred to as “Replacing Fires.”  High levels of biodiversity are often correlated to ecosystems that experience mixed–severity fire regimes. Mixed-severity fire regimes are made up of a mixture of high and low severity fires at varying scales, patterns and timing across the landscape.  The resulting pattern of mixed-severity fires is often referred to as a fire mosaic.

Example of a low severity “Maintaining” type fire

Example of high severity “Replacing” type fire

What is a Fire Mosaic?

Fire mosaic is the pattern of burned and un-burned vegetation distributed across a landscape after a fire. Mosaic fires create diverse patterns of vegetation, edge conditions and different micro climates which together provide habitats for a diversity of wildlife species. Ecotone gradients are a pattern of ecological communities where high levels of biodiversity are often found. An example of an ecotone gradient is where open grasslands and closed forests come together and where sub-alpine forest gives way to alpine habitats. Fire plays an important role in maintaining ecotone gradients because fire reverses the forest’s encroachment onto the grasslands or into the alpine.

Example of a Fire Mosaic

Example of a Fire Mosaic

The Importance of Fire to Biodiversity – The Bottom Line

Fundamentally, fire creates complexity on the landscape which allows for plant diversity. Plant diversity creates wildlife diversity. Diverse ecosystems are resilient ecosystems.  Resilient ecosystems are better capable of resisting or recovering from stresses and disturbances.

Importance of Fire for Ungulates

Ungulate populations are driven by female adult survival and juvenile recruitment. The relationship between female adult survival and juvenile recruitment determines whether populations are increasing, stable or decreasing.  External factors that regulate populations are grouped into “top down” and “bottom up” regulators.

Top down regulators represent consumers in the food web (i.e., natural predation, human hunting).

Bottom up regulators represent the resources available to a population (i.e., habitat and nutrition).

Two critical concepts regarding population regulation include:

  • Predation or hunting might not be limiting population growth when poor nutrition is affecting the population.
  • Conversely, predation or hunting may be very strongly impacting wildlife populations when the habitat is severely degraded.

 

Regulators of ungulate populations.

 

Winter range has always been considered to be the factor limiting ungulate populations in British Columbia; however, summer range nutrition is reported in the scientific literature to play a very significant role in population dynamics. Spring and summer are critical times for adult females and their offspring. Their access to highly nutritious food is vital for their survival and collective ability to grow their population.

There are a number of reported negative population feedback mechanisms that are attributed to poor summer range nutrition including:

  • Low pregnancy rates,
  • Low offspring production,
  • Poor female body condition and body mass,
  • Low juvenile survival and,
  • Increased vulnerability to predation and hunter harvest.

The bottom line – poor nutrition can lead to population declines and unstable populations.

Ungulate populations are driven by adult female and offspring survival. Much of their survival is tied to the nutritional value of their early season habitats.

Fire’s Influence on Nutrition

Fire has a significant influence over the nutrition available to grazing and browsing herbivores.

For example, decomposition of plant material in conifer forests is slow and, consequently, nutrient cycling is even slower. Nutrient cycling is important to herbivores because rapid nutrient cycling is linked to the palatability and quality of forage and browse.  Fires tend to shift plant communities from conifer forests to deciduous-herb-grass habitats. Deciduous-herb-grass habitats tend to cycle nutrients much quicker than conifer forests. Consequently, deciduous-herb-grass habitats often produce some of the most nutritious food for herbivores including wildflowers, berry producing shrubs, aspen and lush herbaceous plants. Species that are depended on old growth like caribou, which rely on slow growing lichens, do not respond well to fire, so they tend to inhabit ecosystems where fire does not happen very often (i.e., fire intervals in the order of 100s to 1000s of years).

Ungulates prefer vegetation that regrows after a fire because it has higher digestibility and more crude protein than unburned vegetation. The high quality vegetation that grows after a fire explains why herbivores often seek out habitats renewing themselves after forest fires. The high nutritional value of the forage and browse typically only lasts about 5 to 7 years for grasses and 11 to 20 years for shrubs. But the importance of wildlife having perpetual access to new burns somewhere within their homes range is critical for many species. Stone’s Sheep in Northeastern B.C., for example, are reported to have higher lamb to ewe ratios and lower incidence of lungworm when they have access to burned habitats. This is why it is important to burn critical forage and browse habitats on a frequent basis (i.e., 7 to 15 years).

Stone’s Sheep in Northeastern B.C., are reported to have higher lamb to ewe ratios and lower incidence of lungworm when they have access to burned habitats.

How do Ungulates Respond after a Big Fire?

For the most part, there is very little hard evidence in B.C. that shows how animals in this province respond to big landscape-scale fires. It’s just not something biologists have done a particularly good job at studying. However, in 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire burned approximately 25,000 ha (62,000 ac) of dry forest habitat south of Kelowna. 10 years prior to the fire, the Mountain Goats in Okanagan Mountain Park numbered around 8 animals. Ten years after the fire, the goat’s population grew to 85 animals (a whopping 962% increase). This increase is directly attributed to fire having improved habitat in the goats’ home range.

In 2003 the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire burned 25,000 ha of dry forest-grass habitat near Kelowna B.C.

In wildlife management units MU 8-9 and 8-10 where the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire burned, the hunter harvest of mule deer and elk increased 32% and 144% respectively in the decade following the fire.  This increase in harvest occurred with about a 15% decrease in the number of hunters and 15% decrease in the number of hunter days in those management units. There was no wildlife inventory data for deer and elk before and after the fire, so directly correlating increases in hunter harvest to increases in populations is not a firm conclusion; however, an increase in elk and deer abundance due to the fire can’t be discounted either.

Prior to the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, there were no mountain sheep in the area. Between 2007 and 2009 a total of 53 sheep were transplanted to the burned habitat, and over the next 6 years, the herd size increased by an amazing 14%. It is likely the favorable habitat and nutritious forage created by the fire favored lamb survival, and that powered their population growth.

Response of ungulates to the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. Data courtesy of FLNRO

What About Da Bears?

