Public Land, National Parks, and Conservation Priorities

The first national park in Canada was established in 1885. To put that in perspective, the toothbrush was invented the same year. That first park, Banff National Park, in Alberta, has an area of 6,641 square kilometres. Banff was the second national park in North America, after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park is the second largest in the world at 44,807 square kilometres (second to Northeast Greenland National Park at a whopping 972,001 square kilometres).

banff-credit-gorgo

Banff National Park. Credit: Gorgo, Wikipedia.

Wood Buffalo National Park was created in 1922, specifically to protect the last free range herd of wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). At a time when the bison was being driven rapidly towards extinction, Canadians took steps to protect them through the use of a national park. To this day, wood bison are threatened and that park is home to the largest wild herd in the world. That’s a hell of a legacy to create with our national parks. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says that national parks are supposed to be the “gold standard for conservation in our country”.

 

Liard Wood Bison, Near Coal River, British Columbia

Wood bison. Credit: Alan & Elaine Wilson, Wikipedia.

National park land is owned by the federal government on behalf of Canadian citizens. The future of publicly owned land has been a hot topic in North America lately. In the United States, transfer of ownership in public land has been a recurring discussion, and the fate of public land was certainly an important 2016 American election item for hunters and outdoors people. In Canada, we have a long history of publicly owned land, or to be more precise, land owned by the representative of the Crown (of England) and held in trust for the public. The Crown is represented by the federal and provincial governments in Canada. In terms of public land, government held, publicly owned land is referred to as Crown land. Usually when Canadians talk about Crown land, we are referring to that majority of public land in the provinces that is owned by the provincial governments.

The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that roughly 89% of Canada is Crown land:  41% is federal Crown land and 48% is provincial Crown land. The three territories make up most of the federal Crown land: the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Among the provinces, the amount of Crown land varies from 95% of land in Newfoundland to 85% of land in Ontario to less than 2% of land in Prince Edward Island. Some of these expansive swaths of land are open to the public for general use while others are held for economic development, such as mining and forestry. For example, in Ontario, about 10% of Crown land is managed as parks and conservation reserves. The remaining 77% of Crown land is managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and this is the land that would be open for free public use for activities such as camping and hunting. For example, Canadian residents are allowed to camp for free on Crown land in Ontario for up to 21 days.

In terms of federal Crown land that would be considered public land for the purposes of this discussion, most of this is in the form of national parks. Parks Canada, the main federal agency responsible for park planning and management, lists 46 national parks, established between 1885 and 2015. At least every two years, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change is required to hold a Minister’s Round Table to examine Parks Canada’s management of national parks, and the public consultation period just concluded. From January 9-27, Canadians had the opportunity to submit comments to Minister Catherine McKenna expressing their priorities for national parks. Here’s the letter I submitted:

Dear Minister McKenna,

When people ask me what I love about Canada and what makes me proud to be Canadian, one of the first things I think of is the legacy in this country of celebrating and protecting natural and wild spaces. Canadian history is full of achievements related to protecting natural places and the wildlife that uses those places. As a result of having large tracts of protected and well managed habitats, many of those places in the form of National Parks, Canadians and visitors to Canada have been able to experience nature since the first National Park was created in 1885. Indeed, much of my own identity is intimately tied to the enjoyment of natural places and wildlife.

Unfortunately, I’ve watched as Canada’s priorities with regards to our natural habitats and National Parks have shifted from conservation to tourism and development. Canada has continued to allow activities that have eroded the ecological integrity and well-being of our National Parks and has put their future well-being at risk. Expansions in development and an increasing focus on economic generation through tourism are not conducive to maintaining healthy and resilient habitats for wildlife. In turn, this shift in priority is an erosion of Canadian values and the legacy of so many hard working conservationists throughout Canada’s history.

In planning for the future of Canada’s National Parks, I encourage you to focus on the following priorities:

  1. Stop expanding the development footprint in our national parks, particularly in Banff and Jasper.
  2. Re-invest in science and ecological monitoring to guide park management.
  3. Focus Parks Canada’s visitor experience programs on nature-based education and stewardship.
  4. Create more new national parks and national marine conservation areas.

The North American model of wildlife management and conservation is a leading example for the rest of the world. Our model has protected critical habitat for hundreds of species, prevented the extinction of species such as the bison, and implemented groundbreaking conservation policies devoted to managing migratory wildlife, to name only a few of Canada’s distinguished accomplishments. At the root of these accomplishments is a dedication to managing habitats and wildlife based on the best available scientific and local knowledge. A focus on conservation must remain the foundation of our management strategy in Canada. We have both a legal and moral obligation to care for the well-being of the habitats and wildlife that together define an important part of our national identity.

My stake in all of this, and the foundation for why I submitted a letter, is probably most simply boiled down to two main priorities, one being somewhat political and the other being more philosophical. First, I think it’s a great thing that we have so much publicly owned land in Canada and this land has come to be a big part of what many Canadians associate with our national identity (along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, health care, and the flag). Our federal and provincial governments have a legal mandate to manage this land responsibly and with a long-term vision for maintaining its ecological integrity. As Canadians, we have a duty to hold our governments to that responsibility and ensure they continue to prioritize the conservation of public land. Second, I value the idea of conservation and the value of nature and wild places beyond their potential for economic value. Hunting is not permitted in national parks (aside from particular areas open to Indigenous communities) so my desire to see healthy park ecosystems is not about simply protecting hunting privileges. No, it’s much more deeply ethical than that and has to do with the intrinsic and moral value in conserving wild places.

