Wildlife (Mis)Management Myths Prevail
One of my favorite lines from the Bible does not, according to those who actually read the Bible, occur in it. The line is “This too shall pass,” and, Biblical or not, I have often thought about it, and the concept has given me strength. But three recent events (and many others like them) challenge the notion.
First, a reporter for an Ohio newspaper called me to discuss cormorants. Fine; since I saw my first double-crested cormorant in 1958, I have been intensely fascinated by, and defensive of, this most maligned and misunderstood species, and learned all I could about it. But…he had talked to a wildlife management “expert marksman” who had shot many cormorants during culls at Lake Erie, and as “a scientist,” his word meant so much more than mine. As well, the reporter could not get his head around the fact that our “duty” to “control” nature is neither a given nor necessarily effective—the view being that, since nothing much is natural, we should be out there deciding on behalf of nature who should live, who should die, and what the environment should really look like. I’ve heard it all before.
And then there was the decision, referred to in my last blog, to reinstall, albeit on a limited “test” basis, the spring bear hunt here in Ontario to reduce the number of complaints. But I had just read, among other such documents, a New Jersey study that clearly showed two things: as the number of bears “harvested” increases, so do complaints about bears, AND, non-lethal bear management has the opposite effect (sometimes dramatically so). Ontario data show the same thing, but facts don’t matter… As I said in my blog, our provincial prime minister, Kathleen Wynne, is embracing cruelty to bear cubs in the interest of earning votes. I suspect that the number of spring bear hunt proponents who have read the same studies and reports that I have read hovers around zero.
And then there was yet another hideously patronizing article, this one in The New York Times, telling us that we may not like it, but look, folks: since we’ve removed deer predators, deer numbers have to be controlled. They don’t mention how much more “game” we kill (or, in their language, “harvest”) than the predators we supposedly replace. Oh, we who don’t like it no doubt mean well, but we are just naïve Bambi-lovers who are unable to appreciate cold facts.
I've heard all of this so many times, regarding so many species, with but minor variations.
Here is some information for the animals' side to think about. But before I go on, one thing I strongly, strongly, strongly urge of everyone fighting to protect wildlife: challenge EVERY single premise. Take nothing as factual without first doing your own deep research. NEVER, please, mistake wildlife managers for scientists, or wildlife management for science. Be clear, concise, and factual. We have truth on our side, which is a good foundation to build upon.
The basic idea driving this continent-wide trend toward culling, again with allowances for regional- or species-specific variations, goes something like this:
Humanity has eliminated the "controls," such as predators, that in pre-Columbian (hereafter "primal") North America, kept the species "in check."
Humanity has enhanced carrying capacity (the amount of food available to the species in question) of the environment beyond what existed in primal times, thus leading to a population "explosion" that is "out of control," or has led to "hyper-abundance."
Because of the first two situations, the people who support culling blame the species in question for harming “the environment” (forgetting that those species ARE the environment, or part of it), impacting agriculture, and putting human safety at risk. Culling “controls” the population, restoring a balance toward normalcy – a concept that is either not defined, vaguely defined, or given a very specific number (there should be "X" number of deer [or whatever species is targeted] per hectare, based on what the habitat can withstand).
In reality, though "X," when identified at all, is the number (derived through computer models whose accuracy depends on the amount and quality of data entered) at or below which complaints to politicians cease to be made. We often hear dire predictions, like those of deer starving—and yet starvation in deer is largely a function of snow conditions, and happens in populations whether hunted or not. If you look at the deer targeted, you’ll see that they are typically healthy. We begin to understand that wildlife management is driven by politics, not science.
For some species, such as wolves or cormorants, "X" is often very close to zero. Literally, it can be a number that renders the species in question threatened or endangered, if not extirpated or even extinct, but of course that won't be admitted... It will always be a figure above zero, at least for native species.
There are other factors in play:
Lethal culling, as opposed to non-lethal conflict resolution and thoughtful, compassion-based management, has a huge psychological appeal. Not everyone has the same values or thinks the same way, and a percentage of the population has no, or very selective, empathy toward other species (or other humans, for that matter), and to them, "punishment" is important—and killing appeals to their need to demonstrate dominance and control. It is not necessarily that they are looking for an excuse to kill, but rather, killing fulfills an atavistic need to dominate and to punish: a characteristic that I believe was selected for through evolution, but is no longer valid. We have “won.” The world of other species is shrivelling in the wake of our technologically driven power.