Huckleberries are fire tolerant, and fire creates the conditions for huckleberry plants to thrive, expand and persist on the landscape by preventing forests from overgrowing huckleberry patches. The most nutritious huckleberries for bears grow in full sunlight. Since the early 1900s, the Flathead grizzly bear population management unit (GPMU) in Southeastern B.C. has had the shortest fire return intervals (i.e., most frequent fire) and the highest percentage of the land base burned by fire on an annual basis compared to other units in Southeastern B.C.  Because of the unique fire regime in the Flathead and the abundance of huckleberry plants, huckleberry production is a strong bottom up regulating factor for grizzly bears in the Flathead. The graph below shows how grizzly bear adult female density, over the years, has increased with increasing berry production and has decreased with decreasing berry production.

Correlation between female grizzly bear density and huckleberry abundance in the Flathead Valley. Credit: Dr. Bruce McLellan

The New Frontier of Fire Research in B.C.

In 2017, the Elephant Hill Fire in Southcentral B.C. burned over 191,000 ha (472,000 ac). A wildlife research project led by Dr. Adam Ford from the University of British Columbia-Okanagan campus and Dr. Sophie Gilbert from the University of Idaho, in cooperation with the B.C. Wildlife Federation and Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, is studying the effects of the Elephant Hill Fire on mule deer population dynamics. It’s an exciting time for wildlife science and the future of effin big habitat burns in B.C. (hint hint).

An Obvious Question is, “Won’t Nature Take Care of it if We Just Let Fires Burn?”  

Moonscapes. Let burn policies can be catastrophic when habitat has been pushed beyond its historical fire regime. Fitkin, S., Wa. State Dept of Fish and Wildlife

The year 1850 is the date where the fire history record, as recorded in the rings of ancient fire survived trees, shows that the European colonization of western North America began to disrupt the natural fire regimes.   1940 is the date recognized where the post-war fire suppression effort began to exacerbate the disruption of natural fire regimes that was started by early settlers.  The overall influence of humans on natural fire cycles is one of decreasing the frequency and size of fires on the landscape and increasing the severity of fires when they occur.

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), an El Niño-like warm phase of the Pacific Ocean that lasts much longer than El Niño (20 to 30 years vs. 1 to1.5 years) is known to influence fire behavior as well as some ungulate populations in North America. The PDO ceased to be a dominant natural influence on fire cycles in B.C. after 1940 due to modern fire suppression that prevented fires during PDO season from growing to historical sizes.  For example, after 1940 in Southeastern B.C., there have been very few landscape fires greater than 500 sq. km (200 sq. mi).  The influence of the PDO still persists today, and the oscillation of this ocean current created peak fire seasons in B.C. in 1960, 1985 and 2000; however, the area burned during those years was much lower than the area burned prior to 1940 due to modern fire suppression that limited fires from growing to their historic sizes.

Climate influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation had a major influence on the size of fires in southern B.C. until about 1940. Nielsen, S. & Nielsen. C., 2010

Since 1850 and more so since 1940, ecosystems have been accumulating more biomass in the absence of natural fires.  The result of this biomass accumulation, or fuel loading as it is most often called, is that some ecosystems are experiencing fire severities at levels that the ecosystems are not adapted to.  Un-natural catastrophic fire can cause the reduction of ecosystem resilience, loss of wildlife habitat and loss of biodiversity. Ecosystems subject to un-natural catastrophic fires might not ever recover to their former conditions or functions.  So conservationists have to be very cautious about advocating for a “let it burn policy” in wildfire management because of the potential negative consequences that un-natural fire regimes can have on ecosystem resilience.

Historically, B.C. experienced some very large fires. In fact, the second largest fire recorded in North America, the Wisp Fire, burned between 1.4 and 1.7 million ha (3.5 to 4.2 million ac) in 1950 between Ft. St. John and northern Alberta. In 1958, the Ketch Fire burned about 225,000 ha (556,000 ac) in the Ketchika Valley in Northern B.C.  For comparison, 2017, which is touted as the worst fire year in British Columbia’s history, burned a total of 1.2 million ha (297 million ac), which is still smaller than Wisp Fire.  Setting aside economic damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure, 2017 was by no means a record year for area burned. Instead, 2017 was maybe just a little bit closer to the typical fire years pre-1850.

From 2006 to 2016, wildfires in B.C. burned a total of 12,000 to 370,000 ha per year (30,000 to 914,000 ac).  Some notably large scale fires have burned during this time period; however, the majority of fires during this ten year span ranged from 5 to 250 ha in size (12 to 600 ac). The average fire size during the 2006 to 2016 period was only 75 ha (185 ac). So on average, wildlife is not benefiting from the kinds of fire disturbances on the land that they need.  2006 to 2016 is also a period where we have seen dramatic declines in many wildlife species in the province.

Looking at the sizes of the home ranges of the largest wildlife species in B.C., as reported in the literature, the average upper home range size for all these species combined is somewhere in the range of 500 sq. km (75 to 190 sq. mi). The lower end is somewhere around 200 sq. km. In the face of modern fire suppression, nature is no longer able to create fires at a scale important to the survival of fire dependent wildlife and plant species.

Upper home range sizes of large mammals in B.C.

The Next Obvious Question is, “Doesn’t Clearcutting Take the Place of Fire?” 

In classical forestry education, students were taught that most forests in B.C. originated from stand replacing fire regimes. After stand replacing fires, the new forests establish over a short period of time and grow into what Foresters call “even-aged” forests. Clearcutting causes forests to also establish and mature into even-aged forests, especially when they are artificially planted right after logging is finished. Classical forestry theory often suggests that clearcutting mimics or is a substitute for natural stand replacing wildfire. So the premise in forest management is to put out wildfires, log the timber and all will be good for biodiversity.

Twenty or 30 years after logging, it can be hard to discern if you are standing in an old logging block or in an old natural burn; however, that’s where the similarity ends. Even with natural replacing fires, there is still a tremendous amount of habitat structure and diversity left immediately after the fire. “Snag forests,”  the type of habitat left after a forest fire, provide valuable habitat for many wildlife species including moose, bears, furbearers, rodents, insects and many species of birds including woodpeckers. To the moose, these standing dead forests provide enough visual cover that allows them feed on the regrowth and not been seen as easily as they would if they were in the middle of salvage logged block.  A moose’s long legs are an adaption for living in deep snow and in wet habitats, but they are also thought to be an adaptation to living in old burns where the dead standing trees eventually fall over and become crisscrossed.  The ability to live in the tangled old burns may be a strategy of moose to avoid predators. Old burns are a type of fortified moose sanctuary.  This type of important moose habitat is lacking in B.C. because of our obsession with giving burnt trees rides to sawmills.

