by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Wildlife (Mis)Management Myths Prevail
This Too Shall Pass (Or Will It?): What Animal Advocates Should Know!
One of my favorite lines from the Bible does not, according to those who
actually read the Bible, occur in it. The line is "This too shall pass," and,
Biblical or not, I have often thought about it, and the concept has given me
strength. But three recent events (and many others like them) challenge the
First, a reporter for an Ohio newspaper called me to discuss cormorants. Fine;
since I saw my first double-crested cormorant in 1958, I have been intensely
fascinated by, and defensive of, this most maligned and misunderstood species,
and learned all I could about it. But…he had talked to a wildlife management
"expert marksman" who had shot many cormorants during culls at Lake Erie, and as
"a scientist," his word meant so much more than mine. As well, the reporter
could not get his head around the fact that our "duty" to "control" nature is
neither a given nor necessarily effective--the view being that, since nothing
much is natural, we should be out there deciding on behalf of nature who should
live, who should die, and what the environment should really look like. I've
heard it all before.
And then there was the decision, referred
to in my last blog, to reinstall, albeit on a limited "test" basis, the
spring bear hunt here in Ontario to reduce the number of complaints. But I had
just read, among other such documents, a New Jersey study that clearly showed
two things: as the number of bears "harvested" increases, so do complaints about
bears, AND, non-lethal bear management has the opposite effect (sometimes
dramatically so). Ontario data show the same thing, but facts don't matter… As I
said in my blog, our provincial prime minister, Kathleen Wynne, is embracing
cruelty to bear cubs in the interest of earning votes. I suspect that the number
of spring bear hunt proponents who have read the same studies and reports that I
have read hovers around zero.
And then there was yet another hideously patronizing article, this one in The
New York Times, telling us that we may not like it, but look, folks: since we've
removed deer predators, deer numbers have to be controlled. They don't mention
how much more "game" we kill (or, in their language, "harvest") than the
predators we supposedly replace. Oh, we who don't like it no doubt mean well,
but we are just naïve Bambi-lovers who are unable to appreciate cold facts.
I've heard all of this so many times, regarding so many species, with but minor
Here is some information for the animals' side to think about. But before I go
on, one thing I strongly, strongly, strongly urge of everyone fighting to
protect wildlife: challenge EVERY single premise. Take nothing as factual
without first doing your own deep research. NEVER, please, mistake wildlife
managers for scientists, or wildlife management for science. Be clear, concise,
and factual. We have truth on our side, which is a good foundation to build
The basic idea driving this continent-wide trend toward culling, again with
allowances for regional- or species-specific variations, goes something like
Humanity has eliminated the "controls," such as predators, that in pre-Columbian
(hereafter "primal") North America, kept the species "in check."
Humanity has enhanced carrying capacity (the amount of food available to the
species in question) of the environment beyond what existed in primal times,
thus leading to a population "explosion" that is "out of control," or has led to
Because of the first two situations, the people who support culling blame the
species in question for harming "the environment" (forgetting that those species
ARE the environment, or part of it), impacting agriculture, and putting human
safety at risk. Culling "controls" the population, restoring a balance toward
normalcy – a concept that is either not defined, vaguely defined, or given a
very specific number (there should be "X" number of deer [or whatever species is
targeted] per hectare, based on what the habitat can withstand).
In reality, though "X," when identified at all, is the number (derived through
computer models whose accuracy depends on the amount and quality of data
entered) at or below which complaints to politicians cease to be made. We often
hear dire predictions, like those of deer starving--and yet starvation in deer
is largely a function of snow conditions, and happens in populations whether
hunted or not. If you look at the deer targeted, you'll see that they are
typically healthy. We begin to understand that wildlife management is driven by
politics, not science.
For some species, such as wolves or cormorants, "X" is often very close to zero.
Literally, it can be a number that renders the species in question threatened or
endangered, if not extirpated or even extinct, but of course that won't be
admitted... It will always be a figure above zero, at least for native species.
There are other factors in play:
Lethal culling, as opposed to non-lethal conflict resolution and thoughtful,
compassion-based management, has a huge psychological appeal. Not everyone has
the same values or thinks the same way, and a percentage of the population has
no, or very selective, empathy toward other species (or other humans, for that
matter), and to them, "punishment" is important--and killing appeals to their
need to demonstrate dominance and control. It is not necessarily that they are
looking for an excuse to kill, but rather, killing fulfills an atavistic need to
dominate and to punish: a characteristic that I believe was selected for through
evolution, but is no longer valid. We have "won." The world of other species is
shrivelling in the wake of our technologically driven power.
