Abrogating Responsibility

[Note: The following was first published in the January 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Abrogate: 1) to end or cancel something in a formal way; 2) to fail to do what is required (e.g., abrogate responsibility).

I’ve used the phrase “abrogation of responsibility” often in this column, describing what our federal and provincial governments have not done to conserve our environment and various renewable resources, such as fish and wildlife. It’s not a term I use loosely, although it might appear that way. When you are elected to govern a people, you acquire certain responsibilities that go along with the job (e.g., “peace, order and good government”), including protecting the environment and its services for the benefit of all.

Beaver Pond

Our wild places are under threat until the government steps up to take responsibility.

Common law—dating back at least to the reign of King Henry VIII and reaffirmed by formal law and court in Europe and North America—firmly placed responsibility for ensuring the viability of our fish and wildlife in the hands of our governments. However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century in North America that citizens began to demand their governments step up and do something about the loss of wildlife that was occurring at an alarming rate. Up until that time it was just naturally assumed our wildlife and other renewable resources would always be with us and that their use and abuse would not have serious effect (despite evidence to the contrary in Europe). As our human population grew and technologies improved allowing us to kill more animals and tear up habitat more efficiently, it was becoming obvious those assumptions were wrong. Our renewable resources were at risk, especially with the uncontrolled exploitation of our non-renewable resources (minerals, coal, petroleum, land).

As I and others have related here and elsewhere, it was hunters, anglers and trappers who led the charge. Why? Because they were on the land and saw what was going on. They were the ones who organized themselves to lobby politicians and eventually form groups and associations to demonstrate the political power behind their voices. They were the ones who got the changes made, and pushed to have dedicated government agencies formed to ensure someone was always looking after fish and wildlife resources. They were the ones who pushed universities and colleges to develop curriculum to educate and train fisheries and wildlife biologists and enforcement officers.

All that effort worked and by the 1950s there were fish and wildlife agencies in practically every major jurisdiction in North America, working with their prospective governments to ensure the conservation of our natural resources was a serious consideration in any development. Indeed, they worked to ensure certain tracks of land were set aside for the sole purpose of protecting wildlife and their habitats. The result was that wildlife populations made remarkable comebacks, and fishing, hunting, trapping and wildlife viewing opportunities increased.

However, many both inside and outside government were not happy with all the restrictions on resource development. Fish and wildlife agencies and their offspring, environment departments, kept getting in the way of grand schemes to exploit resources. Having to create and implement plans to mitigate environmental damage increased costs and wasn’t good for the bottom line of private companies and those invested in them. Greed is a powerful motivator and governments are easily convinced that jobs and wealth should always have priority, since short-term goals are more easily realized than long-term ones.

So, it’s not surprising that governments since the 1960s have continually sought to reduce the regulatory and enforcement power of conservation and environmental agencies. Over my career in conservation in this province I’ve watched these reductions occur over the decades, from the steady reduction in enforcement and biological staff to the crippling of operational budgets, making it impossible for staff to do much of their mandated work.

Of course, all of this was ramped up when Ralph Klein’s government took power in the 1990s and declared Alberta “open for business.” For example, the tar sands were opened en masse before adequate solutions were found for crucial environmental issues, such as tailings ponds, air and water pollution, not to mention the mass execution of whole wildlife populations (through habitat clearing), including threatened ones, such as woodland caribou.

Finally, the mask came off when the Allison Redford government decided to do away with the Fish and Wildlife Division altogether and roll what was left of its functions into an expanded Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) department. The fish and wildlife officers were cleaved off to Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, while other staff was sent to various administrative silos in AESRD.

Still others, along with some environment staff, were siphoned off to newly formed, so-called “public agencies”, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA, a name only a bureaucrat could love). These agencies are “arms length” from the government but governed by government-appointed boards. They have taken over much of the regulatory and environmental monitoring AESRD used to do.

The problem with these agencies is that we really don’t know much about them. Their web sites are slick but don’t say a lot except to introduce their boards of directors, most of who have little background in renewable resource management but considerable in energy development. To be fair, they are in the early stages of organization and we’ll have to wait and see whether they are truly going to improve the environmental record of this government.


Can we afford to place environmental management in the hands of private, arms-length agencies?

However, I find myself having considerable concerns about our government turning over the management of public-owned resources and our environment to non-government agencies with no discernible accountability to the public. Besides a minister (who can be replaced at the whim of a premiere), who is overseeing these agencies? Who is directing them? Will the public have input? If so, will these agencies actually listen? Or will they just placate people with hearings and surveys, and move on to furthering the agenda of those who appointed their boards of directors?

These arms-length agencies are not a good sign for a province with the dismal environmental record Alberta has developed over the last few years. For example:
* oil sands air and water pollution,
* tailings pond waterfowl deaths
* the inability to preserve enough habitat to protect the threatened woodland caribou—an iconic Canadian species
* the absolute embarrassment of maintaining a wolf culling program that kills more than wolves while providing no long-term benefit to the threatened caribou
* failure to apply effective fisheries management to lakes and streams.

To me, the creation of these agencies is a further abrogation of the fundamental responsibility we have placed in our governments’ hands to ensure the viability of fish and wildlife populations, habitats and the environment. But that abrogation doesn’t stop with government. What have you done lately to let your friendly politician know about your concerns for the future of your fish, wildlife and environmental heritage? And, once again I must ask the question: where is the Alberta Fish and Game Association in these matters? It was the key group who demanded the creation of a fish and wildlife agency back in the early 20th century. How does it feel about the disassembly of that agency and the squirreling away of its mandate? Why is the AFGA silent now?


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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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2 Responses to Abrogating Responsibility

  1. Carl Hunt says:

    Hi Don,
    This is an excellent description of the serious loss of many fish & wildlife species in Alberta. Even anglers don’t seem to realize that ALL our native trout in East Slopes rivers and streams are listed as “At RIsk” or “Threatened” and even some of the small species are at risk. The Alberta govt claims, “historical five year trends in _ _ _ fishing populations show a steady increase over time.” This is based on five years and 267 thou lic anglers in 2014, but Alberta had over 330 thou anglers in 1985, when AB had half the human population.
    In 2005, 40% of fish species in Alberta were “Secure”; with 25% “At Risk, May Be At Risk or Sensitive and 16% “Undetermined”, which suggests that over 40% of our native fish populations are not secure or not surveyed.
    I can’t comprehend why anglers are not protesting to politicians and specifically to the Minister.
    I guess anglers and politicians have “abrogated their responsibility” for a healthy environment.

  2. Quentin Bochar says:

    I to would like to know where the AFGA’s stance on all of this is as well.

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