What is more essential to our current lifestyle and economy than roads? Roads connect us as families and friends, food supplies, energy sources, our jobs, you name it. We cannot sustain our economy and lives without transportation.
Yet as important as roads are to people, they are also an impediment to wildlife, their habitats, and a big headache and complication for wildlife managers.
Busy highways become death traps. In some places we now must erect barriers to keep wildlife off highways, them safe from us, us safe from them. In doing so, we are also blocking travel to essential winter or summer ranges, or inadvertently creating traps that make it easier for predators to catch their prey.
Easy to justify the fences as no person wishes to be injured, or die, when vehicles collide with large mammals. We learn to accept that animals should not be on our highways and most travelers do not give a second thought about what fences do to wildlife.
But what about the kilometres of industrial “bush” roads in our province? With slower speeds and lower traffic volumes, death by vehicle collisions is much lower, but that does not mean industrial roads are any less lethal for wildlife. The end just comes in a different manner.
Roads, or as we refer to as access, help create some of B.C.’s most complex wildlife management problems.
B.C. used to be known as a place where one could experience back-country wilderness, where our abundance of wildlife could live out their lives relatively free from human hindrance. Not so much anymore. Although we still have our north and extensive park systems with limited road access, the rest of the province is now extensively roaded.
It is these road networks that create most of our management issues.
In today’s world of jacked-up four-wheel drive trucks, quads, side-by-sides and now, electric bicycles, almost no road or former road is off limits.
Obliterate a road in flat terrain and people create a drive around. Remove bridges and someone will find a way to cross the stream. Plant trees and they are mowed over. Unbuild, and some overly energetic person will rebuild. Restrict access with signage and many will ignore.
For the most part, this is done by us, us hunters, in our quest, for our prey.
The result is that not all wildlife can or will adapt to being consistently exposed to us predators, so some populations will suffer. Species like mule deer and moose tend to favour open areas with new vegetation and are more easily found when there are high road densities, easy travel with many open cutblocks. Although whitetail deer and elk are better adapted to avoiding humans, given enough access and constant pressure from hunters, their populations can also be affected.
Industrial forestry is the largest builder and operator of roads in B.C., constructing thousands upon thousands of kilometres every year. Most roads are never “unbuilt” and remain open to some or all traffic. The exception is for roads that are wholly contained within cutblocks, which can be deconstructed and replanted, but these are in the minority.
The issue of forest road management is further complicated as it is not only the forest industry and hunters that use or need them. Hikers, photographers, fishermen, property owners, ranchers, miners, campers and so forth use these roads. We have all come to rely on them as part of our life, as does government for emergency management for floods and fire.
Deconstructing roads after their initial purpose has been fulfilled is no panacea either. Every build and unbuild creates a higher likelihood of siltation entering our streams and ponds. Unbuilding and rebuilding is also expensive, so most industries would rather maintain them, if they are needed for future activities.
The forest industry needs roads for harvesting and then for plantation management. As all of the forest cannot be harvested the first time around, permanent access is needed for subsequent harvest(s), and in theory, indefinitely.
The more that is harvested, the more access is created, the easier it becomes for hunters (predators) to find their quarry.
This leaves us with two options if we cannot eliminate roads and wish to have better habitat conditions with more wildlife: education and/or regulation for road users.
Education? Good luck. Stick up a sign, ask someone not to use this road and think everyone will listen? Not likely.
This leaves management by regulations. Regulate the hunter and/or regulate the road.
There are places where motorized vehicles are prohibited from using access roads for the transportation of hunters and wildlife. We have also used regulation to temporarily restrict access for hunting purposes as a management tool after some of our bad fire seasons.
So why don’t we do more? Why aren’t there more regulations limiting access for the purpose of hunting and transporting wildlife?
Politics is one, as many hunters and their organizations will object. Complexity is another as hunters and other users attempt to understand and follow new and/or ever-changing regulations.
Despite the above, government can create regulations that prohibit specified road systems from being used to transport hunters or wildlife. But before this could occur, extensive consultations with First Nations and all other stakeholders are required. If these types of regulations are to be effective, then everyone must buy in and support the concept of road closures for better habitat and management of wildlife.
Last week I wrote about the need to change how we manage the reforestation of cutblocks. Easy to say make changes and better manage roads and reforestation, but for this to work, better up-front planning is required to avoid confusion, upset stakeholders and increased costs and complexity.
B.C. needs to do what we did in the 1990s. Another session akin to the Land and Resource Management Planning (LRMP) processes.
Time has come to create updated land use objectives via another comprehensive local level land use planning exercise. And for that government needs to commit to greater budgets, resources, and staff.
Do it and the forest users will show up to participate.
Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and is one of hundreds of thousands of hunters and fishers in B.C. He lives in Fort St. John.