Interesting Times

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

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

The supposedly ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” (as it turns out, neither ancient nor Chinese) definitely describes the situation we find ourselves in Alberta. We have a government that was elected under a leader who disgraced herself and resigned. Then the new premier, yet to seek a mandate, successfully enticed the leader of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” and some of her colleagues to cross the floor and join the governing party. The latter done without so much as a “by-your-leave” for the people who elected them. (Note: as of this posting in April of 2015, the premier called an election for May 5, 2015.)

So, now we have a smaller and very ineffectual opposition, scrambling to figure out how they are going to do what “Her Majesty” would want them to do, that is, ensure the government is accountable to the people who elected them! There is no precedent for this situation in the history of parliamentary democracies around the world. Oppositions don’t join governments. Oppositions oppose governments!

We Albertans, however, are used to overwhelming government majorities as we seem to prefer a virtual one-party state—as I’ve said before, a defining trait of a petro-state. We suffer because we make such a choice. What’s happened over the last few years with fish, wildlife and environmental conservation in this province is just one example of the damage overwhelming majorities can do. Somewhere in the backrooms of our successive Progressive Conservative governments, it was decided that our fish, wildlife and environment needed to get out of the way of petroleum and other resource development. The dismantling of the Fish and Wildlife Division was just one step along the way.

Of course, in this time of considerable public concern about the environment, a government cannot admit that it has sidelined these issues. Instead it pays lip service to the concerns, asking Albertans to trust the people in charge, that they are looking after things. However, you can only carry this ruse so far. Eventually, actions speak louder than words.

For example, have your fishing opportunities improved over the last few years? As Ray Makowecki reported in his article, “60 Million Dollars, Fish Habitat Development and Enhancement in Alberta” in the December 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen, we have lost much fisheries habitat in this province, despite anglers contributing $4.5 million dollars each year to the Alberta Conservation Association for fisheries development. It is impossible for fisheries management to keep up with all the habitat destruction associated with resource development, especially when rules and regulations are ignored and not enforced. It seems it is much easier for government to put more restrictions on what anglers can catch than spend the money to protect what we have and improve on it.

The tar sands, of course, are the “poster child” of Alberta’s actions on conserving the environment. They were developed way too quickly before technology could solve such problems as what to do with waste and the resultant settling ponds, pollution of the Athabasca River and the threats to the health and lifestyle of people living downstream and downwind of the projects. Not to mention the wholesale stripping away of entire ecosystems, disemboweling whole populations of wildlife, including threatened ones. Oh yes, and the huge green-house-gas issue.

A more measured approach to the development of this controversial resource, as former Premier Peter Lougheed had originally envisioned, would have gone a long way to make it more acceptable on the world stage—especially if environmental and health concerns had been taken seriously. Instead, we had a government denying the results of independent scientific studies that confirmed what anyone familiar with the processes taking place would have predicted—the tar sands were being developed in an environmentally unsustainable manner.

The absurdity of the government’s public communications on the issue reached its zenith in 2013 when the Alberta Energy Regulator approved Brion Energy’s Dover Project to develop the tar sands in northeast Alberta. The approval acknowledged that the project and resultant loss of key habitat would lead to the demise of two populations of the threatened woodland caribou. However, that was O.K. because the company had committed to a wolf culling program to help conserve the caribou. In other words, we’ll extirpate and protect the caribou at the same time. No wonder this government has such little credibility with regard to environmental matters.

The ongoing wolf cull in the Little Smokey region of northwest Alberta also defies logic. The expensive and highly controversial program traps, shoots from the air and poisons wolves because they just might push the woodland caribou in the area into extirpation. However, that extirpation has already been assured by the government failing to regulate the forest and petroleum industries in their destruction of caribou habitat. Whatever caribou are left are not going to survive, regardless of how many wolves you kill. Indeed, as Bob Stewart reported in last November’s Alberta Outdoorsmen (“How Many Dead Wolves…”), if you are going to kill the wolves to preserve the caribou, you better also take out the black bears, who kill several times more caribou calves than wolves. However, it does not matter how much expensive predator control you apply if you are not going to protect the habitat! Yet, despite articles criticising the program in scientific journals and protests from environmental and local trapper organizations, the government continues its bull-headed communications tactic of “trust us, we know best.” Something a government facing a viable opposition in the legislature would do at its peril.

