Habitat Connectivity is a Critical Part of Wildlife Conservation

When Ian Tyson once sang about a pack of wolves longing for their former home, dreaming of the sound of another pack answering their calls, he imagined the leader of the pack lamenting, “I’m a long, long way from the Yellowhead, here in Yellowstone”. It’s possible that Ian Tyson’s wolf wasn’t actually thinking about the possibility of a connected route from Wyoming back to his former home in the wilderness of the British Columbia-Alberta border; however, thanks to a large conservation initiative, that kind of connected wilderness is precisely the goal. In fact, those wolves might have traveled from Yellowstone all the way to Yukon.

“We must build a coherent view of what the 21st century ought to look like, and at the heart of that must be wild nature.” – Harvey Locke, Y2Y founder

I’m a little late to the party on learning about this initiative, but while reading the January/February 2017 issue of Canadian Geographic, I came across an article on the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. The magnitude and incredible potential of the project immediately struck me as something truly amazing for wildlife on this continent. Although I was coming across the initiative for the first time, Y2Y has been working with over 300 partners since 1993 to create an “interconnected system of wild lands and waters stretching from Yellowstone to Yukon, harmonizing the needs of people with those of nature”. Since it began, Y2Y has made important advancements in securing core habitat for a suite of wildlife, which include the purchase of 200 000 hectares of private lands and 7 150 hectares of additional lands in British Columbia. In addition, Y2Y was involved in establishing two additional National Park reserves in the Northwest Territories and a 6.5 million hectare are of protected lands in British Columbia.

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The Y2Y corridor. Map Credit: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

Why is habitat connectivity so important for North American conservation?

We have some outstanding organizations and initiatives throughout North America dedicated to the conservation of species, habitats, wild and public lands, and the interests of various user groups. I’m a member of a number of them and I appreciate the work they do. Often, however, our conservation efforts are limited by arbitrary political divisions that have been imposed on this continent in the form of provincial, state, and national borders. In terms of conservation, these borders are arbitrary because they were not designed to follow ecological, geological, or hydrological features. They were not designed based on watersheds, mountain ranges, ecosystem types, climate zones, wildlife migratory pathways, or other natural landscape features. As we all know, however, water, wind, and wildlife are not constrained by political borders. As a result, environmental management of a landscape is often distributed between multiple jurisdictions, which often results in a lack of coordinated effort in decision-making.

One of the greatest environmental legacies of European colonization and settlement in North America has been dramatic land cover and habitat changes that accompanied the spread of agricultural and human development throughout the continent. Human developments such as roads, railways, transmission lines, dams, urban infrastructure, and agricultural fields have broken up once connected ecosystems into a patchwork of disconnected, fragmented habitats. According to WWF-Canada, 61 of 167 sub-watersheds across the country are highly or very highly fragmented.

Source: WWF-Canada

In addition to direct habitat conversion for human needs, climate change and other environmental changes have the potential to increase habitat fragmentation. For example, sea ice in the Canadian Arctic is an important habitat that provides a platform for the movement and dispersal of species such as fox, wolves, and caribou. Sea ice loss due to climate change may result in Arctic wildlife populations that find themselves living in increasingly fragmented habitats. Habitat fragmentation has become one of the most important conservation issues affecting North American wildlife.

In terms of the effects of habitat fragmentation on wildlife, when populations are confined to small and disconnected patches of habitat, they are more vulnerable to events that threaten their survival, such as natural disasters (referred to by ecologists as “stochastic events”). For instance, wildlife populations rely on genetic interchange, the process through which individuals of local populations travel to new areas and breed with individuals of other populations, to maintain resistance against diseases and pass on heritable strengths. Without the ability to travel and breed, the effect is that small, restricted populations of wildlife are increasingly vulnerable to local extinctions.

The flip side of habitat fragmentation is referred to as habitat connectivity: linkages between different sections of habitat cover. However, the importance of habitat connectivity goes beyond simply individual animals moving between, for example, a bedding and feeding area. Connectivity is important for both the structure (physical components of habitats) and function (the ability of an ecosystem to carry out the processes that keep it healthy) of ecosystems.

The United States National Forest Service, in its National Forest Management Act (2012), draws attention to the broad importance of connected habitats that contain linkages that facilitate the exchange of abiotic (or non-living) habitat components, such as water flow, sediments, and nutrients; the movements of wildlife, both within their home ranges and on larger scales that allow for genetic exchange between populations (a key biological factor in maintaining healthy and resilient populations); and longer distance range shifts that allow species to expand into new habitats and regions.

“Any comprehensive strategy for conserving biological diversity requires maintaining habitat across a variety of spatial scales and includes the maintenance of connectivity, landscape heterogeneity and structural complexity.” – Planning for Connectivity, 2015

Habitat connectivity has been identified by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as an important global conservation need. The CBD developed a collection of 20 global biodiversity targets to be addressed from 2011-2020 (known as the “Aichi Biodiversity Targets”). Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 positions the expansion of Protected Area networks as one of the cornerstones of conservation action to improve the status of global biodiversity and specifically identifies the need for “an increased focus on representativity, connectivity and management effectiveness” in biodiversity protection worldwide. Since their inception as a deliberate conservation strategy, Protected Areas have been the cornerstone of conservation in North America. As a recent example of the impacts of Protected Areas to conservation, a bison reintroduction program in Banff National Park (Alberta, Canada) has successfully led to the births of 10 bison calves, the first bison born in the park in 140 years.

The challenge facing a global Protected Areas network is in creating an interconnected system of habitats across landscapes. Protected Areas are typically planned by distinct political and administrative jurisdictions and often opportunistically, rather than with a landscape level focus on creating large, continental networks. Habitat connectivity is a particular need for large animals, and especially large carnivores. In North America, flagship species for promoting habitat connectivity have often been grizzly bears and caribou, which both require large areas of habitat and intact corridors, and which have both experienced population declines as a result of degraded habitat quality.

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Source: CBC

A recent study of habitat connectivity and tigers in India illustrates the importance of Protected Areas in safeguarding and increasing habitat quality for a large carnivore species. India is considered the hotspot for global tiger conservation. Tigers currently occupy only 7% of their historic range in India, largely as a result of massive land conversion throughout the country in response to growing population, which has resulted in a significant reduction in forest cover throughout India. Only 5% of India is part of a Protected Area network, but perhaps more important than the actual percentage of area that is protected are the size of Protected Areas relative to the habitat requirements of tigers and the connectivity between these areas. In the case of tigers, the size of individual Protected Areas is often insufficient for their needs, meaning that connections between tiger habitats are critical for both species dispersal and population recovery, and these habitat connections need to be strengthened.