While held as an iconic symbol of Canadian geography and identity, the value of national parks was ever only partially dependent on their enjoyment by humans. National parks are first and foremost intended to protect biodiversity and this should continue to be their primary function. The world’d biodiversity has been in consistent decline for decades, due to a variety of factors including climate change and expanding human development. Protected areas – including national parks – have been a key strategy to protect biodiversity since the 1800s. In fact, the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has called for 17% of global land and 10% of seas to be protected by the year 2020. Despite protected areas covering 12.7% of global land and 1.6% of seas today, global biodiversity continues to decline.

In Canada, protection of our national parks is not strong enough. Parks Canada has reported that almost half of our national parks are in fair or poor condition. CPAWS reports that in 2016, more than one third of ecosystems in Canadian national parks were in declining health. Wood Buffalo National Park – that island of hope for wood bison since 1922 – is at risk of being placed on the UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list because of the impact of upstream hydro and oil sands development. Numerous other developments have been approved in national parks, despite policies and regulations intended to limit development and its associated ecological impacts. Many of these developments are intended to increase tourism and the economic potential of parks, a goal that in principle does not seem so bad except that it has been happening at the expense of funding for conservation and scientific monitoring initiatives.

screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-5-19-05-pm

“As of 2009, Parks Canada’s vision makes no mention of nature conservation or ecological integrity despite this being the first priority by law for managing our national parks” (CPAWS, 2016).

It’s no secret that environmental protection was not a strong priority of the previous federal government in Canada under Stephen Harper. This is hardly a controversial political statement. The Conservative Party’s own policy documents do not devote a great deal of space to environmental protection and there were countless budget cuts to environmental research and conservation programs under that government. For instance, the Conservatives watered down the requirements for public review of park management and removed the requirement for environmental assessments to be conducted on projects in national parks. In 2012, as a result of budget cuts, Parks Canada cut its conservation and science staff by 31%. At the same time, Parks Canada increased staffing in its visitor experience program by 9%.

By 2015/2016, only 13% of Parks Canada’s spending was devoted to conservation. There’s a problem with these priorities.

Our public land and the ecosystems and wildlife it contains are far too valuable to be neglected or de-prioritized for economic development. There are also political considerations that need to be accounted for, such as the continued rights of Aboriginal communities to their traditional territories, much of which is now vast amounts of Crown land. Public land literally belongs to all Canadians and is meant to be held so that it benefits all Canadians. In my view, what is far more important than any right to the land are our responsibilities to it. We need to remember the legacy on this continent that began with a dedication to protecting ecosystems and the wood bison. Aldo Leopold called this dedication a “land ethic”. He said that the extension of ethics beyond our responsibilities to individuals and society, to the land, is “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity”.

img_4528

Auyuittuq National Park in Nunavut, Canada.

An Afterward: A Hunter’s Perspective

I said that my desire to see large tracts of healthy ecosystems conserved is distinct from my desire to hunt. That remains true; however, there’s a larger picture to my perspective concerning human presence in protected areas that I think is relevant to the context of national parks and certainly the issue of public land protection.

When the concept of protected areas emerged in the latter half of the 19th century, it was defined by what is referred to as the “island approach” to habitat protection. From the 1870s to the 1980s, the approach to protected areas was to segment areas of land and manage them completely distinct from social needs and uses. More recent scholarly research has also found that protected area management that relies on human exclusion is both socially and ecologically ineffective. Although we can fence off protected areas, this does not insulate them from the impacts affecting the land around them or the social-ecological needs of human communities.

A 2016 study published in the journal Environmental Conservation specifically identified the disconnection between protected areas and society as a limitation of our current model of protected area management. The authors note that there is a danger in creating a duality between humans and nature that disconnects people from important ecosystem services such as hunting and gathering. There has been a paradigm shift in protected area management over the previous 30 years that departed from the “fences and fines” model that sought to exclude humans. By the 1990s-2000s, the dominant discourse moved towards a “landscape approach” and started to recognize that ecosystems don’t work as islands. We now recognize the importance of connected habitats, ecological buffer zones around sensitive areas, and the need to consider ecosystem functions.

It may be easy to lose perspective talking about how trends in protected area planning and management have evolved since the 1870s. If we go through human history over the last 10,000 years though, since the end of the Pleistocene, the idea that humans are conceptually and physically separable from the ecosystems around us is a foreign concept. In fact, over that same glacial time period, it’s a concept that is  also foreign to the large suite of wildlife that humans have shared this continent with. Current thinking around protected areas acknowledges their role as complex social-ecological systems “characterized by a set of interactions among humans and between humans and biophysical components” of ecosystems.

