If you derive any enjoyment from the largely intact suite of wildlife that roams North America, enjoy healthy wetlands that clean and filter our drinking water across the continent, or just simply enjoy the concept and existence of healthy habitats and wildlife, then you have benefitted from scientific research and the role it has played in North American conservation over the last century.
That we now have stable populations of many North American mammals is a direct result of conservation initiatives rooted in what is known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. In particular, many of the species that are so critical in the lives of thousands of hunters across North America would likely not be here were it not for this model and its thoughtful application across the continent. Without the North American model, we might very well be without thriving populations of elk, bison, wild turkeys, beavers, wild sheep, and many others whose management depends on scientific research, one of the key principles of the North American model. It is because of the central role that science-based decision-making has played in the conservation success stories across this continent that I find myself so baffled and frustrated by the lack of trust and sometimes outright animosity occasionally expressed towards wildlife researchers and managers.
Hunter-Harvest Reporting in North America
In May 2017, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) posted a proposal to amend hunting and fishing license regulations under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act in Ontario. The posting on the Environmental Registry allows the public to submit comments on the proposed amendments. Among other proposals, the MNRF is suggesting enhancements to hunter-harvest reporting requirements.
Wildlife management requires data on population dynamics. For hunted species, in particular, managers need population data to develop sustainable harvest regulations. For instance, managers need to know how many individuals of a population are likely to be born and survive and how many are likely to be killed each year. Birth and death rates are, of course, influenced by habitat quality, predation, and human-caused mortality. Wildlife researchers use various methods to estimate population sizes of harvested species, including aerial surveys and hunter-harvest reporting. Hunter-harvest reports involve a questionnaire that asks hunters to report on things like how many individuals of a particular species they saw throughout the season and how many they successfully killed.
Hunter-harvest reporting is a valuable source of information for governments to understand how many animals are running around the landscape. For instance, harvest data are used to “develop population models, set bag limits and hunting season lengths…adjust hunting regulations…and evaluate herd age, composition, and health”. To understand the magnitude of this pool of information, consider the context around moose hunting in Ontario. There are an estimated 98 000 licensed moose hunters in Ontario. If every moose hunter submits a harvest report, that is a tremendous source of valuable information that can contribute to estimates of moose abundance and distribution and lead to more effective decision-making around moose quotas. However, this information doesn’t just contribute to hunting regulations. Species reported on by hunters are part of a wider landscape ecology, interacting with other species and highly dependent on healthy habitat. Understanding population trends allows managers and conservationists to focus on species that require enhanced habitat protection and to manage the effects of predator-prey dynamics. In short, the value of on-the-ground knowledge from hunters cannot be underestimated.
Unfortunately, the Ontario government reports that response rates from hunters across the province have been declining over time, “with many surveys having less than 50% response from hunters”. Currently, only particular species have mandatory reporting in Ontario, such as black bear and wild turkey. As a result, the Ontario government has proposed mandatory reporting for all hunters who purchased a license (whether they hunted or not) on hunting activity and harvest for black bear, moose, elk, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and wolves and coyotes. The MNRF is also considering potential incentives or penalties for not reporting in a required time frame. In addition, the province is planning a modernization of reporting techniques, completely eliminating mail-in questionnaires and moving towards telephone and internet-based options.
A large-scale survey of 50 U.S. state and 8 Canadian provincial wildlife management agencies published in 2017 reveals that the Ontario proposals are completely in line with trends across other jurisdictions. For example, not surprisingly, since 1998, the use of mail-in methods has declined and telephone and internet-based reporting methods have increased. Reasons given for increased use of internet-based reporting methods included increased convenience for hunters, reduced agency staff time needed for analysis, increased hunter reporting rates, and reduced costs. For those who, out of some misguided sense of principle, oppose mandatory reporting altogether, it should be noted that only 7 of the agencies surveyed had no mandatory reporting.
A Response to Those Who Oppose Reporting
I’ve heard all manner of responses from hunters to the suggestion that we be required to report on hunting and harvest activity. These responses have ranged from downright lazy to wildly and groundlessly speculative – “it’s nothing more than a cash-grab by the government”, “it’s a way to further limit hunting opportunities”, “it’s simply a way to justify meaningless jobs”, “it’s too onerous and time-consuming”, and so on. I’ve also heard hunters on more than one occasion suggest that we should lie on harvest reports, either for the purpose of increasing hunting opportunities by creating inflations in estimates of species population increases or simply to “stick it” to the government.
Let’s be clear here: wildlife researchers and managers are not out on some secret agenda to lie and take away our hunting opportunities. They’re not plotting hair-brained schemes to control hunters or take our money. There are no government conspiracies to secretly manipulate wildlife populations.