A 2015 study of the functionality of Protected Area networks in facilitating species dispersal specifically identified transboundary (across political borders) connectivity as an important aspect of biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, the study found that transboundary connectivity is in need of improvement, requiring better cooperation between governments. To bring this back to a North American context, the Y2Y Conservation Initiative is specifically addressing this kind of transboundary connectivity with a 3 500 km corridor of Protected Areas that spans multiple jurisdictions.

The moral of this story is that conservation on a national, continental, and global scale needs to be ecologically-based, focused on maintaining the structures and functions of ecosystems through connected habitats. If the Protected Area system is going to continue to be an important part of our conservation strategy, which it is, then it has to be based on the needs of wildlife populations and ecosystems and the realities of environmental pressures confronting conservation today. In Canada, we have committed to expanding both our terrestrial and marine Protected Area networks by 2020. It is commitments and work on the scale of the Y2Y initiative that could very well be the key to the future health of thousands of wildlife species in this country.

To be successful, I think that conservation needs to be a part of our everyday lives, realities, and landscapes. Conservation can’t only be that thing that occurs at a distance, removed from humans, behind the fancy gates of parks, or as some static ideal that we hear news clips about once in a while. To me, conservation is something that we should be surrounded by, not something we visit. We need to learn firsthand what it means for landscapes to be connected, both to other landscapes and to ourselves. Long-term, large-scale connectivity, then, is about more than only linkages between patches of ground. To me, the quest to create habitat linkages is also somewhat of a metaphor for the integrated nature of how I think we should connect and live with conservation.

If Our Knives Could Talk

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The Tops Dragonfly has become one of the most meaningful and dependable knives in my collection. Check it out here: https://www.topsknives.com/dragonfly-4-5

The first knife I ever received as a gift has a broken tip, is completely dull, slightly rusted, and opens and closes with a distinct little grind that I imagine is from sand grains having worked their way into the locking mechanism over the years. I haven’t even tried to cut anything with it in probably 10 years.

But I still have it.

The most recent knife I was given has travelled with me throughout Ontario, to Nunavut, and most recently to Nain, Nunatsiavut. It was given to me by a friend with whom I’ve spent hours hunting, hiking, trapping, laughing, and chatting.

I remarked to someone recently that the days of writing poetically and romantically about the out of doors seem to be dried up; that the style and feeling of writers like Leopold, Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and even early 20th century outdoors writers seem to be behind us. So I don’t want this post to come across as just some self-inflated bullshit.

Having given that disclaimer, people who spend time engaged in outdoor activities will know what I mean when I say that there is a certain unmistakable charm, something both primal and artistic, in a good knife. As cliched as it might sound, many of us develop a sort of kinship with our knives that comes from the miles we travel with these tools and the degree to which we come to depend on them in what are some of our most personal and meaningful experiences. I remember the individual trips that I’ve used a particular knife on, the things that I’ve made with it and every reason I prefer one knife to the next. It is through field dressing an animal or accomplishing some task while in the woods that I come to appreciate the finer points of a knife. The knife itself becomes a character in the story of a trip, alongside our hunting partners, the animals hunted, and the landscapes we spend time in.

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There’s something about knives that sparks conversation among outdoors people. We all have our favourite designs and there is no shortage of opinion out there about the best kind of knife. And certainly, not all knives are created equal. I imagine I’m not alone in spending a good deal of time hunched over my knife case before a hunt or camping trip trying to decide how many I need and which ones are best for the jobs ahead. We spend hours discussing blade shape and length; handle design and material; fixed blade vs. folder; weight and balance; and all the other nuances that distinguish individual knives.

We pass knives back and forth to one another, examining their details, running our fingers over every part of them, holding them, as if we’re getting to know the knife’s character with the intimacy of a lover. We protect our knives, are precise about their intended uses, and strict about what – and sometimes who – are off limits to them. We can burn down entire campfires and drain pots of coffee covering nothing more than the reasons we love a knife and the stories we’ve shared with it. Indeed, get a group of outdoors people on the topic of knives, and it’s almost as if the knives themselves become the campfire or the cup of coffee, the thing around which we all gather, reminisce, and chat.

I’m not sure what it is about knives specifically that come to occupy this sense of romanticism in our lives. Perhaps it’s that knives come to be a material representation of what it means to be in the outdoors – to survive there, to understand our place in the food chain, to feel a sense of accomplishment with the interaction of an ancient tool and our own bare hands, to connect with the natural world in a way that is both primal and artistic. Our knives come to stand for our experiences in wild places. More than that, as they become covered in blood and dirt, are dulled and resharpened, and accomplish innumerable tasks, perhaps they represent ourselves on some level. As we travel through breathtaking landscapes, become bloodied and dirtied, get banged up and worn down, resharpened, and accumulate years of experience, I think we imbue in our knives some sense of romanticism that is hard to explain, but that we come to depend on to represent what it means to experience the outdoors.

Media Misrepresentations of the Hunter, the Hunted, and Hunting

Keeping on top of the ways hunting is represented in the media is an ongoing effort. The immediacy with which information, and misinformation, spreads through social media can make it difficult to be aware of and respond to every conversation about hunting. On top of that, with attention spans becoming increasingly short, there is the danger that perceptions about facts will become a part of the public’s collective memory before inaccuracies can be addressed.

On Friday, February 10th, CBC’s episode of the fifth estate, “The Hunter and the Hunted”, examined the complex, sometimes contrasting, ways that humans interact with wildlife. The first of four profiles focused on Jacine Jadresko, a Canadian hunter. In the 15 minute segment, host Bob McKeown apparently expected to typify the vastly diverse identities of hunters through the experiences of one individual. For me, the segment was characterized by misrepresentations, oversimplifications, and missed opportunities to examine the nuances that define hunting.

Here are seven areas I’ve identified where the episode could have more meaningfully engaged in the conversation. To make something else clear from the outset, I think Jacine was a poor representative of hunting, and while she and I would undoubtedly share some ideas, I disagreed with many of the things she said and much of the underlying sentiment in her representations of hunting.

Even for those who might dislike hunting altogether, the fact that I easily identified seven problem areas with the segment should make it clear that the fifth estate bit off too large a chunk of this complex issue to hope to cover in 15 minutes.

Here’s the segment on Jacine. The rest of this post will make more sense after watching:

  1. An extreme case chosen to represent hunters and hunting

Hunting has been more than a significant factor in the history of human evolution and civilization. This is not to say that historical continuity justifies an activity, merely to point out that it is impossible to expect that a single person can encapsulate and represent such an historically and culturally diverse part of human culture.