Humans and wildlife have evolved on this continent through important interactions defined by reverence, survival, predator-prey relationships, spiritual beliefs, competition, and symbiosis. The idea that we can and should separate these interactions is a distinctly modern cultural construct. Of course, some of the human-wildlife interactions have been devastating, but I don’t think these negative impacts have been a result of human connections with nature in and of themselves. Rather, the habitat destructions and species extinctions that have taken place especially over the last two centuries have in many cases been the result of a lack of understanding and knowledge (e.g. of ecological processes and the finite nature of wildlife populations). In other cases, human impacts on ecosystems and species have been a result of willful harm, but I don’t believe that segregation of humans and nature is the answer. It is possible to protect without excluding.

Therefore, I’ll complicate my previous statement about my desire to protect nature being distinct from my desire to hunt. Some of my most intensely personal interactions with wildlife and wild places have been thanks to my experiences hunting. There are just some levels of experiences that are unattainable through a purely observational interaction with nature. Eventually, to deepen our own understandings of nature, we need to be active participants in ecological processes. Active involvement in the processes and interactions that define wild places is a naturally human experience, despite our modern success in making that involvement unnecessary for our survival. But unnecessary doesn’t make it less valuable. Having said that, separating my desire to hunt from the intrinsic value I place on protecting wild places is only necessary if we accept a particular representation of hunting as invasive, intrusive, and disruptive – and I reject this representation.

Our idealized image of wildlife is often captured as the photo opportunities on the sides of roads in national parks. The existence of national parks is a great legacy of conservation on this continent and throughout the world; however, as with wildlife, humans also belong to these wild landscapes. In efforts to protect the wild nature of landscapes, it doesn’t have to be the goal to remove and exclude humans. Rather, our goal should be thoughtful, long-term, and effective management rooted in conservation. We need to cherish our public lands and recognize them for how valuable they truly are, and this value has nothing to do with the economic potential they hold.

I realize that this post might appear to be full of small contradictions: we should maintain a strong public lands and national parks system; I value protected ecosystems beyond their human uses; but then human exclusion from national parks is not my ideal vision for conservation; but then I don’t think we should be focusing on tourism and economic development within protected areas; but then I do think humans should be actively involved in the landscape. However, its the nuanced nature of each of these positions that makes them compatible.

Management of our national parks needs to be re-focused on conservation rather than increased tourism development. But we must learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of these places to convince governments. To draw again from Leopold, “a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided”. Leopold goes on to say, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. In Leopold’s view, without this love and respect, there can be no effective land ethic: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in”. So our way forward with public land, national parks, and protected areas is to foster – in ourselves and society – a land ethic through seeing, feeling, understanding, and then coming to love these places.

A Comment on Endangered Species

 

This post was sparked by a recent piece written by Steven Rinella, who discussed the terminology and legalities of endangered species in the United States. While the U.S. and Canadian contexts have many similarities, I thought it might be interesting to offer some information on the ecological and legal meanings of the various species at risk classifications in Canada. I’ve also encountered more than one comment that a particular hunted species is endangered, so there is at least some degree of misunderstanding about how the species at risk system works both in Canada and internationally and what these classifications mean.

Above the 49th parallel, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is responsible for assessing individual wildlife species and recommending species that should be protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC was established in 1977, as a national independent committee of experts, to identify, assess, and classify species at risk in Canada. In 2003, the Canadian government passed SARA to provide legal protections and determine recovery strategies for species at risk. COSEWIC now acts as an advisory board, submitting its assessments to Environment and Climate Change Canada for final decision about whether to list a species under SARA.

Under COSEWIC’s assessment process, there are seven status categories: not at risk (NAR), data deficient (DD), special concern (SC), threatened (T), endangered (E), extirpated (XT), and extinct (X).

Status_COSEWIC.svg

Some quick definitions: extinct means that the species no longer exists anywhere. This differs from extirpated, which refers to a species that still exists but has disappeared from a part of its range (such as wild turkeys in Ontario in the 19th century).  Endangered means that a species is facing extirpation or extinction. Threatened refers to a species that is not yet endangered but is likely to become endangered if no action is taken. Special concern means that a species may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of threats. So it’s important to remember that just because there are concerns about a species, this doesn’t mean it is endangered.

Internationally, the IUCN, established in 1964, is an inventory of species classified along similar criteria. The IUCN system includes 9 categories: not evaluated and data deficient; least concern and near threatened; vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered; extinct in the wild and extinct.

categories_chart_global_v3

COSEWIC assessments consider a combination of criteria, including a species’ population and habitat status, trends, and threats. As an example of how an assessment would recommend a particular status, a species would be considered endangered if the number of mature individuals shows a decline of 70% of more over 3 generations (or 10 years, whichever is longer). This decline can be a result of observed reduction in actual numbers, deterioration of habitat quality, a reduction in extent of area occupied by the species, exploitation/over harvesting, or factors such as diseases and pollutants. Species may also be considered endangered when they have small ranges, drastic fluctuations in population, or fragmented populations. COSEWIC assessments specifically exclude consideration of the socioeconomic costs or benefits to listing a species.

salmon_asf

Atlantic salmon. Photo: Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation

Part of the intent (and benefit) of having separate bodies responsible for assessing a species and its actual listing under species at risk legislation is to maintain a separation between the science (COSEWIC) and politics (SARA) of endangered species. In other words, science makes recommendations for a species’ status, but the decision to list a species is made by elected officials who are accountable to a voting public.