It is also true that the majority of people NOT bothered by the presence of an animal species tend to keep quiet about it. How often do you write to your elected representative to say something like, "Hey, I just saw a cardinal at my feeder, a chipmunk in the garden, and a cottontail in the front yard, and I want you to know that I enjoyed them very much and am very glad that they are there?" I mean, why would you? Decision and policy makers almost exclusively hear from the whiners and complainers.
Another factor is fear. I am currently dealing with communities in British Columbia where the "bogeyman" is the Mule Deer (not the White-tailed Deer, which also occurs there, but is far less likely to hang around people than are Mule Deer... but no matter...they've killed them, too). The fear is based on a few actions by defensive deer – most notoriously a doe whose fawn was beset by a cat, a group of human bystanders, and finally a distant dog, which was the final straw for her, and she attacked the poor dog. From that, the concern has become that a child will be seriously hurt or killed.
There have been countless thousands, tens of thousands, of interactions between children and deer... millions, if we count kids in petting zoos featuring deer... including Mule Deer... and, so far, the number of such incidents appears to stand at... zero. It does not matter; ignorance rules.
Zoonotic disease is always a popular bogeyman with wildlife managers. No matter that studies show that the presence of White-tailed Deer in the east may LOWER the probability of transmission of Lyme Disease to people and pets (that's right... the opposite of what you are told by wildlife managers); the fear is enough to warrant the killing. It is a well-known fact that people tend to be very poor at risk-assessment, and so it is easy to convince them to be disproportionately afraid... or to take unnecessary risks, for that matter... or to fear economic damage, ecological damage, or whatever. It is not that all such concerns are totally invalid; it is just that they must never be assumed to be valid, or as valid as presented.
Remember, too, that hunting is generally in decline. Wildlife managers are fighting to promote lethal animal control, especially in the United States, where special taxes on guns and ammo go toward paying for wildlife managers.
It is increasingly understood that hunting just for "sport" is no longer as socially acceptable as it once was; thus, a social need has to be served, and scapegoating animals fulfills this need. This is less true in Canada, where culling is more likely to be done at government expense, but there are exceptions—like the newly reinstated spring bear hunt in Ontario, as purely a political move as anything I've ever seen. The government had a good "Bear Smart" programme, but simply didn't want to fund it.
Regarding deer, the idea that they are more common now than in primal times (not that it should matter; we can ever return to primal conditions) is based on outdated assumptions about the primal population size of first nations people. It is now understood that there were far more people here than was originally assumed, and thus, if you extrapolate from the newer figure, it means far more deer.
The elimination of deer predators such as wolves and eastern cougars is factual, but how do we measure that against the impact of the human predator, the enhanced mortality from automobiles, fence entanglements, hunting and poaching, the eastern range expansion of coyotes (evolving within our lifetimes into a larger subspecies to better fill the ecological niche left vacant by the elimination of the wolf), and various other anthropogenic impacts such as pollution or climate change? Certainly, what we can glean from earliest accounts suggests that there could well have been far more deer in primal North America, although such accounts are scarce, and many historical records that are presented as reflecting primal conditions do not do so, given the incredible rapidity with which disease reduced first nations citizens immediately after European contact.
Similarly, the enhanced carrying capacity from what is sometimes called the "agricultural subsidy" (there is far more nutriment per acre in, say, a corn field than in a primal forest) does not take into account the other factor that determines carrying capacity: shelter. Vast acreage of a high-nutriment crop does little good without places for the deer to hang out, breed, and gather for winter.
But also be sure to challenge the impact deer or other bogeymen species make to a community, the ways in which those
impacts can be resolved, and the cost-effectiveness of such resolutions. Physical removal of deer stimulates compensatory morality: a rebound effect whereby, with less competition for resources, more deer are born and more deer survive... ideal for ammunition and trap manufacturers and the employment of wildlife managers, because the "problems" are never resolved.
That’s the way the wildlife managers and supportive industries like it to be. We don’t have to.