I have to believe that in choosing Jacine to profile, CBC must have known that she is a minority among the hunting community in terms of the kind of hunting she does. The majority of us do not have thousands of dollars to spend on big game hunts around the world; social media followers numbering in the thousands (Jacine’s Instagram, inkedhuntress, currently has 9,031 followers); endorsements and sponsorships; professionally filmed hunts. So there’s just no way that CBC should have even implicitly suggested that Jacine’s experiences represent the broader hunting community.

I’ll also point out that Jacine’s views and representations of hunting do not reflect my own and I would not choose Jacine as my ambassador. I’ve heard people say that hunters need to stand together, but I don’t believe that’s true. The social media/celebrity hunters sometimes do more harm than good, with their “Unapologetic Hunter” attitudes and inflammatory phrases (e.g. Jacine’s “the more you hate the more I kill”) that do not reflect the attitudes that define the broader hunting community. The way we frame our messaging is important, and while I look to Jacine to rethink her approach, CBC could have chosen not to highlight things like this to their audience.

  1. Limited discussion of hunting as conservation and management

Regulated hunting has played a critical role in the history of wildlife management and conservation throughout the world. It’s a topic I have addressed in other posts and there are plenty of poignant and informative resources out there detailing this topic. Bob gave a passing remark about Jacine identifying as a conservationist, as if the mutual self-identification as both hunter and conservationist is questionable, but neglected to talk about the important role hunters have played throughout the history of the conservation movement on this continent.

From the creation of the first national parks, to species recovery movements, to providing funding for scientific research, monitoring, and enforcement, the profound financial and physical labour contributions of hunters is unequivocal. In North America, fish and wildlife management agencies generate around 80% of their operating budget from hunting related fees. Even if we isolate the more controversial aspect of Jacine’s hunting activities and focus on her big game hunting in Africa, the legal and economic picture is complex. Like it or not, the economic reality is that species conservation in many countries relies on the fees generated by hunting.

It’s also important to note that hunting is carefully and tightly regulated. Each year, jurisdictions release hunting regulations that stipulate precisely what hunters are allowed to kill, often specifying requirements for gender and physical traits intended to select for individuals of specific age classes. Highly trained individuals spend their entire careers refining the methods for studying population demographics so that wildlife can be managed effectively. For an example, the Ontario Hunting Regulations and Ontario’s Cervid Ecological Framework specify management objectives for all four deer species in the province.

  1. Simplification of the concept of “trophy hunting”

When the topic of “trophy hunting” flares up in the media every so often, I see two issues repeatedly emerge. First, the definitions of the term differ widely, so it becomes impossible to really engage in a discussion about this thing called trophy hunting. What one person sees as deplorable and wasteful, someone else sees as legal and conservation-minded. Second, there is a tendency to position “trophy hunting” and all other forms of hunting as mutually exclusive, as though someone is either a food hunter or a trophy hunter, and never both.

The CBC episode unfortunately fell into both of these traps. Bob provided a cursory and somewhat arbitrary definition of trophy hunting as “hunting for recreation, not food”. Bob stated at one point that “a Canadian family hunting deer may not be cause for controversy, but Jacine’s big game trophy hunts around the world certainly are”, positioning different forms of hunting as mutually exclusive, binary, and in necessary contradiction.

Motivations to hunt are not mutually exclusive. I understand that when most people talk about trophy hunting, they’re talking about people who travel to Africa to hunt for wall decorations. However, all of the hunters I know hunt for food and many of them also retain some part of the animal as a “trophy”. So the concept is not so easily reduced to a binary classification. Furthermore, regardless of individual motivations to hunt, the laws are the same. So “trophy hunters” still operate within the tightly regulated system of hunting. This perceived dichotomy becomes almost completely unproductive in a conversation around hunting.

Where it is useful to attempt to distinguish “trophy hunting” from some other kind of hunting is in a discussion purely about personal ethics. Based on my own highly specific personal ethics, I really have no interest in hunting purely for the pursuit of a skull or hide. However, my more complex understanding of the reality of wildlife conservation in many countries means that I understand it has a role in global nature conservation.

In striving for an easily digestible definition of a complicated issue, we often risk simplifying it so much that we end up judging and appraising an incomplete picture of the issue, and this does nothing for moving our collective understanding forward. I feel no internal intellectual conflict saying that I disagree with both Jacine’s and Bob’s analyses of trophy hunting.

  1. Reducing the complexity of hunting to being “definitively about” killing

Hunting is about many things and these things are about as varied as the places and species people hunt. What hunting is “about” can not be neatly packaged into a straight forward definition.

At one point during the segment, Jacine says that hunting, to her, is not about killing. Though Bob had just acknowledged that he has no personal experience hunting and stated clearly that he would not hunt, his reply is simply to argue that hunting is “definitively about killing”. Without any personal experience, one is quite simply not qualified to state what hunting is “definitively about”.

I understand what Bob thought he meant with this statement. Unfortunately, in his effort to be provocative, he missed an important opportunity to try to understand how hunters understand the activity on a more emotional level. As a hunter, I can understand what Jacine meant when she said hunting is not about killing, and on multiple levels, Bob was wrong.

If hunting is definitively about killing, then a hunt without a kill is by definition a failed or unsuccessful hunt. Plenty of hunts go by without a kill and are by many criteria successful – they involve learning, time with friends and family, and so on. So while hunting involves killing, and even by definition involves the pursuit of killing, presenting hunting as some simplistic hierarchy of goals, with killing as the penultimate factor of success upon which all other components of a hunt depend is a disservice to the deep cultural and widely varied motivations to hunt.

  1. Misguided fixation on the words “harvest” and “kill”

The discussion around terminology is one I’ve been interested in for quite some time, and a topic I’ve covered more thoroughly in another post. Unfortunately, the discussion was missed because Bob appeared more interested in making statements disguised as questions than meaningfully engaging in the topic.

Differences over the use of the words “harvest” and “kill” are interesting and in some cases can reflect culturally-specific worldviews related to wildlife. Bob (and most of the online comments on the episode) apparently only saw the use of the word harvest as somehow trying to water down the act of killing. The suggestion that the use of the word harvest is a way to hide the killing that is involved in hunting presupposes a moral framing on hunters’ understanding of the act that is inaccurate. On the contrary, I would hazard to say that most thoughtful hunters have devoted some time to reflecting on their role as a hunter and the moral weight involved in killing. There are a great deal of complex considerations that determine how hunters understand the morality in killing, and this conversation is far more interesting than the foregone conclusion that hunters are simply searching for euphemisms.

I’ll also point out that the use of the word harvest has a much deeper history in North American wildlife management than the idea that hunters are simply trying to hide what they do. When Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management in 1933, widely regarded as the first codification of the system of scientific wildlife management in North America, he used the word harvest as part of a wider conceptualization of the act of managing wildlife.