The problem with this system is also the separation of science and politics.

The multistep process between submission of a COSEWIC report to the Minister (of Environment and Climate Change Canada) and a final decision on whether or not to list a species under SARA includes a 90 day window during which the Minister publishes “Response Statements” indicating how he/she intends to respond to the COSEWIC assessment, followed by a review by the Governor in Council (GIC), who (on the advice of the Minister) will make a final decision to either list the species, not list the species, or send the assessment back to COSEWIC to request more information. The decision about whether to list a species is therefore a political decision that does take into account the socioeconomic costs of the decision. Only after a species is listed under SARA is it afforded legal protections. At this point, the species’ critical habitat must be identified and management plans and recovery strategies must be designed.

A note about how the Canadian system compares to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. A 2013 study published in the journal Bioscience compared the Canadian and American systems and recommended that they could each benefit from adopting some of the strengths of the other. In particular, this study suggested that the American system could benefit from an overarching national scientific body responsible for all species assessments. On the other hand, the ESA has stricter timelines, and listing decisions in the U.S. are not permitted to consider socioeconomic costs.

h_allegheny-mountain-dusky

Allegheny mountain dusky salamander. Photo: Phil Myers/Ontario Nature

I personally agree that socioeconomic factors should be kept out of decisions on whether to afford legal protections to species at risk. These decisions should also not be determined by the priorities of the political party of the day. Perhaps I am taking an overly narrow or romanticized position here, but if a species is in any way at risk of extirpation or extinction, we should be doing everything in our power to protect the species and its habitat.

In fact, there is some basis for my disdain of political involvement in species at risk legislation. Multiple studies have found that harvested species and northern species are less likely to be listed under SARA. For example, a 2007 report profiled 8 northern and marine species that were not listed despite COSEWIC recommendations. For instance, beginning in 1991, multiple COSEWIC assessments have recommended that polar bears be listed as special concern, but they were only listed under SARA in 2011. This particular species example is somewhat of a political storm that is not the topic of this post, but it does illustrate the complications that politics introduce into this issue (though I will say that part of the decision not to list a number of northern species is due to the need to consult with wildlife co-management organizations that protect Inuit rights to wildlife, an issue I strongly support).

800px-Beluga03

Beluga whale. Photo: Greg Hume

Regardless of my personal opinion, the real meat and potatoes question is whether or not species at risk legislation works. Does it do what it is supposed to do – lead to recovery of endangered species and protection of habitat? In the U.S., there is a notable example of species at risk legislation working in the case of grizzly bears. On our side of the border, a 2014 study examined cases of species that have been assessed more than once by COSEWIC, indicating that at least some time had passed for recovery strategies to work. This study found that out of 369 species that fit this criteria, 47% of species initially classified as special concern deteriorated in status (later being classified as threatened or worse). Only 20 species out of 369 received a “not at risk assessment” after initially being assessed as one of the at risk categories (special concern, threatened, etc.). The number of species that deteriorated in status outnumbered those that recovered by approximately 2 to 1. In addition, there is a general gap in identifying species’ critical habitat, meaning that fully effective implementation of recovery plans is impossible.

So the problem is that our species at risk legislation is not working well enough. Might it be doing everything it can? Perhaps. Am I satisfied with the results when even 1 species shows a deterioration in status? No.

What all of this points to is the urgent need to protect habitat. We can do everything we want to try to protect individual species, but without healthy habitat, it won’t be enough. We also need to follow the precautionary principle in every case of a species at risk to ensure we minimize the chances we take with its future survival. We need to make habitat and species protection a management priority in Canada (and of course beyond). This means that species at risk legislation needs to be timely in developing recovery strategies and strict in their implementation. Further, COSEWIC assessments, and therefore SARA listings, only consider the Canadian range of a species, even though its full range and ecological role may extend across borders. I would argue that we need to be taking action at the scale of a species’ historic range and ecology, not merely on a national scale limited by political borders. This will take internationally coordinated effort, and it’s worth the work.

Having said all this, I should also note that I’m not demonizing the system. I’ve said it before, but I have an immense pride in the North American model of wildlife conservation. There have been tremendous successes in the record of species that have come precipitously close to extinction and been recovered. But pride should not preclude critical reflection and a drive to improve. We also need to be accurate in our conversations. The next time someone comments about how hunters kill endangered species, take the opportunity to explain that this is not true. Though there is room for improvement in their management, there is no hunting season for any endangered species. Remember also that many of the biggest successes in actions on endangered species have been thanks to hunter dollars and efforts.

