Working in conservation means we also work in what the government ministries responsible for the care of our environment, natural resources and wildlife term “wildlife management”.
Grizzly Bear Foundation is currently part of a consultation process with the BC provincial government referred to as Improving Wildlife Management and Habitat Conservation, along with First Nations, forestry companies, hunting groups and other conservation organizations. This is an extraordinary opportunity and we’re grateful to be at the table for these discussions. Governments don’t often open up to this type of broad engagement or design a process where our contribution is taken with this level or respect. And, while some opinions have differed among the stakeholders, it’s clear that we share common goals.
Back in our offices, we stumble over the title of this process: Improving Wildlife Management and Habitat Conservation – what a mouthful! Beyond wrapping our tongues around it, we are also faced with wrapping our heads around it. Can people ‘manage’ wildlife – does wildlife not manage itself? Should people manage wildlife? Where does the idea that we should step in come from? Are our natural processes broken and in need of intervention? Is wildlife management a bandaid to fix our natural resource extraction mistakes?
From its inception, ‘wildlife management’ was seen as tool to enhance hunting opportunities. The American author and ecologist Aldo Leopold published the first textbook on wildlife management in 1933. It was very much linked to game management – that is, using hunting to control and enhance populations. In that early text, he stated wildlife management to be “the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use” – conserving wildlife for continued use as a resource. Leopold’s views on this changed over time as his concern grew over the impact of industrialization on the natural world, and gave rise to his more famous view – a land ethic linking people, land, and all the connections between them, as demonstrated in A Sand County Almanac – one of the most important environmental books of the 20th century.
So this begs the question – where does the grizzly bear fall into this conversation of wildlife management? We believe grizzlies are not a predator to be controlled for the benefit of game animal populations, but a creature that must be conserved for ecological benefit, particularly when we consider that people share many of the natural resources that grizzly bears play a role in sustaining – salmon, forests, berries, etc.
No direct study has been done to identify whether or not grizzly bears require human intervention to accurately ‘manage’ their populations – either for their abundance, or their impact on game populations. As far as the evidence goes, the need for population management is simply a matter of opinion. Evidence does show that historically, grizzly bears numbers were more plentiful, but a dramatic reduction occurred after Europeans arrived in North America with a desire to master the landscape. Once spanning as far south as Mexico and as far east as Labrador, Canada, the grizzly now inhabits just one third of its historic range. This counters claims that grizzly bear numbers are “exploding” – more truthfully, they are returning to their natural levels as they reinhabit historic territories.
Another truth is that grizzly bears are one of the slowest reproducing mammals on earth. Unlike deer or rabbits, which reproduce quickly and in vast quantities, the average female grizzly will only produce 8-10 bears over a 30 year lifespan. Grizzly success is directly linked to their food security – if a female grizzly fails to store enough fat over the summer, despite a successful initial pregnancy, she will not produce cubs that year.
A 2018 peer-reviewed paper found that despite claiming hallmarks of science were informing wildlife management in North America, it was rarely defined what those hallmarks were. Upon defining four hallmarks that could be applied to wildlife management (measurable objectives, evidence, transparency, and independent review), it was found that 60% of systems failed to use half of them (1). Perhaps wildlife management is maybe not as scientific as we believe, and as it stands, could use a rethink.
It seems to us that with the opportunity opened through the BC government's “Improving Wildlife Management and Habitat Conservation” process, and in light of the global biodiversity crisis we now face, that we need to reexamine what “wildlife management” means in the face of new challenges, and if this school of thought is what is really needed to conserve our wildlife.
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