  1. Real gender issues in hunting trivialized

Though this is changing, there’s no question that there are still gender inequities in the hunting world. Product development, marketing, and ingrained attitudes and vernacular continue to reinforce the male-dominated nature of hunting. I’ve declined the opportunity to hunt with hunt camps who have told me that they do not allow women to join. On the other hand, I’ve chosen to be part of hunt camps that denounce this kind of exclusion and make efforts to include women. The hunting partner I work with better than anyone and enjoying hunting with more than anyone else is a woman. I’ve watched her work hard to negotiate the line between advocating for herself as both a “woman hunter” and simply a hunter, whose identify as a hunter does not have to be defined by her gender.

I think the episode could have made an important statement by selecting a woman to profile in their segment on hunting. Both Jacine and Bob chose to highlight aspects of this story that were bound to elicit emotional responses from the both the hunting and non-hunting public. Perhaps it was never the intention, but if Jacine or Bob had truly wanted to present this story as an example of a strong woman hunter and role model, they both could have taken a better approach. Jacine suggested that she experiences more shock and opposition to her photos because she is a woman, but I think this minimizes the impacts of the other ways she chooses to market herself – the nature of the photos she posts, the hashtags she uses, and her shock-based slogans on social media.

Bob stated at one point that “marketers are anxious to prove that even blood sport could use a little glamour”. These kind of statements perpetuate the sexualization of women hunters and simplify women’s involvement in hunting to simply new marketing opportunities. This kind of discussion also diminishes appreciation for the dedication anyone must show to become a skilled hunter. I don’t doubt that sexism affects how people react to Jacine, but I think there were better ways to examine and challenge those attitudes that did not leave the conversation open to such quick dismissal.

In giving a superficial nod to issues around gender and wrapping these up in other emotionally charged issues, Jacine and Bob trivialized the real gendered power dynamics in hunting. The effect was to provide people with the opportunity to dismiss not only Jacine’s suggestion that her gender plays a part in people’s attitudes towards her, but also the existence of gender issues in hunting altogether.

Here’s the kind of discussion I think is productive and powerful with regards to women and hunting (as a side note, this post was published on March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day):

  1. Little discussion of hunting as gathering

The focus on Jacine’s trophy hunting left very little time or space to discuss the role of hunting as a means of gathering food. Toward the end of the segment, the conversation shifted to Jacine hunting in Canada for food. If the intention of the episode had been to focus on trophy hunting as Bob conceives of it, that might be understandable. However, the episode was purportedly about people’s varied relationships with wildlife, with hunting representing one of those relationships. For many hunters, hunting is about gathering food and filling freezers (in fact, it is illegal to waste meat from a hunted animal). The focus on Jacine’s trophy hunting trips and her social media activities obscured this prominent motivation for hunting.

Conclusion

I was disappointed at the missed opportunities in this episode. I think it could have been a valuable window into the unique relationship hunters form with wildlife. The problems I discussed here are of course not limited to this particular episode of the fifth estate. They are part of a broader issue with discussions of hunting in the media. I can only encourage both hunters and non-hunters alike – don’t take the bait. Avoid the temptation to allow discussions like the one presented by the fifth estate to perpetuate stereotypes and divisions. Ask more questions and find common ground.

I’d be real interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the episode and my take on it.

 

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).

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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.

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“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”.

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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.

Science Update: Habitat Preferences of Desert Bighorn Sheep

I have no real personal connection with bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). I’ve never seen one, eaten one, and know relatively little about them. Perhaps because of this lack of opportunity to interact with them on some personal level, I’m somewhat fascinated by them. At least a part of this fascination has to do with some pretty remarkable life history, physical characteristics, and habits of the species. I’ve also been reading some pieces by Canadian biologist Valerius Geist in the last little while. Geist spent a great deal of time studying bighorn sheep and I recently bought his book Mountain Sheep and Main in the Northern Wilds, so maybe this post is just the result of the convergence of a few individual interests and information trails. In any case, I came across a recent study on the habitat preferences of female desert bighorn sheep and found that it offered an interesting glimpse into the lives of these species.

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Desert bighorn sheep. Source: U.S. National Park Service

Wild sheep arrived in North America sometime around 750,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene (the ice age period that preceded our current epoch, the Holocene). There are currently two species of wild sheep in North America, Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) and bighorn sheep, with the latter also comprised of a number of subspecies. Historically, the range of bighorn sheep covered much of the western portion of North America from Canada to Mexico. As with many other large mammal species on this continent, wild sheep population abundance and range have fluctuated throughout their history, and much of this has to do with the availability of suitable habitat. Though wild sheep are listed as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and remain unlisted in both Canada and the United States (two subspecies resident to California are listed as “endangered” under the U.S. EPA), the Wild Sheep Foundation continues to work on a variety of initiatives and programs to enhance sheep habitat and distribution throughout wild sheep range. Currently, bighorn sheep still exist across their historic range, but their numbers and the extent of continuous populations has been fairly dramatically reduced.

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Historic range of bighorn sheep from 1850-2012. Source: Wild Sheep Foundation

It’s perhaps not difficult to see why someone would be intrigued by this animal. I’ve never been a fan of the “man vs. wild” or “conquering nature” discourses, but there is something primally attractive about the prospect of being able to navigate and survive in the kind of perilous places wild sheep live that makes hunting them somewhat irresistible to me. Wild sheep live in some of the most precipitous habitat on this continent, generally avoiding predators by spending their time in terrain so steep, rocky, dangerous, and difficult to navigate that it is virtually inaccessible to other species, including many of their predators. As with many other ungulates, male sheep (rams) use their thick, curled, sometimes 30-pound horns to fight one another. I’ve heard that sheep can deliver blows with their horns with a force 40 times what it would take to fracture a human skull.

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Rams fighting. Source: Pinterest

It’s long been understood that the habitat selection preferences of wild sheep is an important factor in their ability to avoid predation, including protecting their young (lambs) from these risks. Predation is the leading cause of mortality in neonate (newborn) ungulates, so appropriate habitat selection by pregnant females is critical to neonate survival. For instance, the amount of visibility within a habitat is an important factor in a female’s ability to avoid predation, particularly during times when young are less mobile and therefore are highly susceptible to predation. Areas of low visibility (e.g. high shrub cover) reduce a predator’s ability to see young, whereas areas of high visibility, while allowing increased visibility for predators, also allow females to detect predators. A new paper published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, Desert bighorn sheep lambing habitat: Parturition, nursery, and predation sites, conducted by researchers in New Mexico has provided some new insight into the parturition and nursery habitats used by female sheep (ewes).