It is also true that the majority of people NOT bothered by the presence of an
animal species tend to keep quiet about it. How often do you write to your
elected representative to say something like, "Hey, I just saw a cardinal at my
feeder, a chipmunk in the garden, and a cottontail in the front yard, and I want
you to know that I enjoyed them very much and am very glad that they are there?"
I mean, why would you? Decision and policy makers almost exclusively hear from
the whiners and complainers.
Another factor is fear. I am currently dealing with communities in British
Columbia where the "bogeyman" is the Mule Deer (not the White-tailed Deer, which
also occurs there, but is far less likely to hang around people than are Mule
Deer... but no matter...they've killed them, too). The fear is based on a few
actions by defensive deer -- most notoriously a doe whose fawn was beset by a
cat, a group of human bystanders, and finally a distant dog, which was the final
straw for her, and she attacked the poor dog. From that, the concern has become
that a child will be seriously hurt or killed.
There have been countless thousands, tens of thousands, of interactions between
children and deer... millions, if we count kids in petting zoos featuring
deer... including Mule Deer... and, so far, the number of such incidents appears
to stand at... zero. It does not matter; ignorance rules.
Zoonotic disease is always a popular bogeyman with wildlife managers. No matter
that studies show that the presence of White-tailed Deer in the east may LOWER
the probability of transmission of Lyme Disease to people and pets (that's
right... the opposite of what you are told by wildlife managers); the fear is
enough to warrant the killing. It is a well-known fact that people tend to be
very poor at risk-assessment, and so it is easy to convince them to be
disproportionately afraid... or to take unnecessary risks, for that matter... or
to fear economic damage, ecological damage, or whatever. It is not that all such
concerns are totally invalid; it is just that they must never be assumed to be
valid, or as valid as presented.
Remember, too, that hunting is generally in decline. Wildlife managers are
fighting to promote lethal animal control, especially in the United States,
where special taxes on guns and ammo go toward paying for wildlife managers.
It is increasingly understood that hunting just for "sport" is no longer as
socially acceptable as it once was; thus, a social need has to be served, and
scapegoating animals fulfills this need. This is less true in Canada, where
culling is more likely to be done at government expense, but there are
exceptions--like the newly reinstated spring bear hunt in Ontario, as purely a
political move as anything I've ever seen. The government had a good "Bear
Smart" programme, but simply didn't want to fund it.
Regarding deer, the idea that they are more common now than in primal times (not
that it should matter; we can ever return to primal conditions) is based on
outdated assumptions about the primal population size of first nations people.
It is now understood that there were far more people here than was originally
assumed, and thus, if you extrapolate from the newer figure, it means far more
The elimination of deer predators such as wolves and eastern cougars is factual,
but how do we measure that against the impact of the human predator, the
enhanced mortality from automobiles, fence entanglements, hunting and poaching,
the eastern range expansion of coyotes (evolving within our lifetimes into a
larger subspecies to better fill the ecological niche left vacant by the
elimination of the wolf), and various other anthropogenic impacts such as
pollution or climate change? Certainly, what we can glean from earliest accounts
suggests that there could well have been far more deer in primal North America,
although such accounts are scarce, and many historical records that are
presented as reflecting primal conditions do not do so, given the incredible
rapidity with which disease reduced first nations citizens immediately after
Similarly, the enhanced carrying capacity from what is sometimes called the
"agricultural subsidy" (there is far more nutriment per acre in, say, a corn
field than in a primal forest) does not take into account the other factor that
determines carrying capacity: shelter. Vast acreage of a high-nutriment crop
does little good without places for the deer to hang out, breed, and gather for
But also be sure to challenge the impact deer or other bogeymen species make to
a community, the ways in which those impacts can be resolved, and the
cost-effectiveness of such resolutions. Physical removal of deer stimulates
compensatory morality: a rebound effect whereby, with less competition for
resources, more deer are born and more deer survive... ideal for ammunition and
trap manufacturers and the employment of wildlife managers, because the
"problems" are never resolved.
That's the way the wildlife managers and supportive industries like it to be. We
don't have to.
Wildlife (Mis)Management Myths Prevail