by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Killing an Endangered Species: Does It Make Sense?
What I’m about to write about makes no sense, is an astounding example of ... what? Stupidity for sure, and much else, none of it good, and all of it funded by me, unwillingly, and the rest of Ontario’s taxpayers, most of them unknowingly.
Where do I begin? Let’s go back a few centuries, just briefly. Ontario was different back then, and one difference was the presence of animal species, some staggeringly abundant, who subsequently were wiped out. One of those was the large deer we call the “elk,” or “wapiti” to give it a name that avoids confusion with the Eurasian “elk,” which we would call a “moose.”
(John James Audubon illustration, 1847)
Whatever it is called, there was an eastern subspecies that was entirely exterminated. But it was very similar to (some experts say identical with) the subspecies that survives in the west. And so, between 1900 and 1912, the Ontario government imported some of the western animals, but those elk did poorly and failed to establish themselves. In 1930 the government imported and released another small herd of elk, and then killed most of them because the animals were found to have liver flukes. In those days it was wrongly assumed that the flukes, a type of worm-like parasite, could be transmitted to livestock. We now know that the flukes posed no such risk.
While a few elk survived from those early efforts, the herd never expanded. And so in 1998-99 more elk were imported and released in a small number of locations, all near the northern limit of the historic elk’s range in eastern North America. The Lake of the Woods population went from 104 animals at time of the release down to 35; the Nipissing/French River numbers went from 172 a decade ago to 130. The ones at the Lake Huron North Show held their own at a small number, a little over 100. The only group that showed significant increase was in a part of eastern Ontario called Bancroft/North Hastings. Still, there aren’t very many, just some 467 individual animals at last count.
If any non-games native species existed in such a small number it would be listed under the province’s endangered species legislation and given full protection. But not the elk. This fall the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources will allow hunters to kill 70 of the Hastings herd, and farmers bothered by the animals will be allowed to kill any elk who is guilty of eating farm crops.
Huh? The government has been trying to bring the species back for more than a century, and what little preliminary success it has had is now to be compromised by destroying a significant part of the herd. Does that make sense to you?
I wrote about this travesty before and many letters protesting the decision have gone to the Natural Resources Minister, the Hon. Linda Jeffrey, but it seems that she won’t stand up to the “old boys network” of pro-hunting types who are a minority of the population but who so dominate Ministry policy, acting as though consumptive resources users are their only constituents.
Part of the “problem” is that some people like to feed the elk, which encourages them to visit farms. Some of the elk are quite tame. Surely feeding could be phased out and made illegal. It could be argued that farmers who can show genuine economic losses due to elk should be compensated, although better yet would be to work on non-lethal conflict resolution. That’s because you can have elk and any problems associated with their presence, or no elk and no such problems, but not both. Killing resolves nothing unless the purpose is not to restore elk, only maintain enough for people to shoot.
Personally I don’t think the elk should have been reintroduced in the first place. Most of the traditional habitat the species once occupied is gone, and the money spent, private or public, could better be spent in true conservation endeavors.
And I know that any animal who dares to become common and is easily noticed invariably becomes a “nuisance” to some people.
I have no serious doubt that it was the plan from the outset, always unwritten and unspoken, to dip into the public purse to provide yet another target for the small but vocal part of our population that likes to kill such magnificent creatures. I have no doubt that there are computer models that show the slaughter of the animals won’t cause the collapse of the herd, but computer models invariably are limited in their ability to predict the outcome of such “harvesting.” The herd’s survival is precarious; killing off 70 plus won’t help them to survive.
Surely if the hunters must be placated and the non-hunting majority of taxpayers must provide them with living targets, the Ministry can at least wait for the species to be truly established in the province before allowing the shooters to have their way.