Existing knowledge of desert bighorn sheep parturition habitat had been largely based on observation of the presence of lambs – the belief was that the locations in which lambs were observed was likely reflective of the kind of habitat ewes use for lambing. However, through the use of radiocollars and implants that detect when ewes gave birth, the researchers able to identify more precisely the differences in parturition and nursery habitats used by ewes. It was previously thought that both parturition and nursery habitats were in areas of steep, rugged terrain, high elevation, and high visibility. In contrast, the current study found that parturition sites were more likely to occur in habitats at intermediate slopes and intermediate elevations, whereas nursery sites were more likely to be located in areas with steeper slopes. In terms of visibility, parturition sites were more likely to be located in areas of low visibility and nursery sites were associated with habitats at both ends of the visibility spectrum (but not intermediate visibility).

Bighorn lambs are only immobile for 2-3 days after birth, but are classified as a follower species. On a hider-follower classification, a “hider” species leave their young to hide from predators, whereas “follower” species are mobile earlier after birth and are able to escape from predation. Therefore, this study indicates that ewes and their lambs move from parturition sites to nursery sites at higher elevations and steeper slopes shortly after lambs are born to occupy habitat less accessible to predators. It’s pretty amazing that only days after birth, here is a species that is capable of moving deeper into habitat that predators such as mountain lions find difficult to navigate.

Again, while I don’t have any personal experience with bighorn sheep at this point in my life, I find them to be a fascinating and remarkable species and one I hope to connect with more directly at some point. As someone who is also interested in new knowledge on wildlife, I found this paper particularly interesting as it is the first study to definitively describe desert bighorn sheep parturition habitat characteristics. It’s sometimes easy to think that the answers to all of our questions are simply one Google search away, and it’s exciting to realize that just as we are still discovering entirely new species, we are also uncovering details of species that we have interacted with for thousands of years.

The Best 17 Dollars I Spend Every Year

In my opinion, one of the most important and commendable steps in North American wildlife conservation came in 1916, many years before Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management (1933) or A Sand County Almanac (1949). It came at a time when North Americans were really beginning to take notice of the disappearance of wildlife on this continent, signalled by dwindling buffalo, beaver, and wild turkey populations, and the complete disappearance of the passenger pigeon in 1914. August 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty, signed between Canada and the United States to protect North American migratory bird populations from overharvesting and market hunting.

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Northern pintails (Anas acuta) are one of my favourite species of ducks. They’re elegant and sleek looking.

Verleius Geist, a Canadian biologist and strong proponent of what has come to be known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management, puts Canada’s entry into the Migratory Bird Treaty in the context of alternative approaches to wildlife management in other countries. As a British colony, says Geist (2001), Canada “could easily have adopted the mother country’s wildlife policies. Instead, Canada chose a path that paralleled that of the United States, allowing the best minds on both sides of the border to engage in constructive cooperative efforts”. I believe the Migratory Bird Treaty represents a great example of these efforts. At the root of Canada’s approach to cooperatively managing migratory birds is the notion that “Canadians are temporary custodians, not the owners, of their wildlife heritage”. This is a powerfully humble and thoughtful way to conceptualize our responsibility towards wildlife on this continent.

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Henry Henshaw, an American ornithologist who was involved in bringing attention to declining waterfowl populations in the early 1900s.

Typically, wildlife in North America is managed at the provincial (Canada) or state (U.S.) level, but migratory birds are managed federally. Once signed, each country was responsible for enacting legislation that would guide national efforts to implement the treaty. In Canada, we have the Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA), and south of the border the U.S. passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBCA in Canada includes the Migratory Birds Regulations, the Migratory Birds Sanctuary Regulations, and the Migratory Game Bird Hunting Regulations, which are each responsible for regulating a different aspect of migratory bird management.

Just to put the timeline in perspective here, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed in the middle of World War I, at a time when political attention and federal revenue were certainly being pulled in other directions. Yet, conservationists and governments recognized the value in protecting wildlife populations and habitat and I think we need to applaud the governments of that time. Difficult decisions and worthwhile sacrifices have been made in the past to conserve wildlife and there really is no excuse for our generation to ignore our responsibilities on this front. Healthy wildlife and habitat in the future is worth the expense.

This year, both the American and Canadian departments responsible for implementing migratory bird management had good reason to celebrate the 100 years of conservation efforts. To fund conservation activities, the Canadian federal government relies on revenue from the sale of Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation stamps (the Federal Duck Stamp in the U.S.). Beginning in 1985, with a painting of a pair of mallards by famous Canadian painter Robert Bateman, the Duck Stamp is a postage stamp that is affixed to a Migratory Game Bird Hunting Permit. The stamp costs $17 annually and has generated over $50 million in funding for more than 1,500 conservation projects throughout the country. Although it is purchased primarily by waterfowl hunters, anyone can buy a Duck Stamp and contribute to migratory bird conservation.

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Ducks Unlimited Canada reports that from the first migratory bird sanctuary established in Quebec in 1919 to protect seabird colonies, we now have 92 sanctuaries across the country. Today, migratory bird legislation protects over 400 species of waterfowl. As a result, duck populations throughout North America are healthy and stable with an estimated 48.4 million breeding ducks (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). In other words, the Migratory Bird Treaty worked. Representing the largest international wildlife agreement of the time, it brought waterfowl populations back from dangerously low numbers and made a powerful statement about North America’s commitment to wildlife.

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Estimated populations of duck species in North America (Link to original DU page).

Though we have reason to celebrate the millions of ducks, around 9,000 trumpeter swans, and plenty of Canada geese on this continent, the work is not over. As migratory species, a waterfowl species’ habitat is spread over the length of the continent. flywaymap Each year, waterfowl migrate between their summer breeding grounds and wintering grounds using four main migratory routes called flyways. Depending on its particular habitat and range, a species’ north-south migratory route may go anywhere from the Canadian High Arctic to the southern portion of Mexico and beyond. Along the way, waterfowl require healthy and productive wetland habitats for feeding, staging, breeding, and nesting. Unfortunately, we continue to lose wetland habitats every year on a continental scale due to expanding urban development, pollution, and agricultural expansion. We also continue to lose anywhere from 1.4 – 200 million ducks due to house cats, somewhere around half a billion as a result of collisions with buildings and vehicles, and thousands due to poisoning from pesticides and fertilizers, among other causes of waterfowl mortality.

Amidst contemporary conflicts over conservation status and endangered species listings, proposals to either liberalize or constrain hunting regulations, and widespread disagreement over climate policy, we have an example from 1916 that shows us how we can commit to wildlife conservation on a continental scale. I have a strong affection for waterfowl. I enjoy everything related to ducks and geese: I like watching them; hearing them; I find their biology and ecology fascinating; I enjoy the magic of sitting in a pre-dawn blind trying to call birds into a decoy spread; I have prepared many delicious meals of duck or goose meat; and there’s nothing quite like the honking of geese lighting up late afternoon autumn skies. I’m personally very thankful to the conservationists of the last century for laying the foundation that has ensured I am able to continue enjoying such an amazing group of species.