And speaking of culls and communication flubs, the Suffield elk situation (as described in Sheri Monk’s article, “Sufferin’ Suffield” in the February Alberta Outdoorsmen) boggles the mind with all the mismanagement and confusion. What was a good story about reintroducing elk to their former habitat turned into a nightmare. Why? Well, lack of coordination between governments (federal/provincial) didn’t help, but not opening the base to hunters when the elk first exceeded what biologists had determined the habitat could support was obviously the major blunder. Now, it is going to take years of cull hunts to bring the population down to manageable size.

Were the governments talking to each other? If one level of government wants another to take some action, it often requires ministers or deputy ministers to converse. Was senior management in Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) involved in the Suffield decisions? When there was a Fish and Wildlife Division there was at least an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) who could make sure fish and wildlife issues requiring ministerial action were brought forward at high level meetings. Is there anyone in the senior management of ESRD speaking for fish and wildlife anymore? If you look at the ESRD organization chart, it certainly doesn’t look like it. The first thing you notice is that the newly acquired Parks has divisional status, including an ADM to bring park issues forward. The highest managerial level recognizable as fish and wildlife is Executive Director in the Fish and Wildlife Policy and the Wildlife Management branches of the Policy Division. Knowing all the issues and concerns facing ESRD, how easy do you think it is for these directors to get the attention of their ADMs and eventually the minister?

Yes, we indeed live in interesting times. But how much longer are we going to “trust” our government to do the right thing and protect what Albertans actually value.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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4 Responses to Interesting Times

  1. Elaine Fleming says:

    Don, we have been camping throughout the U.S. this last month- Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho. Beautiful scenery in a lot of places, particularly national parks, but the historical information at all of the interpretive centres refers to the species that used to live in these places. Grizzlies, wolves, bighorn sheep, and many others have been extirpated in a very short time through unfettered development and the “libertarian” ethic.

    There is also great attachment to the “right to bear arms”. Corner stores selling”guns and ammo”, road signs that say, “Report Shooting from Highway”; I saw a young father in Cottonwood, Arizona get out of his truck momentarily, baby in carseat in the back- with a gun in a holster on his hip.

    One of the species still around in some places, the pronghorn antelope, is in trouble and there is virtually no effort to save it. It is a travesty that we still have opportunities to save our iconic species and our government won’t raise a finger. There needs to be a change.

    • Don Meredith says:

      Thanks, Elaine. I grew up in California where the state flag has a grizzly bear on it; the only problem being the bears were extirpated in the 19th century. Lots of stories like that. What’s a shame is that there are solutions but no politicians willing to address them because greed runs our political and economic systems. I agree with Naomi Klein in her book “This Changes Everything” that true change will not come from the top but from the bottom up. Corporations and governments are going to have to be confronted and it’s not going to be pretty. Pipelines are just the beginning.

  2. Carl Hunt says:

    Alberta, “we seem to prefer a virtual one-party state— a defining trait of a petro-state”!
    Where else would the provincial energy regulator (AER) be controlled by the industry or Canadian Association Of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and be made responsible for Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA)?
    Where else would the public ignore the fact that most of our native salmonids in East Slopes trout streams are listed as ‘species at risk’ or ‘threatened’, including native, Westslope Cutthroat trout, Athabasca rainbow trout, Bull trout and Arctic grayling? Going, going, gone?
    Fish habitat destruction from the cumulative impacts of hanging culverts blocking fish movements and the insidious impacts of sediment, destroying spawning habitat and excessive forest canopy removal impacts on increased frequency and severity of flood events – will not be corrected or repaired for many decades with advertising or even ‘best practices’.
    Maybe Albertans really don’t value our renewable resources.

    • Jim Stelfox says:

      It seems like the government’s primary response to these problems is to hire more communications staff………aka spin doctors.

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