The “snag forest”. There is a lot of structure left after a forest fire that benefit wildlife including moose.

A typical clear in B.C. lacking any kind of structural diversity. Expect for the wildlife tree patch in the background. Note all the moose living in it.

Wildlife habitat burns and forestry silviculture burns were well-used land management tools between 1980 and 1994 in B.C.  At its peak, the use of prescribed fire approached 50% of the total area burned by wildfire even during some of the worst fires seasons.  Between 1970 and 2000, prescribed fire use even exceeded the total area burned by wildfire.  1970 to 2000 was an era where land managers were managing the landscape with fire.  Fear about using prescribed after the severe 1985 fire season began to erode political and public support for prescribed fire as a land management tool, so land managers chose the option that protected their careers. Less fire became a good thing.

The possible correlation between the decline in the use of prescribed fire on the landscape and the amount of property loss due to wildfires after 2000 is an interesting one to look at more closely.  Progress is being made by the province on a number of policy and funding initiatives with respect to restoring the use of prescribed fire as management tool, but progress is not moving remotely fast enough to keep up with what wildlife need. Significant work still needs to be done to reduce liabilities (perceived and real) around the use of prescribed fire by the forest industry and government agencies.  Too many folks are scared of prescribed fire.

The trend of wildlife habitat burns, silviculture forestry burns and natural wildfires in B.C. 1970 to 2015. Courtesy of Peter Fuglem.

What about Ecosystem Restoration? We Hear A Lot About it.

Southeast B.C. has one of the most aggressive habitat restoration programs in the entire province. The program is aimed at restoring fire-maintained ecosystems in the Rocky Mountain Trench, yet over the last 20 years, the program has only managed to reach about 40% of the area identified as needing to be burned. Species like elk in the Rocky Mountain Trench that should have benefited from 20 years of habitat restoration have declined nearly 50% between 2008 and 2018. Not a great outcome for the province’s poster child in ecosystem restoration.

The photo below shows prescribed burns (red) that were planned for the Galton Range in Southeastern B.C. The Galton’s have historically sustained amazing mule deer and bighorn sheep herds for hundreds of years. Now the Galton’s are mostly covered by dense forest.   Like many herds of mule deer and sheep, the Galton sheep and deer populations have dwindled. Sheep have declined about 40% in the last 10 years alone. The proposed habitat burns for the Galton’s total a mere few hundred hectares. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of hectares that these ungulate’s home ranges cover. I call these types of habitat enhancement projects for large ranging mammals “micro burns.”   When I look at the home range size of most large mammals combined with the fact these species need access to large burns within their home ranges, it is clear that our thinking on habitat enhancement burning needs to be on a scale that is meaningful to wildlife and not simply at a scale that suggest that wildlife managers are doing “something.”

Galton Mountain Range of Southeast B.C. showing mule deer and bighorn sheep “micro-burns” (red areas)

Galton Mountain Range with the Okanagan Mountain Fire (25,000ha) superimposed over the micro habitat burns. Now that’s an effin big habitat burn.

In the photo above, the orange shaded area represents the size of the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. This shows you what an effin big habitat burn really looks like in comparison to the micro burns that were planned for the area.  If we want resilient ecosystems to help recover dwindling wildlife populations and to protect biodiversity, we need effin big burns not micro burns!

My Key Take Home Messages are:

  1. Habitat biologists need to change their paradigm and execute prescribed burns in the order of 100-500 sq. km per wildlife population unit. Ditch the micro burns!
  2. Prescribed fire objectives need to be linked to wildlife population objectives.
  3. Habitat biologists need to focus on enhancing plant nutrition and to understand optimal fire regimes that make high quality nutrition available to herbivores on a perpetual basis.
  4. Habitat biologists need to expand burning away from winter range and into spring/summer calving and lambing areas to ensure the best forage surrounds the most critical natal and pre-natal habitats.
  5. Habitat biologists need to be measuring success of habitat burns by monitoring wildlife population metrics rather than tallying the total area burned.
  6. Forest managers need to accept that some fire-killed “snag forests” are off limits to salvage logging in order to restore diversity on the landscape, especially for moose. (I can hear the gasps now).

When I tell wildlife and fire managers what size habitat burns should really be, they get a little freaked out. In the southern half of the province, safely executing habitat burns on a big scale likely won’t happen in one single burn – that’s the reality of our situation given where most of our population and infrastructure is located. But if habitat biologists were dedicated to burning habitat at a meaningful scale for wildlife, and they staggered a series of systematically inter-connected burns over a 5 year time frame, I think our fire management experts in B.C. and the nail biting land managers could handle that.  There is a saying that every new idea goes through 3 stages – resistance, discussion and then adoption.  Most of what I have written about here is not new, so I hope we are able to get passed stage 1 fairly quickly. Wildlife is disappearing while they wait for us to figure this fire thing out. The time for effin big fires is right now.

Effin big fire

What Can Conservationists do to Help Advocate for Effin Big Fires on the Landscape?

  • Always be engaging your local habitat biologists to help them identify critical areas for habitat burns (draw really big circles on their maps).
  • Demand habitat biologists responsible for prescribed burns either go big or go home.
  • Demand that habitat biologists demonstrate how habitat burns are linked to firm population objectives (no wishy washing stuff).
  • Become familiar with your local Wildfire Center’s Fire Management Plan because it should show areas where the fire management objectives call for “modified responses” – aka let-burn-but-keep-an-eye-on-it approach. Hold fire managers accountable to letting fire burn where the objective is to let it burn. Tell them there will be no sneaking in to put out fires in those areas just because fire crews are on overtime.
  • Help support habitat projects and contribute third party funding to effin big habitat burns. Boycott funding for micro burns.
  • Engage your local politicians and government decision makers to educate them about the benefits of effin big burns. Help build their confidence in B.C.’s wildfire management experts’ abilities to execute effin big habitat burns. Tell them effin big habitat burns help protect communities from nasty wildfires. Tell them effin big fires will increase wildlife populations which will help get them re-elected.
  • Use social media and local newspapers to praise habitat burns (yes even micro burns).
  • Counter people who are complaining about smoke from habitat burns and tell them it’s the sweet smell of biodiversity. Super Natural B.C. = smoke once and while.
  • Be like a woodpecker looking for a grub deep inside a dry snag and relentlessly pound away on all the above items. The future of healthy wildlife populations depends on your hammering away at making effin big habitat burns a reality. Failure here is not an option folks.