Making Space for Predators in the Cultural and Ecological Landscapes

We need wolves, bears, and large cats on the North American landscape. They belong here, and neither the landscapes we call home nor our own cultures would be the same without them. It’s not only proper management practice to protect the place and role of predators in North America, it’s both a patriotic act and a moral responsibility.

I began this post some time ago, but just didn’t quite have a clear direction for it, so I shelved it until I had a real impetus to put it together. I found that impetus somewhat serendipitously in a mixture of personal interest and the politics of managing large predators. First, I recently read environmental historian Dan Flores’s new book American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains. 9780700622276 Second, there have been a number of recent controversies about the conservation status of predators in various North American jurisdictions and the subsequent management actions proposed for those species. In Ontario in particular, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently implemented an immediate ban on hunting and trapping for a species of wolf in selected townships throughout the province. I’m interested in exploring the sociocultural perspectives around both the idea and physical existence of predator species, in particular between hunters and non-hunters – often the cultural line that seems to divide much of the binary thinking about predators.

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Eastern coyote, Canis latrans

Ecologically, it should be no surprise to anyone that predators play an important role in North American landscapes. Very little that exists in natural systems is ecologically inert, without any kind of evolutionary or relational role. Predator-prey interactions are both complex and necessary for species on both sides of that relationship. Remember that North American species evolved on this continent alongside one another and the interspecific (between species) interactions were critical in their evolutionary histories. Predator-prey dynamics played an important role in shaping species’ behaviours and maintaining balance at various scales within a habitat. For instance, the threat of predation can impact the behaviour of certain species in ways that can be important for maintaining vegetation health or composition. In other cases, predator and prey populations are connected so closely that they literally need one another to keep populations within the carrying capacity of their habitat.

Despite this longer-term understanding of the ecological role of predators, our social values still paint a particular portrait of predators. I’ve heard Cameron Hanes and Joe Rogan comment that bears need to be managed because they impact moose populations. While this is certainly true, the repeated use of value-laden language gives the – even subconscious – impression that bears are somehow purposefully intending to wipe out moose populations or that bears are inherently evil for the impacts of their predation. This is ridiculous, so let’s put this kind of loaded language to rest now. Bears and other predators do not “devastate” or “decimate” prey species populations. The role of predators is to seek, kill, and eat their prey, and that is what they do. Both predators and prey are active participants of their ecosystems and their evolutions. There is nothing somehow immoral about this and we need to avoid anthropomorphizing predator-prey interactions.

Now, this does not mean that predator populations shouldn’t be managed. On the contrary, I am a strong advocate of harvest-based predator management; however, I think there’s an important distinction between managing predators and the portrayal of this task as simply “predator control”, as though the greatest achievement of wildlife management is maintaining low levels of predator species – usually either in the interest of protecting livestock interests or to maintain higher levels of desired prey species like deer. Instead, we should apply the same management philosophy to predator species that we do with prey species, appreciating the biological and cultural role of hunting within human communities, and striving to maintain sustainable, healthy, and balanced populations and ecological communities. This might seem overly picky in terms of the language we use, but our choice of language reveals a great deal about our perspectives and impacts how we are perceived by others, so it’s worth some consideration.

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One of the most demonized and misunderstood large predators on the North American landscape, the mountain lion, Puma concolor. Despite urban myth, mountain lions do not eat hikers and children by the hundreds.

The question is, how do we shift our collective perceptions around predators?

There are certain camps who share cultural perspectives about predators. Sometimes these groups are divided along the hunter/non-hunter line, sometimes along an urban/rural line – and as humans, we seem incapable of resisting the finger-pointing that often comes with these cultural divides. But the reality is, we all have a responsibility in this issue, and the nature of that responsibility depends on how we come into contact with the issue of predators. To hunters, I would say that we need to put an end to the short-sighted and arrogant demonizing of predators. It’s unethical and unpatriotic. To non-hunters (and in particular, anti-hunters who seem determined to end predator hunting altogether) I would say to stop mobilizing emotion over the charismatic nature of predators and to understand that species need to be managed in integrated ways. Sometimes, this management includes sustainable hunting measures, and like it or not, this is sometimes the most effective way to manage predators well. In both cases, these species are far more than the characters of myths and fairy tales; they are important members of complex ecological communities, and the oversimplifications on both ends of the spectrum only serve to damage our own claims to righteousness and the health of ecosystems.

Let’s look at wolves (Canis spp.) as a way to contextualize this discussion a bit. By wolves, I mean the various species of canids throughout North America. To put it bluntly, our various sociocultural perceptions have shaped a shameful history with the various Canis species. North Americans have intermittently embarked on campaigns of extermination against wolves, designed variously to protect livestock development, market hunting economic opportunities, and as a result of misguided perceptions of the physical threat wolves present. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that our history of wolf management on this continent has been defined by wisdom and forethought. We have both moral and national duties on this continent to change the trajectory of this history.

There are some organizations working to encourage the valuation of ancient predator-prey relationships. Just this week, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) released information on a campaign to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, which spans the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, from the effects of industrial development. In their press release, CPAWS cites as one of the reasons to protect the Park that is it “the only place in the world where a natural predatory relationship between wolves and bison has continued unbroken over time”. As North Americans, we have come to recognize the power of bison in this continent’s ecological and cultural history, and it is equally important to acknowledge the other side of the bison’s history, which is its interactions with predators.

Wolves are truly a North American species. Wolves evolved exclusively on this continent before emigrating to the rest of the world. They are both a natural and historical part of the North American landscape, and as such, I would say that it’s actually unpatriotic to not give wolves the respect they deserve – it would be some kind of national ecological sin to deny wolves their rightful place here. In tracing the evolutionary history of canids, Dan Flores explains that all members of the family of animals that comprise wolves throughout the world originated from a common North American lineage that is 5 million years old. At some point in their history, ancestors of today’s gray wolf migrated to Asia and Europe, later returning to North America. Meanwhile, a separate wolf lineage remained in North America, later becoming the red wolf, Canis rufus, and the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon. Ancestors of today’s North American wolves have been part of this continent’s ecology for 20 000 years, hunting the giant animals of the ice age along with many other large predators that are now extinct.

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A size comparison between (from smallest to largest) a black bear, a grizzly bear, and a recreation of the short-faced bear, which went extinct about 11 000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.