I Support the Seal Hunt: An Ecological and Social Basis for Reconsidering Perceptions

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

I’m writing this from Kugaaruk, a community of about 800 people in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot Region. Kugaaruk is on the southeast side of Pelly Bay, which at its north end opens up into the Gulf of Boothia, in the Canadian Arctic. The community itself is right at the mouth of the wide Kugaaruk River and is surrounded by an amazing topography of rocky hills and islands. Right now, the ice in the bay is flat and smooth, but during years with strong North winds during freeze-up, it can be full of chunky ice that is blown in from the Gulf of Boothia. The community faces west out to the water, so the sunsets here are incredible as the sun goes down over distant hills across the bay. It’s a community with a strong hunting culture, the most important being caribou, ringed and bearded seals, polar bears, musk ox, narwhal, and Arctic char.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The project works with local hunters to examine numerous aspects of ringed and bearded seal and polar bear ecology. When a hunter kills a seal, he or she records certain morphometric data (body measurements, weight) and collects physical samples of the seal, such as blubber (for body condition and feeding analysis), the lower jaw (for age analysis), reproductive organs (to examine reproductive rates and success), and the kidney and liver (for contaminants analysis). I’ve also spent time interviewing hunters about all aspects of seal and bear ecology in the region, including their life history, behavior, and population dynamics.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

 

One of the questions I’ve received from community members a couple times is if we, as researchers, support the seal hunt. On a couple occasions, there has been concern that wildlife researchers are producing information that will contribute to anti-seal hunting agendas. Seal hunting has received a lot of controversial media and activist attention over the years, leading to a perception among the general public that the seal hunt is somehow inherently unsustainable or wrong. The fact is that these representations of the seal hunt are simply wrong – both ecologically and socially.

The research I’m working on has been primarily focused on ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Modern seals, known as pinnipeds, emerged as a distinct evolutionary group about 50 million years ago. Today, there are three broad groups of seals that are recognized: Odobenidae, Otariidae, and Phocidae. The Phocidae, of which ringed seals are a member, split from other seal lineages about 33 million years ago.

Kit M. Kovacs : Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Ringed seals weigh 50-70 kg, are about 1-1.5 m in length, and are truly an Arctic species, meaning they rely on sea ice for essential habitat. Seals remain in the Arctic all year, digging breathing holes up through the ice with their sharp claws (I was feeling them the other day, and you could easily slice your finger open on one of these things). They excavate dens beneath the snow on the ice where they give birth to one pup each spring. They are one of the top predators in their habitats and are the main prey for polar bears. As the Arctic’s most abundant seal, they are therefore an important species to monitor, providing information about general environmental changes and ecosystem health.

Ringed seal worldwide range. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Ringed seals have a circumpolar distribution, found in all regions of the Arctic. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Due to their abundance and wide distribution, precise estimates of ringed seal populations are extremely hard to achieve; however, there are a lot of them and their populations are considered stable and abundant. Reductions in sea ice habitat due to climate warming pose the greatest long-term threat to ringed and other seals by shortening the time that this critical habitat is available to them for breeding and basking (when they haul out on the ice for the annual moult).

At least until recently, much of the media representation surrounding seal hunting has been dominated by organizations like PETA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Paul McCartney (I also have to clarify once in a while that I’m not related to him).

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation about the seal hunt. I'm not sure if seals have tear ducts.

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation and emotional reactions about the seal hunt.

Images of whitecoat seals – as newborn seals are called – being killed while laying on the ice, surrounded by anthropomorphizing terminology such as “slaughter”, “baby”, and “helpless” present the seal hunt as defined by cruel methods and unethical targeting of particular individuals.  The use of this type of terminology is a common tactic among antihunting campaigns, and has been used in other well known circumstances. Unfortunately, these now iconic images are never published with a disclaimer updating the viewer of changes to seal hunting laws, the deep cultural importance of the seal hunt, or information about seal ecology to educate the viewer on the sustainability of seal hunting.

I’ll clarify here that my focus is on Inuit hunting rather than the large industrial hunts many people associate with images of seal hunting. Unfortunately, groups with political agendas and the media often fall into one of two traps: they either conflate Inuit seal hunting with the southern-based east coast commercial hunt and present the issue as some kind of monolithic and homogenous seal hunt; or, they create somewhat of a false dichotomy between an idealized “subsistence hunt” and a demonized “commercial seal slaughter”. In reality, Inuit seal hunting is at once a subsistence and a commercial hunt and efforts to present the Inuit hunt as purely distinct from the commercial market for seal fur has been at the very least an oversimplification and at most a deliberate political agenda. I’m also cautious to not paint all in the “anti-sealing” camp with the same brush, as not all animal welfare organizations (as distinct from animal rights organizations) condemn all forms of seal hunting.

I mentioned the cultural importance of the seal hunt. My priority in these discussions is always centered around wildlife conservation. However, one of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it’s located at the intersection of human sociocultural systems and wildlife ecology, so I’d be leaving out an important aspect of this discussion if I didn’t mention the right of Inuit communities to hunt seals. On one hand, it’s not my place to try to represent the place of seal hunting in Inuit culture. By the same token, it’s not anyone else’s place – as southern, non-Inuit governments, media, and organizations – to judge this practice. My time in the North has given me the opportunity to hear about the importance of seals in Inuit culture and food systems. Seal hunting has been an important part of culture for thousands of years, and seals are one of the most important country/wild game foods in the North. Traditional harvest activities are also a legal right for Inuit, established and protected by land claims and the wildlife management frameworks governing Northern wildlife. In addition, seal hunting is an important part of local economy in the Arctic, generating an estimated $40 million annually. This is a large part of the discussion and one I want to respect and address, and I’m proud that as a country, we have finally recognized these rights.