I Will Leave You with One Final Thought

  • Responsible stewardship of wildlife should not involve an obsession with top down regulators when so many habitats in B.C. are skewed from their natural states.
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What Journalists and Wildlife Scientists Need To Stop Doing in Order to Save Wildlife

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The Greatest Threat Facing Wildlife

The 6th great extinction in the world’s history is weighing heavily on the minds of citizens across the globe because scientists are warning us that we are driving species to extinction. Yet rather than care more and take more positive action for wildlife, I’m seeing a growing number of people losing hope in conservation and humanity’s abilities to save species. I see this loss of hope manifesting itself as anger in the public forums where non-hunters are lashing out at hunters, hunters are lashing back, and everyone is lashing out at scientists and politicians. Anger is rooted in fear: the fear of change and the fear of the uncertain future. Fear is making people paranoid, and this is preventing many folks from taking positive action for conservation. Fear is causing people to lose hope. There is no greater threat to wildlife than when people lose hope in conservation’s, science’s, and humanity’s ability to change the current trajectory.  Humans may be the cause of global wildlife and other environmental problems, but humans are also the solution.

Google It

My concerns for the future of wildlife are amplified when I study trends on the Internet. If you accept people’s activity on the Internet as an indicator of people’s interests, beliefs and concerns, then you might share my concern, too.  A Google search of the words “Wildlife Conservation” returned 2.68 million results in 0.76 seconds, but a Google search of the words “Trophy Hunting” returned 5.92 million results in the same time.  Troubling? I think it is.

Are there more sites dedicated to trophy hunting than wildlife conservation? Are more people drawn to the topic or idea of trophy hunting than to wildlife conservation? Is the content on trophy hunting more controversial and interesting than wildlife conservation? You can do the research to answer these questions if you like, but for me, they are moot. My concern is whether people are caring more about trophy hunting, either for it or against it, than they are about wildlife conservation.

Google Trends is a nifty new tool to get glimpses of what people are looking at on the Internet. Without getting into how the trends are measured, just think of the graphs below as showing what people are searching for on the Internet. When I compared the search terms “Trophy Hunting” with “Wildlife Conservation” for the period 2004 to 2018, I found that more Canadians were searching for “Wildlife Conservation” than “Trophy Hunting” – up to about 2013. After 2013, people’s interest in trophy hunting started to climb. Two notable spikes in searches for trophy hunting occurred in August 2015 and Nov 2017, which are linked to the Cecil the Lion story (July 2015) and president Trump’s controversial announcement about the importation of elephant trophies into the USA (Nov 2017).

Google Trends chart comparing Canadian searches of the terms “Trophy Hunting” vs “Wildlife Conservation” between 2004 and 2018.

More troubling to me than these Google Trends from Canada is the worldwide trend over this same time period.  While Canada and USA were global hotspots for people searching for “Wildlife Conservation,” there appears to be a worldwide decline in people’s interest in wildlife conservation to the point where people’s interest in conservation may be supplanted by their fascination with trophy hunting. What does this say about the future for wildlife?

 

Google Trends comparing worldwide searches of the terms “Trophy Hunting” vs. “Wildlife Conservation” between 2004 and 2018

The “T” Word

“Trophy Hunting” is an emotional trigger word. It gets used far too often to evoke emotions within people simply to create controversy, and that often detracts from the deep conservation story that needs to be told. There is no universal definition of trophy hunting, so in almost every conversation I listen in on or article that I read, people seem to use their own definition.

Which scenario is “Trophy Hunting” to you?

  1. A rich white American hunter shoots a lion so it can be mounted by a taxidermist and the meat is not utilized by anyone.
  2. An average income Canadian hunter saves for 10 years to hunt in Africa and shoots an African antelope so it can be mounted by a taxidermist and the meat is utilized by the locals.
  3. A local hunter in British Columbia chooses the largest antlered Bull Moose in the group of bulls so it can be mounted by a taxidermist and so he can also take home meat for his family.
  4. A hunter chooses the largest bodied Bull Moose because it gives him the most amount of meat to take home for his family.
  5. A young first time hunter shoots a small-antlered whitetail deer, gets the deer mounted by a taxidermist and proudly takes home the meat for his family.
  6. A waterfowl hunter shoots a duck and has it mounted by a taxidermist and eats the meat.
  7. A waterfowl hunter shoots a duck, has it mounted by a taxidermist and gives the meat to his neighbor who doesn’t hunt.
  8. An Indigenous hunter kills a rare, colourful tropical bird to use the feathers for traditional cultural/spiritual reasons.
  9. A hunter who is a single mother with three young children kills a black bear in Alaska for the meat and does not keep the head, hide or claws.
  10. A young male hunter shoots a black bear because he wants a bear skin rug.
  11. A hunter shoots a mountain lion for the fur and the meat but does not use dogs to track it.
  12. A hunter shoots a mountain lion for the fur and the meat but uses dogs to track it.
  13. A hunter shoots an elk and eats all the meat and hangs the antlers on his wall.
  14. A hunter using only a bow and arrow has unsuccessfully hunted elk for 10 years and finally selects one with massive antlers. She uses all the meat, which lasts her 2 years, and she has the hide tanned into a robe that she lays on her bed.
  15. A hunter shoots a coyote and sells the fur.
  16. A photographer hikes past all the small-horned bighorn rams, selects the one with the largest horns, stalks him and photographs just the largest-horned ram.

So what were your emotional reactions to these various scenarios? Did some elicit stronger negative feelings than others? Were you okay with some of these scenarios and not others? What was it about each scenario that elicited different emotions? Was there something about the hunter’s race, nationality, wealth status or gender that mattered to you? Did you have different emotions depending on what species of animal was hunted, how it was hunted or which continent it was hunted on?  Did you feel differently when the hunter’s motive was for sustenance? What about when Indigenous people hunt for non-sustenance purposes? Is that trophy hunting, or is trophy hunting just a non-aboriginal form of hunting?  What is your definition of trophy hunting? Where do you draw the line for your own morals?

