Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Caution essential to revamp of BC Wildlife Act
Aug. 3, 2007

Hunting isn’t my thing, but I recognize it as a genuine B.C. activity beloved by tens of thousands.
So I’ve worked hard at staving off any kneejerk reaction to recent news that the Environment Ministry hopes to get another 20,000 hunters out into the woods over the next few years.
Six per cent of British Columbians hunted 25 years ago. Nowadays, just two per cent of us do. In real numbers, that’s a 50 per cent drop - from 168,000 active B.C. hunters in 1981, to 84,000 today.
I can see why hunters might want to bolster their ranks. I can also see why the government is on side, given the potential boost to the economy of B.C.’s struggling rural communities that could result from increased hunting activity.
But look beyond the headlines about the push for more hunters, and you’ll find more substantial things to worry about. While a few more hunters likely won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, other proposed changes to the provincial Wildlife Act are potentially less benign.
Whatever you or I might think about hunting, the reality is that it’s a traditional B.C. industry and a pleasant seasonal past-time for resident hunters.
The various aspects of hunting generate roughly $50 million a year in B.C. The money flows from a number of sources - from the sale of hunting licences to recreational local hunters wanting a freezerful of venison, to the big-ticket extravaganzas booked by rich U.S. hunters in search of big game.
Hunting revenues are a drop in the bucket compared to tourism overall. They represent a mere one per cent of the $5-billion tourist industry, and a fraction of the $900 million generated every year by the wildlife-viewing industry.
A thoughtful, well-enforced Wildlife Act is obviously key to keeping all those industries healthy while also protecting the wonderful birds, fish and animals we’ve been blessed with in this province. A series of public consultations around the act has just wrapped up, and the Environment Ministry’s 2007-2010 service plan has also put forward several major operational changes for consideration.
Boosting the number of hunters is part of that plan. But there’s also a proposal to deregulate many aspects of the commercial hunting industry, and to hand off oversight to an industry-led board that would take over much of the supervisory functions currently done by government.
That’s considerably more scary than a campaign to find more hunters.
The Liberals’ viewpoint - leaving aside their ideological drive toward smaller government - is that those making money from a resource are the most motivated to look after it into the future. If you’re a guide-outfitter making a good living at helping U.S. hunters bag mountain sheep, you’re presumed to have more of an interest than most of us in making sure that B.C. doesn’t run out of them.
I get the theory, and appreciate that self-interest very often creates positive change in surprising ways. B.C. guide-outfitters, for instance, often end up as passionate advocates of saving old-growth forest, because logging disrupts grizzly-bear habitat.
Unfortunately, history is littered with any number of catastrophes that resulted from leaving industry insufficiently supervised.
When oversight falters, terrible things happen. Surely we’ve devastated enough fisheries, forests, mines and pristine wilderness in B.C. alone to have seen that for ourselves, and that’s not even counting things like the leaky-condo debacle, toxic prescription drugs, corporate fraud and numerous other examples of industry malfeasance.
I don’t mean to suggest that anything like that is going on in B.C.’s hunting industry. No doubt most folks in the industry are abiding by the rules, even in the absence of significant enforcement on the ground.
Yet we still need to think long and hard about what it would mean to shift to “outcome-based” oversight of the industry, as detailed in the ministry’s service plan.
For those not used to the jargon, achieving an outcome simply means you accomplished a specific goal. You made more money. Found more customers. Saved more lives. Gave better service.
But when it comes to natural resources, outcomes are a tricky business. On the one hand, industry could turn out to be better stewards of the resource than government itself. On the other, maybe not - and the damage could be irreparable by the time we realize that under an outcome-based regulatory system.
The challenge lies in balancing the needs of today against those of tomorrow. The reason B.C.’s rural economies are floundering right now is because previous generations didn’t get that balance right. We’ll be picking up the pieces from our shattered forest and fishing industries for a long time to come.
In terms of managing B.C. wildlife for the future, 20,000 more hunters isn’t likely to be the tipping point that brings things crashing down. The same can’t be said for handing over to industry the bulk of regulatory control for this precious resource.

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