As I said, my priority is wildlife conservation and sustainable management, and I think this aspect of the conversation provides just as compelling an argument in support of seal hunting as supporting the harvesting rights of Inuit communities. I’m not as familiar with the southern commercial seal hunt, so there may be valid arguments about unsustainable or unethical methods that may have been used at one point; however, the efforts of the commercial fishing industry to cull seals as a protective measure to prevent seal predation on populations of commercially valuable fish species notwithstanding, the laws that regulate seal hunting are designed just like any other hunting law, with the purpose of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the species. Unfortunately, these realities and facts of the status of the species and the regulation of the hunt are obscured by political agendas.

One of the primary political tools of anti-seal hunting campaigns has been images of whitecoat seals being killed. When seals are born, their newborn fur is white. In harp seals in particular, this fur is almost snow white. In ringed seals, it may be white or yellowish in colour.

Harp seal nursing a pup. It's important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Harp seal nursing a pup. It’s important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Eventually, this fur is exchanged for an adult coat that is more effective at thermoregulation as seals go in and out of the cold water. For animal rights organizations (as distinct from animal welfare organizations), you can see how it would be easy to equate the pure white seals with other anthropomorphic understandings of purity, presenting them as somehow more “innocent”. This type of visual representation brings a good amount of social and political currency in the world of antihunting propaganda.

From a purely ethical perspective, the question really becomes, what difference does the colour of an animal’s fur make in determining whether hunting it should be legal or morally defensible? If our priority is ensuring responsibly regulated hunts that minimize the suffering of the animal, the colour of its fur really has no bearing. Anti-seal hunting organizations point to the fact that whitecoats are at a stage in their lives where they are still nursing and sometimes actually unable to enter the water, creating the idea of the seals as “helpless”.

From an ecological perspective, there is nothing inherently unsustainable about hunting young seals. This just happens to be one relatively short stage in a seal’s life history, so we need to ask ourselves, do we want wildlife management decisions to be determined by our own anthropomorphized ideas about how predation works in nature? This also happens to be a time when the seals are most vulnerable to predation by polar bears, and I doubt anyone would suggest we persecute polar bears. Biologically speaking, species have generally developed reproductive cycles that compensate for these types of mortality and prevent the species from going extinct.

The fact is that the discussion about seal hunting has been decontextualized and exploited by organizations with a political axe to grind. Regardless of your personal opinion on this matter, hunting whitecoats has been illegal in the United States since 1972, and in Canada since 1987. So there’s really no reason for this overly specific aspect of seal hunting to continue to dominate the discussion.

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Perhaps someone might ask about the notorious “seal clubbing” phenomena? In Canada, all marine mammal harvests are governed by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) of 1993. As with all hunting regulations, the MMR specifies the types of implements that are permitted in seal hunting. First off, most seals are killed with a rifle or a harpoon. The most common rifle calibers that I’ve heard of being used are .22 Magnum in the summers when they’re hunted from boats or high power rifles (e.g. .270 or .303) when they’re shot through breathing holes from the ice after being harpooned. It is legal to use clubs or hakapiks to kill seals less than 1 year old, and research has found that clubs and hakapiks are effective methods to kill seals that cause “rapid, if not immediate, death”. Just to be sure, the MMR also state that anyone using a club or hakapik must “immediately palpate” the skull to ensure the seal has been killed quickly. Some people may not like the mental image of this, but that doesn’t change the facts. Similar to misrepresentations of whitecoat hunting, so too are perceptions of hunting methods shaped and obscured by visually shocking images presented in media. In both cases, we must take care to understand the ecology and biology of seals in order to make informed decisions.

So if seal hunting is an important part of culture, on the one hand, and a carefully regulated, ecologically sustainable practice, on the other, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we view and talk about seal hunting. In fact, there are organizations and movements that have taken this on and are doing a wonderful job, and I encourage you to look into and support them. For instance, after Ellen DeGeneres spoke out against seal hunting with a celebrity selfie, social media lit up with a #Sealfie campaign, where people took selfies wearing seal products.

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

What I find particularly fascinating and insightful about this campaign was that the images were focused on putting a respectful and proud human face on the issue, while emphasizing the varied uses for seal products. Other organizations, such as Inuit Tapitiit Kanatami and the National Inuit Youth Council, have promoted social media campaigns centered around slogans like #HuntSealEatSealWearSeal and t-shirts that say “Seal Is The New Black”. Our national political leaders also promote the use of seal product clothing. These campaigns take a respectfully prideful approach to the idea of being unapologetic with hunting, while also not entrenching themselves in the “us vs. them” attitude that all too often defines hunting advocacy campaigns.

In another particularly telling example, the very organization that DeGeneres intended to promote with her anti-seal hunting campaign actually spoke out against a broad sweep condemnation of seal hunting. The Humane Society, the organization that received the $1.5 million that DeGeneres raised, issued a statement clarifying that they make a clear distinction between the Inuit and commercial seal hunts, and do not oppose the “socially accepted Inuit subsistence hunt”. Even the International Fund for Animal Welfare distinguishes between local and commercial hunts, stating that, “So long as it is conducted on a sustainable basis, and that reasonable precautions are taken to minimize unnecessary suffering, IFAW does not oppose the killing of seals for food, clothing and other products for local use by indigenous peoples. Nor do we oppose the sale and local distribution of seal products from subsistence hunts within indigenous communities”. So the issue isn’t as cut and dry as some organizations and individuals would have us believe.

