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Evan Saugstad: Wildlife management in B.C. – Is it effective in our northern wilderness?

Part 7 in a series
HuntingSouthPeace (3)
Evan Saugstad and Ron Nygaard hunting in the South Peace. Supplied

Much of B.C. lacks for anything near historic population levels of ungulates, such as moose, elk, deer, caribou, mountain sheep and goats. In some places, there is a total absence of one or more species that previously existed.

Some believe the major reason for these declines is habitat degradation caused by one or more of our resource-based industries.

Some commonly held beliefs for low ungulate populations are that there would be more moose if it were not for cut blocks and silviculture programs, including the use of herbicides; that there would fewer wolves if we had fewer roads, making it harder for them to find their prey; that there would be more caribou if there were no logging and no snowmobiles; that gas and oil development poisons our wildlife.

The list goes on. Although I do believe industry has much room for improvements that would benefit wildlife, their impacts are only part of the story.

For a comparison, look to our backyard, the northern half of B.C. The part that has little or no industry of any size or scale, few roads, yet the same problems – lack of prey, with no lack of predators.

Much of the north exists today as it has for thousands of years with few permanent residents and low hunting pressures. Areas adjacent to the Alaska Highway and Highway 37 have the most hunters and highest hunting pressures due to easier access, but even there, hunting numbers are not significant. Parts of the major river systems accessible by jet boats also see a concentration of hunters, but once again, not of any great significance.

Outside of the northern highway and river corridors, most hunting comes via guide outfitters, who have occupied this space and carried on the tradition of guiding hunters for most of the last century. Most of what they hunt is limited by government-assigned quotas, and everything they harvest is reported to government for tracking. Guided hunter numbers have remained fairly constant over the years, except for 2020 when COVID restrictions prevented many hunters from travelling.

Some backcountry areas are seeing a steady increase in resident hunters looking for our iconic species, such as mountain sheep and goats. Hunters can travel further for these species as these animal’s meat must be packed out - all edible portions are required by law to be removed. Even with these increased pressures, sheep harvest is limited to rams that are eight years or older, or have horns extending higher than the bridge of the nose (full curl). Under these rules, harvesting mature rams has a negligible impact to sheep population levels.

Some mountain goat areas have Limited Entry Hunting (LEH) to regulate numbers harvested, as mountain goats are more susceptible to over hunting as compared to mountain sheep. Both billies and nannies have horns and it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Species like moose, caribou, and elk are hunted much less in the remote areas as one must carry all meat out. They are just too big and heavy to pack far.

Yet, despite few hunters and no industry, those who spend the most time in these areas (primarily guide outfitters, trappers, and hunters) report a steady decline of ungulates and a steady increase in sightings of grizzly bears and wolves.

Despite the reports from these same persons who have the knowledge that ungulates are in peril, our wildlife branch is reluctant to rely on this information, as it is deemed as non-reliable and categorized as “anecdotal.”

The grizzly bear season remains closed, except in the Tahltan area where the Council placed a bounty on predators, including grizzlies, and their members are now shooting predators on sight to help bring the prey-predator relationship back into balance.

B.C. government wolf control programs for parts of the north were halted until a pending court challenge is resolved.

In the northeast (Region 7b), local decision makers have been stalling the approval process for much of the needed range burns that would improve winter forage. Most burning occurs on south facing slopes and eliminates trees and brush to promote more grass and shrubs. No one is quite sure why they've been stalling, but it could be that they do not understand the need.

Last fall’s blockades by some first nations underscore the need for better management of our wildlife. Although these blockades were ostensibly due to COVID-19 management purposes, the underlying issue is that many aboriginal people believe there are no longer enough moose and other ungulates to sustain their way of life, that government has no intention of managing for more ungulates, and that they now must take matters into their own hands to fix the problem.

Although I can agree with the principle of what they are trying to accomplish, it should not have to happen, and might not, if government took wildlife management seriously and looked for solutions. We should not be arguing about who gets to shoot the last moose on the mountain. Instead, we should be focusing on how to get more moose on the mountain so there is something to share.

Solutions such as placing more Limited Entry Hunting (LEH) zones in the more contentious areas, such as along major highways, rivers, or access points, could limit harvests to help with population rebuilds. But, we need much more than that.

Grizzly bear hunting needs to be reinstated. There are no shortage of bears and in these northern areas, no conflict with the bear viewing industry as occurs in some places in southern B.C. Although grizzlies do kill healthy adult ungulates, they are infamous for the number of newborn calves, lambs, and kids they can consume each spring.

Like government did in the 1990s, wolf control programs also need to be put back into place across the entire north for a winter or three to rebalance the prey with the predators. A conservative estimate is that five to 10 times the numbers of ungulates could be sustained by their available habitat in these areas.

So why doesn’t government listen?

Because those in the know do not have Dr. or Masters or PhD behind their names, and all these same fine people don’t qualify as “citizen scientists” because they do not fit the PhD definition of what citizen science is.

So no matter what they report, our good friends in the south who are responsible for our wildlife welfare deem it hearsay, and ignore the issues because they believe predators are more important than prey and so on, and so on, and…

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.