Maybe you were not concerned with who the hunter was or what his/her motives for hunting were, but you wanted to know more about the status of the animals being hunted. Are the populations doing okay? Can they handle some moderate level of human hunting or are they being over hunted?  Were you more curious about whether the hunts were being managed properly? Were you more concerned about the overall impact of hunting or just what one individual hunter was doing?

If you are a non-hunter, I suspect your negative emotional reactions were focused on the hunters whose primary motives were not about sustenance. I believe most, not all, non-hunters view hunting as morally permissible as long it meets 3 criteria:

  • The motive of the hunter is for sustenance,
  • The character of the hunter is such that he/she abides by the law and ethical and humane methods of hunting in addition to being skilled, competent and knowledgeable, and,
  • The emotions of the hunter are appropriate. He/she demonstrates reverence, respect and humility for the animal they have killed and for other people around them.

These criteria are not mutually exclusive. If a hunter fails to meet all 3 criteria, most non-hunters, I believe, will object to hunting. It’s all or nothing.  Is this why so many people react negatively towards trophy hunting?  Because it violates one or all three of these criteria?

Journalists, Where Do You Fit In?

Not all, but many mainstream media outlets today are driven by an obsession to report bad news, sensationalized stories and controversy. Eric Weinstein’s Four Quadrant Model demonstrates beautifully the patterns of behavior exhibited by some mainstream media folks by showing how they skew stories and manipulate people being interviewed. I’ll let you read up on Eric’s model to understand these patterns and his terms, but it’s very obvious that the more dubious media outlets like to make hunters into the “Troglodytes” (“bad, evil, immoral people”) that Eric describes. Using the term “Trophy Hunting” is a tactic that elicits negative emotions and reinforces the basic pattern of polarizing a debate. However, it’s in the mature nuanced discussions where consumers of media make up their own minds without being manipulated. Media and journalist who use “Trophy Hunting” shock stories for self-gain in a competitive news environment are part of the problem for wildlife conservationists.  The media is often the conduit between science, citizens and policy makers, and its role confers a great responsibility in our society today. In early 2018, 2500 top scientists issued their second warning to humanity,  which warns of the collision course between humanity and the natural world. As long as media outlets are sensualizing trophy hunting and ignoring nuanced discussions about where hunting does or does not fit into the scientists’ warnings, they are doing humanity a massive disservice. Rather than hunting troglodytes, journalist should be hunting for truth that can be used to empower citizens and policy makers to take immediate action to prevent wildlife extinctions. Driving positive change for humanity and the natural world should be the highest purpose of media.

Wildlife Scientists, Where Do You Fit into All of This?

I have been seeing the term “Trophy Hunting” creeping into the language of far too many wildlife scientists lately, especially ones trying to build a brand on social media. As objective and unbiased as scientists are supposed to be, they are humans with opinions and emotions. Their personal emotions about moral topics like trophy hunting do, however, creep into their professional work. Everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion and to let their emotions drive their actions. Most scientists do engage in much more nuanced discussions even on the topic of hunting than most hunters and non-hunters. However, when wildlife scientists are promoting their credentials and bring a moral topic like trophy hunting into their realm of scientific expertise, we need to question the impact this has on citizens and policy makers. Trophy hunting, as a motive of the hunter, is a real thing but it is a purely a moral topic. Unless scientists discussing hunter’s motives are social scientists, the moral aspects of a hunter’s motives should not be entering the realm of discussion in wildlife science. I think it’s fair to say that society expects wildlife scientists who are studying wildlife or the impact of hunting on wildlife to just focus on the specific aspects of hunting that impact wildlife and not pass judgment on whether that specific type of hunting is trophy hunting or not.

Hunter, author and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote that hunting is what one species does to take possession of another. Hunting is hunting. The individual’s purposes or motives for hunting do not define hunting.  Qualifying hunting as trophy hunting is a judgment about the motive of the hunter, and this really should not be what wildlife scientists are discussing or publishing.  If a species should not be hunted because of a conservation concern, then it shouldn’t be hunted. If hunting is causing a conservation concern, then we should address it and find a solution. But recognize that when a scientist’s emotions creep into his/her work by slipping “trophy hunting” into a wildlife science paper or statement, they are fueling the media’s hunt for troglodytes, and that is essentially derailing wildlife science’s highest purpose, which is to prevent species extinction. Society looks to wildlife scientists for their objective prognosis of what’s best for wildlife not their judgments on human morality. That should be left up to the philosophers and patrons at the corner pub.

Hunters and Non-Hunters, Where Do You Fit In?

We are in a time in human history where you need to decide what positive role you want to play in helping wildlife. Satisfying one’s need to feel important by anger, egregious public behavior or un-empathetic attitudes, wishing others would go away and die a cruel horrible death because they have different perspectives, and slamming scientists might make some people feel significant in the moment, but that does nothing to make this world better for wildlife. Educating oneself about the most important issues facing wildlife and calling out the media, politicians and scientists for derailing wildlife conservation with moral debates is your duty regardless of whether you are hunter or non-hunter. If you care for wildlife and its future, stand up against those who are undermining the big picture issues that wildlife is faced with. I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t discuss the morality of trophy hunting because I believe we should be having a collective social discussion about it. But the conversation about the “morality” of hunting should not continue to divert the average global citizen’s interest away from wildlife conservation. If we asked the wildlife, it would tell us to stop talking about human problems and halt extinctions.

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An Invisible Killer of Wildlife in British Columbia

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Is Super Natural B.C. losing what makes it super? Hunters, anglers, trappers and guides will all tell you that many fish and wildlife populations in British Columbia are declining. Salmon, steelhead, moose, bighorn sheep and caribou; the list goes on. You hear these folks echoing the same urgent concerns about what they are seeing or not seeing: fewer fawns, cows with no calves, dwindling herd sizes, bull-cow ratios that are out of whack, fewer old bulls and fewer returning salmon.

Folks are asking, “Why are populations declining? Why are there fewer calves and fawns? Why are management strategies like changing hunting regulations not working?  Is it because we are ignoring science?  Or, are scientists studying the wrong things? Are there too many predators, too much access or are the hunting seasons still too long? Is there a simple answer? Is there a simple fix to all of this?”