Now, it may appear straightforward to make an intellectual distinction between the commercial and subsistence hunts, but the reality is that it’s difficult to generate policy that just as carefully distinguishes between these hunts. The reason for this is that sustaining a worldwide market for furs depends to at least some degree on the availability of commercially produced furs. In 2009, the European Union (EU) banned the trade and import of all seal products to oppose what was perceived as unsustainable commercial sealing. Then in 2015, the EU granted an exemption to Indigenous seal harvests, recognizing that these hunts are different from the commercial hunts the ban was meant to target, and are in fact an essential part of the local economy in the North. However, even with the 2015 exemption, the EU ban had repercussions for the economic livelihoods of Inuit hunters by reducing the overall availability of, and therefore market for, seal furs. The 2009 ban led to a roughly tenfold reduction in fur prices, from around $100 per seal skin prior to the ban, to roughly $10 after the ban.

I understand that it’s hard to think about a commercial seal hunt without reminiscences of the turn of the century market hunting and trapping legacies that contributed to such widespread decline of wildlife populations in North America. I’ll admit, I still have a knee jerk reaction to commercial hunting; however, it’s important to remember that the wildlife population collapses in the early 20th century occurred long before the modern system of regulated hunting and wildlife management we have today. Since this system was instituted, beginning in the 1930s, hunting has not put a single wildlife population on the endangered species list (in fact, it’s contributed to bringing a number of species back from regional extirpation and even the brink of extinction). So we need to remember that current seal hunting practices are regulated by the same long-term, science-based wildlife management policies that govern any other hunting practice.

It seems like it’s getting redundant for me to say this, but these are complex issues; these are populations of wild animals who don’t conform to our own sociocultural prejudices. We’re dealing with ecological systems that have had long-standing relationships with human sociocultural systems. As always, our perceptions and responses to these issues need to embrace the same level of complexity. We need to engage in the conversations, admit when we don’t know the facts, and spend more time listening than talking. Seals are wonderful carnivores with beautiful, warm fur and nutritious, delicious meat. In the end, I support the seal hunt, and I encourage you to support it too. I’d also be interested in other people’s thoughts on this particular topic – whichever way you think about it.

Castor canadensis: Keystone Species, Canadian National Symbol, and Awesome

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is one of North America’s most fascinating, beautiful, and industrious species (and super tasty). Many of my posts relate directly to hunting, but the goal is to discuss a range of issues and topics relevant to conservation. This one is an endorsement for giving the beaver our full respect and appreciation as an integral component of the ecosystems we cherish and as an honourable national animal for Canada. Seriously, I think the beaver is one of the most incredible animals in North America.

The North American beaver

The North American beaver

Currently, there are only two species of beaver in the world, the North American beaver that most of us are familiar with, and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). However, during the Pleistocene, there was a genus of giant beavers (Castoroides) that lived in North America, from Florida to the Yukon. Giant beavers were not actually related to modern beavers, but shared a close physical resemblance, with larger, sharper front teeth. They were much larger than modern beavers, measuring upwards of six feet long and weighing over 200 pounds. The giant beaver went extinct sometime during the megafaunal collapse at the end of the Pleistocene, the period from roughly 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, which marked the end of the last ice age.

Skeleton of a giant beaver

Skeleton of a giant beaver

One thing I hear a lot from landowners and outdoors people is that beavers are nuisances, flooding or drying up land without regard for how inconvenient this may be for humans. My first, admittedly callous reaction, is that’s what beavers do, and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than you’ve been feeling personally affronted by it. On a more engaging level, I also suggest to those people that it’s not exactly without regard for human needs. In fact, the resulting ecological changes from beaver activity provide important services that benefit humans.

Beavers are considered a keystone species for their roles in altering and creating habitat. What this means is that if we remove beavers from an ecosystem, it changes the entire structure and function of that ecosystem. Numerous other species lose habitat, food and water sources, and with those changes there is a reduction in local biodiversity. Beaver activity creates critical habitat for fish, birds, turtles, frogs, ducks, and some of these are in turn important food sources for many other species, including otters, foxes, and birds of prey. The ecological interactions that are created by beavers are literally too numerous to fully describe here.

Beaver lodge

Beaver lodge

In addition, the wetland habitats created from beaver flooding provide ecosystem services that are crucial to maintaining healthy environments and provide direct benefits to humans. Wetlands filter and purify water, refill aquifers, mitigate erosion, prevent droughts, and control floods (seems counterintuitive perhaps since beavers flood land, but this actually provides a form of flood control for other areas). Wetlands are one of the world’s most critical and productive habitats, and they are being destroyed at alarming rates.

But the beaver hasn’t always enjoyed the gratitude and platitudes it deserves. In 2011, Canadian Senator Nicole Eaton offered her opinion that Canada should trade in a “19th-century has-been for a 21st-century hero”, suggesting that the beaver is not worthy of being Canada’s national animal. Instead, Senator Eaton proposed the polar bear replace the beaver. It’s not that I don’t have tremendous respect for the polar bear (in fact, my graduate work is focused on Arctic marine species, including polar bears). What troubles me is Ms. Eaton’s clear lack of knowledge about beaver ecology and biology, yet her belief that she is suitably positioned to make such strong statements about the value of the beaver and whether it possesses the qualities with which Canadians should be proud to be associated (she literally reduced the animal to a “dentally defective rat”).