There are, however, important reasons to consider predator management for the purpose of mitigating their pressure on species such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). At the same time I posted this discussion, I also posted one that reviews recent research on coyote predation on deer; however, I found myself reluctant to post that one by itself because I was fearful it would contribute to the dichotomized nature of predator conversations, so I wanted this post to offer some more depth to the conversation. In part, this fearfulness is in the context of recent changes to wolf and coyote management in Ontario and some of the backlash I’ve seen to these decisions.

On June 15, 2016, the Ontario government reclassified Eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) as Threatened on the basis that “the estimated population of mature individuals is less than 1000”. Eastern wolves were also assessed as Threatened by COSEWIC, the national committee responsible for assessing the status of wildlife in Canada. Part of the reclassification process in Ontario included renaming the Eastern wolf the Algonquin wolf.

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The newly renamed Algonquin wolf, Canis lycaon

On September 15, 2016, the Ontario MNRF – the provincial department responsible for managing hunting based on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) – announced a full hunting and trapping ban on wolves and coyotes in 40 townships throughout the province as a measure to protect Algonquin wolves.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) issued a statement opposing the decision and in their official submission to the MNRF outlined a number of compelling reasons why a hunting/trapping ban is “scientifically indefensible”. In the wake of the MNRF’s announcement, hordes took to social media expressing their complete disdain for wolves and coyotes, voicing poorly informed opinions about the merits of even recognizing the species, and suggesting that people should just continue to kill wolves and hide the evidence. In a much more poignant response, the OFAH skillfully walked a fine line that recognized the importance of Algonquin wolf recovery and genetic protection while also explaining why a hunting/trapping ban amounts to a short-sighted and unwise management decision. The OFAH argues that the FWCA offers more effective options to achieve conservation objectives for Algonquin wolves than an all-out hunting/trapping ban.

For instance, the OFAH notes that for the last 14 years, there has been a wolf hunting ban in core areas of Algonquin wolf range surrounding Algonquin Provincial Park (APP). Speaking to the effects of this ban, the OFAH cites both the Ontario and Canadian species at risk assessment bodies (COSSARO and COSEWIC, respectively) in acknowledging that while “human-caused mortality is identified as a significant threat, a reduction in hunting and trapping mortality from 67% to 16% resulting from a ban in townships in and adjacent to Algonquin Park in 2001 was followed by a comparable increase in natural mortality rates”. This means that hunting amounted to what is known as “compensatory mortality”, or in other words, that the wolves killed by hunters each year would have died anyway and therefore that hunting was not having an additive effect on the population (incidentally, this is really the backbone of the concept of sustainable harvest). In addition, there is a concern with genetic introgression from coyotes (in other words, through interbreeding, coyotes are making Algonquin wolves more coyote), and the OFAH suggests that without managing the population of coyotes, there is concern that we will lose more Algonquin wolf genes over time.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, I tend to agree with the OFAH that changing the status of Algonquin wolves might actually do more harm than good because it restricts the available options for conservation measures. What troubles me most, however, is the nature of criticisms from the very community that should appreciate the need for ecosystems that contain healthy and balanced predator populations. As hunters, we pride ourselves on understanding ecology and being committed to conservation. This means promoting the maintenance of landscapes complete with the richness of species that have evolved here and that have been integral to the relationships within their habitats. I agree that hunters are the strongest voice for conservation, so we need to use that voice thoughtfully, intelligently, and then powerfully.

Lest I be dismissed as some predator bleeding heart, recall that our own evolution and adaptation on this continent would not be the same without the other species living here. Indeed, Dan Flores notes that, “with the exception of our primate cousins, wild canids have been intimately associated with us longer than any other large animals on the planet.” There’s a value to wild life that is measured by some metric far beyond our socially constructed desires for growth, productivity, or predictability. We need to remember that the interactions and relationships between multiple species within ecosystems is what shaped our landscapes and what has made them the places we admire and rely on for food, recreation, and an important part of our culture. As such, we owe it to ourselves and these landscapes to be thoughtful and comprehensive in our attitudes and decision-making with regards to predators. We need to give them the space they deserve in our cultural and ecological landscapes.

Science Update: Another Chapter in Understanding Coyote Predation on White-Tailed Deer

So here’s the deal with this post. I don’t believe that science is detached from the social, cultural, and political implications of the knowledge it produces; however, these posts are intended to specifically focus on recent updates in scientific knowledge concerning species that hunters might be interested in. In an effort to keep these posts focused and concise, therefore, this post is a two-parter. The research paper I’m talking about here relates to a hotly debated and highly emotive issue, so I felt a bit compelled to also address the social and political aspects of the issue in a companion post. Onwards to the science though.

This post is seasonally timely with the Ontario white-tailed deer bowhunt opener on October 1. In a paper published in August 2016, researchers from the Ecological Research Center in Newton, Georgia reported on a study that began in 2003, to investigate the effects of mesopredators on white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) recruitment. The paper, titled Predator Exclusion As a Management Option for Increasing White-Tailed Deer Recruitment, reports on a study that used fenced exclosures to provide refuge for deer from predators to assess whether exclosures could be used as a management tool to reduce pressure on white-tailed deer from coyote (Canis latrans) and other mesopredator predation, particularly in cases where hunting coyotes is ineffective.

The researchers compared the neonate/adult female (fawn/doe) ratio in deer that used the exclosures to those that did not use the exclosures. Using neonate/adult female ratios gives an indication of recruitment – how many new individuals are brought into the breeding population. Since fawns are most vulnerable to predation, this ratio is generally a good indicator for population trends (i.e. if neonate survival is low, individuals are not surviving to reproduce, and combined with other mortality, this may lead to a decline in the population).

Exclosures are fenced areas that are just the opposite of enclosures: rather than containing a species, they are designed to prevent certain species from entering the fenced area. In this study, the researchers designed the exclosures with electric wire fencing so that deer were still able to jump the fence into the area, but coyotes, foxes (Vulpes spp.), and other predators were unable to get through the fence.

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Grazing exclosure. Source: The Konza-Kruger Experiment

The effects of coyotes on white-tailed deer is one of the most hotly debated barstool topics among hunters. There are those who swear we should kill every coyote we see and there are those who insist that no matter how many coyotes we kill, we are only removing the transient individuals and having negligible effects on the actual local population. There is also the idea that coyotes will change their reproductive rate and behaviour in response to population changes, increasing litter size as populations decline. Then there is also a polarization of opinions on whether coyotes even present any real threat to white-tailed deer populations.