All Aboard

Many of these conservationists are working hard to increase funding for science to help everyone understand what is happing to B.C.’s biodiversity. They are also pushing decision makers to establish conservation polices in alignment with Tenant 6 of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation which reads:

“The purpose of principle number 6 means that science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy.”

But not everyone in the hunting community has embraced the idea of letting science drive policy in wildlife management. Some folks are skeptical of science and openly criticize what wildlife scientists are saying. A few folks have it all figured out.  With arms crossed they say, “I tell ya, it’s those @#$% wolves.” On the flip side, some non-hunting groups and journalists continue to use alternative facts and junk science in social media and in their op-eds to sway public opinion. Citizen science can help solve some of these problems, but large scale integration of citizen science as well as good solid social science is lacking in British Columbia’s approach to wildlife management. There are so many complex non-linear tangled up relationships in nature and factors affecting fish and wildlife dynamics. No one person or group of people can possibly claim to understand let alone comprehend what is happening with something as seemingly simple as a population decline of a single species.

The primary threats to fish and wildlife that are consistently reported worldwide are: 1) over exploitation 2) habitat loss 3) invasive species and 4) pollution. British Columbia still has large amounts of wilderness which many feel is un-impacted by humans or industrial activities. Most believe our mountain streams run pure and clean. The rugged terrain of B.C. means we should always have a significant amount of untouched wilderness at least at the highest elevations. In all of B.C.’s beauty, it’s hard to comprehend or accept that pollution might be a significant factor affecting fish and wildlife populations especially in our wilderness regions. We occasionally hear of news stories about chemical leaks or spills and industrial pollution making its way into the soil or water. These sources of pollution can be toxic to fish and wildlife resulting in their immediate death.  The adverse effects of being exposed to some types of pollutants, however, may not cause rapid death but rather lead to delayed adverse health impacts such as decreased growth or decreased reproduction.  These impacts may take decades before anyone realizes what is going on.

The Dirty Dozen

There is a particular group of chemical pollutants called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, that are of significant concern in conservation. Persistent organic pollutants are those man-made chemicals that are stable, persistent and invisible in the environment. Persistent organic pollutants are “organic” in the sense that they can attach themselves to living cells like fat, muscle and liver tissue by moving through the body in the bloodstream. These chemicals are difficult and, for some species, impossible to get rid of, which means some chemicals can accumulate in an organism’s body over its life time. These chemicals can also be passed from a mother to her offspring during gestation and for mammals, through mother’s milk during nursing. Chemicals can also be transferred from species to species when a predator or scavenger consumes another individual. Storing chemicals in the body faster than they can be excreted is what scientist call bioaccumulation. When the concentration of chemicals in the body increases in species further up the food chain, scientists call that process biomagnification.

The United Nations Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that was created in 2001. The treaty was designed to protect human and environmental health from persistent organic pollutants by restricting the world’s most dangerous chemicals. The convention created mechanisms for the international ban of an initial group of twelve chemicals sometimes referred to as the “dirty dozen”.

The world’s 12 most toxic chemicals

Aldrin

 

A pesticide applied to soils to kill termites, grasshoppers, corn rootworm, and other insect pests Toxic to humans, fish and other wildlife
Chlordane

 

Used extensively to control termites and as a broad-spectrum insecticide on a range of agricultural crops Toxic to humans and wildlife

Possible human carcinogen

May affect human immune system

 

DDT

 

Perhaps the best known of the POPs, DDT was widely used during World War II to protect soldiers and civilians from malaria, typhus, and other diseases spread by insects. It continues to be applied against mosquitoes in several countries to control malaria Eggshell thinning in birds

Associated with chronic (long-term) human health effects

Endocrine system disruptor

Dieldrin Used principally to control termites and textile pests, dieldrin has also been used to control insect-borne diseases and insects living in agricultural soils Highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life

Frog embryos exhibit spinal deformities

 

Endrin

 

This insecticide is sprayed on the leaves of crops such as cotton and grains. It is also used to control mice, voles and other rodents Highly toxic to fish

 

Heptachlor

 

Primarily employed to kill soil insects and termites, heptachlor has also been used more widely to kill cotton insects, grasshoppers, other crop pests, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes Associated with bird population declines

Lethal to mink, rats, & rabbits

Adverse behavioural changes and lowered reproductive success in wildlife

Possible human carcinogen

 

Hexachlorobenzene (HCB)

 

HCB kills fungi that affect food crops. HCB is also an industrial chemical and can be released as an unintentional byproduct of combustion processes Lethal to some wildlife

Associated with adverse reproductive effects in wildlife

Accidental poisonings in humans resulted in wide range of effects

Mirex

 

This insecticide is applied mainly to combat fire ants and other types of ants and termites. Mirex is also an industrial chemical used as a fire retardant in plastics, rubber, and electrical goods Toxic to plants, crustaceans and fish

Possible human carcinogen

 

Toxaphene

 

This insecticide, also called camphechlor, is applied to cotton, cereal grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. It has also been used to control ticks and mites in livestock Highly toxic to fish

Possible human carcinogen

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

 

These compounds are employed in industry as heat exchange fluids, in electric transformers and capacitors, and as additives in paint, carbonless copy paper, sealants and plastics. They are also released as an unintentional byproduct of combustion processes Lethal to fish at high doses

Reproductive failures in wildlife

Associated with immune system suppression, behavioural abnormalities and developmental problems in humans

 

Dioxins

 

These chemicals are produced unintentionally due to incomplete combustion, as well as during the manufacture of certain pesticides and other chemicals. In addition, certain kinds of metal recycling and pulp and paper bleaching can release dioxins. Dioxins have also been found in automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke and wood and coal smoke Toxic to wildlife

Associated with enzyme disorders, immune system disorders, chloracne and cancer in humans

 

Furans These compounds are produced unintentionally from the same processes that release dioxins, and they are also found in commercial mixtures of PCBs Affects similar to dioxins

Possible human carcinogen

 

In 2001, Canada became the first country to ratify the UN Stockholm Convention. The convention went into force in 2004 and was initially ratified by 151 countries. In 2004, these countries agreed to outlaw nine of the dirty dozen chemicals, limit the use of DDT to malaria control, and curtail inadvertent release of dioxins and furans. Parties to the Convention have agreed to a process by which persistent toxic compounds can be reviewed and added to the convention if they meet certain criteria for persistence and transboundary threats. Countries that did not ratify the treaty include the United States, Israel, Malaysia, and Italy. An additional 16 chemicals have since been added to the list, and three more are currently pending acceptance onto the list.