As I’ve already pointed out, ongoing, accurate, and rigorous scientific data is key to our system of wildlife management. To suggest that we should subvert these efforts is a moral crime to our shared history with wildlife on this continent. To those people who suggest we should refuse to report or even to lie, I’ll point out that another study specifically examining the impact of different types of reporting biases explicitly identified that the use of “inaccurate data to determine harvest regulations and quotas can have a negative effect on sustained yield of game species, especially those with a low-reproductive output”. Among species with low-reproductive outputs is North America’s most popular game species, the white-tailed deer.
Make no mistake, hunter-harvest reports are used in making management decisions; failing to report or inaccurately reporting has the potential to lead to improper management decisions that could have harmful effects on wildlife populations and future hunting opportunities, and that’s on those of you who consciously and deliberately choose this route. How many times have we heard hunters proudly proclaim that we are collectively the single largest source of conservation funding in North America? This is indeed true, and there’s no doubt about the immense source of pride we should take from this fact. Why, then, would we choose to withhold a resource that is equally important as the financial requirements of conservation: knowledge, data, and information?
These responses from within the hunting community are a disgrace to the dedication and hard work of countless individuals who, over the past century, have worked extremely hard to conserve wildlife on this continent. The North American model has been responsible for bringing many species back to regions they were extirpated from (such as elk in Ontario), others back from the brink of all-out extinction (bison across the continent), and has been the backbone of responsible management of game species that has allowed thousands of North Americans to continue to enjoy a rich hunting heritage and culture. Scientific research is an integral and inseparable part of this system.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), the provincial conservation organisation that advocates on behalf of hunters in Ontario, sat down with a senior wildlife policy advisor of the MNRF to discuss the proposed changes in reporting requirements. These requirements are being designed to be as effortless as possible for hunters, and you’ll notice that the OFAH does not stand in opposition to the principles underpinning hunter-harvest reporting.
The Need to Trust Wildlife Researchers and Science
In a column published in the scientific journal Nature in January 2017, Anita Makri discussed the need to give the public the tools to trust science and scientists. The column points out that scientists need to be better at communicating science to the public and fostering the ability of the public to better understand socially relevant science. Without this ability, “emotions and beliefs that pander to false certainties become more credible”. Remember the old adage, it’s ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
As someone who is involved in wildlife research, some of which has implications for management, I can assure you that wildlife researchers are not out to achieve some nefarious agenda. Are wildlife research and the scientific data it contributes to eventual management decisions flawless? No. In many cases, wildlife research is messy and is still scratching the surface of some complex areas of inquiry; but this doesn’t mean that we should discard it or live in constant suspicion of it. Anita Makri argues for the importance of talking about science realistically, suggesting that is is “more difficult to talk about science that’s inconclusive, ambivalent, incremental and even political – it requires a shift in thinking and it does carry risks. If not communicated carefully, the idea that scientists sometimes ‘don’t know’ can open the door to those who want to contest evidence”. Wildlife research is a complicated and difficult endeavour, but it is done by educated, trained, and highly committed individuals, many of whom are hunters themselves, and certainly the vast majority of whom hold the long-term health of wildlife populations as the number one priority.
Wildlife management also has important social-cultural implications. Managers are tasked with taking the science provided to them by researchers and balancing the needs and expectations not just of ecological systems, but also social systems involving a range of human needs and demands. Science is one part of the equation but an important part in informing wildlife policy, so it is important that we make the effort to understand the complicated nature of wildlife management. We also need to play our part in supporting accurate, science-based wildlife management by contributing the valuable experiential knowledge we, as hunters, have about wildlife to researchers.
It is also important to remember that the laws and regulations that control hunting are subject to public pressure, including that of the non-hunting public. The MNRF’s proposed changes to wolf and coyote hunting in 2016 was scrapped, in part, due to negative feedback from anti-hunters. Contributing valuable information to researchers is a way for hunters to have their expertise contribute to management decisions through an opportunity that non-hunters do not enjoy. This is a privileged position for which we should be proud and grateful.
As it always has, scientists’ ability to produce reliable information is going to rely on opportunities to explore additional methods of data collection and analysis. We need to equip researchers with the information they need to develop as rigorous an understanding of wildlife as possible. It is through accurate scientific data that effective wildlife management and conservation can take place, and local knowledge is an invaluable source of this data. The best way we can show our appreciation and respect for the incredible conservation achievements of the last century is to support the system that made those achievements possible. The connections between hunting and conservation in North America date back to the beginning of our current model and it is a relationship that should be honoured accordingly.
- The MNRF’s Environmental Registry posting is open for public comment until July 28, 2017. I encourage you to go on there and give your support for the principles of hunter-harvest reporting and the valuable information this provides.
- For a copy of any of the articles I referenced here, please contact me and I am happy to send them to you directly.