In addition to the deliberate work to create and continuously maintain critical habitat, scientists have discovered some unintended benefits of beaver activity. Beaver ponds (the area of land flooded by the creation of dams) may be the answer to our nitrogen problems.

The massive expansion of agriculture in North America over the last century created a demand for increased productivity and yields. Nitrogen is a key nutrient for plant growth and agricultural processes eventually lead to nitrogen depletion in soils. In 1888, two scientists discovered that leguminous plants remove nitrogen from the air and add it to soils, a process known as nitrogen fixation. In 1909, two German chemists created a process through which nitrogen could be artificially produced for addition to soils, eventually leading to the invention of soil fertilizers.

Although fertilizers lead to substantially increased crop yield, the addition of massive amounts of nitrogen to soils has created problems for marine ecosystems. Rain water washes fertilizers containing nitrogen from agricultural fields into nearby streams and rivers. When nitrogen eventually flows into estuaries it stimulates algal blooms. The decomposition that results from increased algal growth eventually de-oxygenates marine ecosystems (a state known as hypoxia) and creates massive dead zones. One of the more famous dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Don’t worry. Beavers are here to save the day. Researchers from the University of Rhode Island have discovered that the ecology of beaver ponds makes them quite effective at removing nitrogen. In a paper published this past September, Julia G. Lazar and co-authors explain that bacteria found in the organic material and soil of beaver ponds  transform nitrate into nitrogen gas which then bubbles to the surface and mixes with the air. In their experiments, the researchers found that beaver ponds were able to remove up to 45% of the nitrogen from the system.

I hope that discoveries like this encourage more appreciation for the important ecological functions of beavers. We already knew that the habitat created by beavers performs valuable ecosystem services benefitting humans, but now we can add a service that benefits environmental health many miles downstream of beaver habitat. Beavers are complex animals, quietly and diligently going about their work. People may not think they are the most charismatic species, but I think they possess all the qualities that we should value and measure ourselves against.

First-time Moose Hunting: A Primer on the Species

I had been working on an article for a great new magazine called Homegrown Hunter published by a friend of mine, Steve Elmy, who owns and runs Rack Stacker. I started this article back in January 2015 for inclusion in the next year’s issue of HGH. Unfortunately, the magazine has been put on hold, but I would suggest everyone check out the accompanying web show. Being that we are heading out on our first moose hunt next Tuesday, I thought I would post a bit of a primer on moose and why I have been wanting to hunt them for years now.

I’ve been preparing for this hunt since at least January…

IMG_4772

The backcountry area we’ll be hunting next week.

I’m not sure when I became captivated by moose. I suppose part of it may simply be that I’m Canadian, having grown up surrounded by images of moose for my entire life. Iconic photographs and artwork of moose standing in marshes, 6 feet of glorious antlers spread out in the sun, giant dewlaps hanging from their chins, are somewhat of a staple in Canadian wildlife imagery. They are giant, oddly shaped, dinosaur-like animals, yet one would need a finely tuned command of language to describe their sense of grace with any accuracy. I remember when I was young seeing a moose swimming across the Magnetawan River just outside of Burk’s Falls, Ontario. Then I remember seeing moose feeding on the side of the road while driving along Highway 60 through Algonquin Provincial Park. After that, it seems to me that I just always found moose: on backcountry canoe trips in Algonquin Park, licking salt on roadsides, catching glimpses of them as they crash away through the forest, crossing roads. I have spots marked on maps where I know I am likely to see moose, and the prospect of bowhunting moose is what motivated me to get a hunting license. Their meat is some of the richest, most delicious red meat I’ve ever eaten. 

Antler rub on a tree. Mitten shown for scale. Standing on the snow, the rub was still about 6 feet up the tree.

Antler rub on a tree. Mitten shown for scale. Standing on the snow, the rub was still about 6 feet up the tree.

It’s not hard to see why someone who is drawn to the out of doors would find moose to be a somewhat permanent fixture in memory and imagination. Moose are some of the most powerful wildlife in North America. They can crash through forests with a force and recklessness paralleled by little else, yet they can also move with absolute silence and precision when they choose. A prominent boreal forest species, moose (Alces alces) range throughout Canada, from the Maritime provinces right across to British Columbia and north into the Yukon Territory. They’re the largest member of the family of deer species known as cervidae. Cervids are a group of even-toed ungulates which comprise groups of species as diverse as whales. Adult male moose (bulls) can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, while adult females (cows) can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Like most deer species that live in forest habitats, moose rely primarily on woody browse for food, preferring willow, dogwood, and the buds and sprouts of aspen and birch. They breed in the fall and cows give birth to one or two calves in May-June. Moose have excellent senses of hearing and smell, but generally poor eyesight. As with all big game hunting, an understanding of these three key senses defines hunting strategy. 

In both an evolutionary and poetic sense, they are magnificent animals. 

Sighting in my .270 WSM for the hunt.

Sighting in my .270 WSM for the hunt.

Moose droppings in September.

Moose droppings in September.