The Solution to Pollution Isn’t Dilution

Even though many of the “dirty dozen” chemicals have been banned by some countries including Canada, some of the chemicals are still manufactured and used by other countries. Chemicals like furans and dioxins are still generated through industrial processes in Canada including in pulp and paper manufacturing where the chemicals are discharged with other effluent into rivers.  Persistent organic pollutants present a unique challenge for wildlife conservation because 1) the chemicals can mobilize from the country of use and be deposited anywhere in the world where the environmental conditions favor them being released out of the atmosphere and 2) once in their new environment, the chemicals can get taken up into the food chain where they can harm fish and wildlife. DDT is the most famous example of these phenomena. While DDT was used mostly in temperate portions of the world nearer the equator, DDT found its way into every living organism on earth, which lead to significant declines of many bird species worldwide.

Persistent organic pollutants released in other countries are ending up in the environment in British Columbia

Some types of persistent organic pollutants once released into the environment (i.e., pesticides sprayed on a crop) will volatilize into the atmosphere. Global atmospheric cycles tend to move from the equator towards both poles. The chemicals move towards the poles but as they reach the colder mid-latitude environments, they can condense and be deposited with snow and rain. When the weather warms, the chemicals can volatilize again and continue their journey towards the poles. This process is called the “grasshopper effect.” Once reaching the poles, the cold dry stable temperatures generally mean that the Polar Regions are the end of the line for these chemicals.

In Canada, the Arctic ecosystem has been under intense scientific study for several decades, and many contaminants have been detected throughout Arctic ecosystems at unexpectedly high levels including in the Inuit people. The problem is so serious that Health Canada warns Inuit people to limit their intake of marine fish and mammals and offer an especially serious warning for pregnant women. In Canada’s Arctic, persistent organic pollutants dissolve into the ocean where they enter the marine food chain and biomagnify in species including seals, polar bear and humans. On land, the chemicals are absorbed by plants and enter the terrestrial food chain where they biomagnify in wolves and humans.

 

Biology 101

The endocrine system is made up of glands that produce hormones which are chemical messengers that regulate physical and chemical processes in the body including cell and organ activity as well as sexual development and reproduction.  The body’s endocrine system has feedback loops whereby receptors in the body relay information back to the brain to either increase or slow production of hormones so that proper concentrations of hormones are maintained in the bloodstream.

Some persistent organic pollutants are known as endocrine disruptors. These artificial chemicals can enter the bloodstream and mimic hormones, sending bad signals or blocking normal signals to the brain. Endocrine disruptors can adversely affect the health of wildlife and humans by causing immune system and reproductive impairment, as well as developmental and reproductive abnormalities. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to abnormalities in laboratory animals and wildlife including feminization of males, abnormal sexual behavior, birth defects, altered sex ratios in populations, decreased sperm density, decreased size of testes, breast cancer, testicular cancer, reproductive failure and thyroid dysfunction. Increases in abnormalities, disorders and diseases in individual animals as a result of exposure to endocrine disruptors have been linked to wildlife population declines. Chemical pollution is one of the current theories used to explain the global decline of amphibians.

When the bald eagle and other raptors started declining in the 1960’s because they were having problems reproducing, people were surprised when scientists discovered the insecticide DDT was accumulating in their bodies and causing their eggshells to thin and break before the chicks were ready to hatch. When scientists discovered a hole in the earth’s ozone in the 1980’s, people were surprised to find out that it was very small chemical reactions in the atmosphere from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were causing the loss of ozone that protected earth from dangerous ultraviolent radiation.  When officials talk about drinking water and the risk of humans ingesting toxic substances, they are generally talking about concentrations of chemicals that are safe even at levels in the part per millions. So when the concentrations of chemicals in the environment are reported in parts per billion, many people think that those concentrations are so small that there couldn’t possibly be any harmful effects to fish, wildlife or humans.

Natural hormones are incredibly potent chemicals that function at concentrations so low that they can only be measured by the most sensitive analytical methods. Hormones such as estrogen are in concentrations in the blood typically in the parts per trillion, one thousand times lower than parts per billion. When body functions such as reproduction or the immune system rely on hormone concentrations so infinitesimally small, one can begin to appreciate how even the tiniest amount of man-made chemicals that build up in the body of a fish or mammal (or you) could negatively impact health.

A New Threat to Fish and Wildlife Emerges

Canada has banned many persistent organic pollutants; however, not all countries have. The ability of these chemicals to be  transported around the world, condense in the colder ecosystems of Canada and be  taken up in food web represents a serious conservation issue regardless of the action Canada has taken to support the UN’s Stockholm Convention. Although concentrations of many historic contaminants have declined since countries took action under the Convention, many new pollutants such as brominated flame retardants (PBDE) have been detected in Arctic wildlife including polar bears and ringed seals. The cold dry environment in the Arctic favours the accumulation and storage of pollutants, so climate change is becoming a big concern for toxicology scientists. Warmer temperatures in the Arctic create the potential for volatile chemical pollutants to be re-released making more contaminants available to enter the food web. Dealing with climate change and impaired endocrine systems could be the deadly one-two punch for many species.

In the late 1990’s, scientists in Canada who had been involved in the federal Arctic Contaminants Research Program asked the question; if persistent organic pollutants are accumulating in the high latitude Arctic regions because of the cold climate, could the same chemicals also be accumulating in cold higher altitude regions of the mountains of western Canada? They set about analyzing snow and glaciers in the Rocky Mountains along the continental divide between British Columbia and Alberta in between the towns of Banff and Jasper Alberta and Golden B.C.  The scientists found seven of the dirty dozen chemicals are accumulating in the Rocky Mountains during winter. In fact, concentrations in the snow of some of the dirty dozen chemicals were similar to those they found in the high Arctic. The scientists found that the higher they went in altitude, the higher the chemical concentrations were in the snow. They reported that the most significant spike in chemical concentrations occurred above 2000m elevation.