However, this paper notes that the massive population and range expansion of coyotes in North America throughout the last century has exposed white-tailed deer to increasing predation pressure that has affected neonate recruitment. Further, while there is evidence that removal of coyotes has had positive effects on white-tailed deer recruitment, the evidence also suggests that these effects are quite localized and difficult for most landowners to implement effectively. Coyote populations usually span a much larger area than individual hunters or landowners can affect, which means that individual animals that are killed will be replaced by others from the same population. In other words, coyote removal would need to occur over such large areas that for practical purposes at the property level, killing coyotes is generally not an effective tool to increase white-tailed deer recruitment.

The study found that the average neonate/adult female ratio was greater inside the exclosures than outside. Average neonate/adult female ratios within exclosures was 0.19 and outside exclosures this ratio was 0.09. To put this in more direct terms, this means that within exclosures, roughly speaking, there was 1 fawn for every 5 does; outside exclosures, there was 1 fawn for every 10 does. Hunter success also improved after the construction of exclosure areas. The study doesn’t report harvest statistics, so it’s difficult to know if hunters were killing more mature individuals, which would indicate that adult deer were also surviving longer.

In terms of management lessons, this study indicates that reducing predation pressure on white-tailed deer can increase neonate recruitment into the population. However, it’s notable that the effects of predators doesn’t always take the form of increased mortality. Decreased risk of predation can also result in behavioural changes in deer. Wildlife species are constantly balancing risk and reward – for example, how much energy will it take to locate a food source, and will the energy taken in by that food be greater than what was expended to find it. In terms of predation, prey species will seek refuge from predators, so predation risk can affect both foraging and reproductive behaviour (for a notable example of this, revisit the behavioural effects wolves had on elk in Yellowstone Park).

If increasing local deer population is a management goal, there needs to be an increase in neonate survival. In many cases, lethal control of coyotes is ineffective. In these cases, the authors suggest that predator exclosures may provide a viable option to manage predation risk by reducing “the need for energetically costly antipredator behaviors (e.g., increased vigilance while foraging) by providing year-round reduction in predation risk”. If exclosures provide more effective refuge from predators, it is likely that deer will use these areas to escape predation.

While this research is interesting, I can’t help but find larger questions to ask. For instance, while I have great respect and gratitude for the successes of the North American model of wildlife conservation, I still wonder: are we losing some essence of what it means to have wild life on these landscapes by managing them with the use of fences? At the end of the day, we need to find the best way to manage wildlife for the health of a wide variety of species and habitats; however, there’s a subjective element to this that I can’t escape, which makes me feel a bit uneasy about putting fences in wild places (even if those are on private properties). Then again, I can’t very well suggest that we continue to use potentially ineffective management strategies like lethal control of predators simply because it somehow feel more natural, can I? So uncertainties remain.

Hunting Season Preparation: Three Steps to Broadhead Tuning

Tuning your bow is an important step to ensure accuracy and confidence in your equipment. Properly tuning your bow is what ensures your arrows fly consistently and hit where you aim. It can be a time consuming process that many people find endlessly frustrating, but there are some ways to make it a bit more straightforward. At the end of the day, it will make shooting much more enjoyable and it’s a critical part of being an ethical hunter.

There are a variety of methods to tune your bow for shooting with field points, such as paper tuning and walk-back tuning, and you probably covered some of these when you purchased your bow. In the months leading up to hunting season, it’s important to spend some time practicing with the broadheads you intend to use in the field. img_3044_2Broadhead companies will boast that their products fly the same as field points and loyal customers will swear that if you use a certain broadhead, it all but eliminates the need for additional tuning; however, all bow and arrow combinations function slightly differently, so it’s crucial that you test your bow with the exact broadheads you will be using in the field. Here is a quick step-by-step to get your rig ready for season opener.

1. Purchase Practice Broadheads

Broadheads kill efficiently because they have razor sharp cutting edges and it’s important that your hunting broadheads are in perfect condition. Always purchase an additional set of your hunting broadheads for pre-season practice. Most broadheads will come with a practice broadhead for this exact purpose, but never use the ones you intend to use on your hunt.

2. Compare Broadhead and Field Point Flight

Select a distance you are comfortable and confident shooting. You don’t need to be 100 yards away for this – I recommend 20 or 30 yards. First, shoot a broadhead arrow at the target (be sure you are using a target specifically designed for broadheads). Next, shoot a field point arrow at the same spot on the target.

3. Correct Your Broadhead Flight

If your two arrows did not hit in the same spot, you are going to adjust the rest. To make the correct adjustments, “follow the field point” with your rest – move the rest in the direction of the field point arrow. Begin with the vertical adjustment until the two arrows are hitting in the same vertical position. If your arrow rest does not have vertical adjustments, you will need to adjust the nock height. In this case, you will move the nock in the opposite direction from where the field point hit. For example, if your broadhead hit above your field point, move the rest down (or adjust the nock point up).  Next, move on to the horizontal adjustments. Similarly, if your broadhead hit left of the field point, adjust the rest to the right. Continue to shoot one of each arrow until they are hitting together.

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Some Extra Tips:

  • It’s important that you treat this as a tuning issue, not a sighting issue. You want your broadheads and field points hitting in the same spot, and if you just adjust your sight to correct this difference, the broadhead may hit the target, but the gap between the arrows, and therefore the tuning problem, will not be corrected.
  • When adjusting the rest, make very small adjustment, starting with only about 1/16” at a time.
  • I recommend always shooting a broadhead arrow first, followed by a field point. As your arrows move closer together, this will avoid shaving off vanes with the broadhead every time you shoot.
  • Continue to shoot at 20 yards until your arrows are hitting as close as you can get them before you move back to 30 yards or beyond.
  • A common source of debate is whether or not you should align your broadhead blades to the arrow vanes. Some will tell you this is crucial for arrow flight. I have never done this and have been able to tune my bows just fine. I won’t say that people are wrong when they suggest you do this, but I will say that there isn’t really any scientific evidence to support the need to do this. Also, what about 2 or 4 blade broadheads? People achieve perfect tuning with those as well.
  • Be patient with this process, making only small adjustments at a time. Remember that bows, arrows, and broadheads can all interact differently. I’ve seen paper tuned bows almost robin hood arrows on the first shot with a broadhead; I’ve also seen bows take a dozen adjustments before I was satisfied with the broadhead tuning. Be prepared to invest some time in this process and your hunting experience will be much better!

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

“The North American model of wildlife conservation has seven components that collectively form a foundation that yields its distinct structure:

1. Wildlife as public trust resources
2. Elimination of markets for wildlife
3. Allocation of wildlife by law
4. Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose
5. Wildlife are considered an international resource
6. Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy
7. Democracy of hunting

It is hunters, or, more accurately, hunting, that led to the development of the components listed above that form the foundation for North American wildlife conservation.”

Valerius Geist, Shane P. Mahoney, John F. Organ, 2001