In 2000, scientists reported the occurrence of toxaphene, DDTs, PCBs and other organochlorine chemicals in lake trout and mountain whitefish in alpine lakes in the Southern Rocky Mountains of B.C. and Alberta, which indicates that part of the aquatic food chain in this region is affected by at least three of the United Nation’s “dirty dozen” chemicals.  In 2001, other scientists were reporting that persistent organic pollutants were bio accumulating in Arctic terrestrial food chains including the lichen-caribou-wolf food chain.

Some of the most toxic artificial chemicals can be found in the mountains of western Canada

By early 2002, no one had looked into whether these chemicals were entering the food chain of wildlife in the Rocky or Purcell Mountains as a possible way to explain declines in species like bighorn sheep and the endangered mountain caribou. In 2002, I decided to undertake a Master’s of Science degree to investigate this question. With help of hunters and trappers, I collected liver, muscle and fat tissue samples from cougars and wolves since they are the species representing the top of food chain in the mountain ecosystems of western Canada. I collected over 100 samples from 18 cougars and 8 wolves. This should have been sufficient for me to determine if any of the dirty dozen chemicals were in the food chain. The analysis of tissue samples for persistent organic pollutants at ultra-low concentrations is very expensive. With hundreds of samples to analyze at a couple thousand dollars per sample, no funder was willing to support my research. Because my research findings could have implications to the endangered southern caribou herds, there seemed to be some trepidation on behalf of some federal agencies to help with what I was doing. I often wonder if I may have been asking a question that people didn’t want answered. I ended up having to foot the bill out of my own pocket to complete my degree, so I could not afford to run all the samples like I needed to. I wasn’t even able to access the federal government labs that had the type of equipment needed to analyze the tissue samples for ultra-low concentrations of endocrine disrupting chemicals. In the end, I wasn’t able to detect if there were chemical pollutants in the food chain of the Southern Rocky Mountains. It’s still a mystery where these chemicals are going.

Since I completed my research, there has been more work on persistent organic pollutants in B.C. and in Canada coming to the fore front. Some newer studies have reported:

  • Contaminant levels are affecting endocrine processes in harbor seals in B.C.
  • B.C.’s killer whales now represent some of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. In 2017, the Salish Seas Orca population is down to 76 surviving animals and there has not been a new calf since 2015.
  • Persistent organic pollutants have been reported accumulating in vegetation in the Rocky Mountains at higher elevations where bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer and grizzly bears live.
  • Persistent organic pollutants have been reported in B.C. salmon, grizzly bears and osprey.
  • Persistent organic pollutants have been found in moose in the Northwest Territory.

In 1996, British Columbia signed the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. The Accord served as the framework for the Canadian Federal Species at Risk Act. As a signatory to the National Accord, B.C. is obligated to develop recovery plans that address the threats to species like the endangered mountain caribou in Southeastern B.C. Mountain caribou use high elevation habitat in late winter and forage heavily on arboreal lichens. Caribou in the Arctic were found to be bioaccumulating persistent organic pollutants by ingesting contaminated lichen, yet the bioaccumulation of these chemicals were never seriously considered as a threat to mountain caribou reproduction, and the study of endocrine disrupting chemicals has never been an integral part of the recovery plans for endangered caribou in B.C.

Dirty Dozen chemicals like dioxins and furans which, are toxic to fish and wildlife, are still released in some Canadian industrial processes including pulp and paper manufacturing

Canada’s international reputation has been criticized by some for its lack of domestic policy action on persistent organic pollutants. The Canadian government publicized the plight of contaminants in the Arctic and Great Lakes to countries considering taking action on persistent organic pollutants. Canada’s international advocacy for banning these chemicals has not been adequately matched with domestic policy on persistent organic pollutants and other endocrine disrupting chemicals.  Canada’s federal Toxic Substances Management Policy and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act prevent meaningful action from being taken on banning chemicals that might affect fish and wildlife within Canada. Criteria that define a chemical’s persistence in the environment or ability to bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife are weakly addressed in the current federal policy and Act. The inadequacy of domestic policy legislation means Canada will only take action on persistent organic pollutants and other endocrine disruptors that are on the list of the UN’s Stockholm Convention.

Opportunities for Change

That’s some pretty heavy stuff. Agreed, but it is important stuff that needs to be brought to the fray in the discussion here in British Columbia about the lack of science in fish and wildlife conservation. This article hopefully illustrates to hunters and other conservationists how utterly complex the world is with respect to traditional beliefs about what is causing fish and wildlife populations declines. Persistent organic pollutants are invisible and they are accumulating in our fish and wildlife already. But to what degree are the chemicals affecting population dynamics? Many more species are in decline that science has yet to ask the question whether these chemicals may be contributing to the declines (i.e., moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer). Remember, endocrine disruptors have been linked to impacts like failed reproduction and increases in diseases that resulted in total fish and wildlife population declines. Are scientists adequately considering the role of chemical pollutants in B.C.’s environment when they are studying fish and wildlife? Are there enough wildlife toxicology scientists working on these sorts of questions in B.C.? Are they getting the funding they need? No amount of “boots-on-the-ground” experience will be able to help us see whether these invisible killer chemicals are impacting fish and wildlife populations. This is why hunter conservationists need to adopt a principle-based approach to wildlife advocacy and demand more science in fish and wildlife management.

Our scientific approach in B.C. needs to mature into a holistic one that embraces a multi-disciplinary approach to researching the most pressing questions relevant to conservation. Fish and wildlife research needs to consider and incorporate more toxicology studies and researchers need to be unified in their approach, priorities and messaging. There are not as many experts in wildlife toxicolology as there are ecological, biological or behavioral wildlife scientists. That’s a problem for B.C. because toxic chemicals are accumulating in our environment.  A multi-disciplinary approach and funding across broad areas of conservation science is where we need to get to in B.C. and we need to get there sooner than later.

Even without the Stockholm Convention and the support of ratifying countries, Canada can take action to address the impacts of other chemicals on fish, wildlife and humans. The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations have proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act that would allow Canada to restrict or ban other endocrine disruptors under Canadian law. After banning them in Canada, the Government of Canada could then push for those chemicals to be added to the Stockholm convention to force their worldwide elimination.

Like many issues in conservation today, political intervention is necessary to put governments back on the proper path of acting in meaningful ways to protect the environment and our fish and wildlife populations. Hunter conservations don’t need to be scientists; hunters just need to tell politicians we need more scientists to cover off all the disciplines that need to be researched and, more importantly, politicians need to listen to what scientist say.

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