The Shifting Baseline

[Note: The following was first published in the January 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

People of my age and older can remember (if barely) when a cup of coffee cost only five cents. Of course, in those days a person could also make a good living earning $5,000 or less a year. On the other hand, if you were born in the 1970s, you probably remember a cup of coffee costing as little as $0.50 and the idea of a nickel cup of coffee might seem absurd and perhaps a myth. However, that nickel coffee is part of the baseline information I use when evaluating the ever-increasing cost of living. Yours might be that $0.50 or a $1.00 cup of coffee. We both have seen the loss of a dollar’s purchasing power but from different perspectives.

2014-09 Meredith-BeaverPond-1

Is our shifting information baseline threatening landscapes outside provincial parks?

Similarly, someone born in the 1940s or ‘50s most likely assesses the extent of the degradation of our environment differently than someone born in the ‘80s or ‘90s. For example, I grew up when the only reasons for releasing a fish back into the water were because it was too small or otherwise undesirable. Going fishing just to catch and release fish and not eat them was a foreign concept. Indeed, when catch-and-release regulations were first proposed, I had a difficult time understanding the concept. If you weren’t going to eat the fish, why catch them? Perhaps it’s better just to close the water body to fishing, and wait until the fish populations improve…? But working in the business, I soon realized it was important anglers be allowed to catch fish, even if they can’t keep them or we would soon lose many supporters of the resource. And as the years and decades passed, it became obvious that many of our dwindling fisheries resources could not sustain consumption harvests.

Now, as an angler born in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s you might have assumed that catch-and-release fishing has always been around. If so then you might conclude that stressed fisheries have always been the case and things today aren’t much different. Well yes, stressed fisheries have been around for a long time but not to the extent they are today. Many of the lakes and streams I used to fish back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s had abundant populations of popular game fish. In Alberta in those days, northern pike were considered by many to be trash fish because they got in the way of catching the more desirable walleye or perch. Today, of course, pike are considered a most desirable sport fish because they put up a good fight and, depending on the water body and size limits, you can actually take one home to eat once in a while.

I could give similar examples of loss of wildlife and habitat. However, in terms of big game, the reverse is true. Back in the early 20th century, populations of elk and deer in the province had collapsed. The tireless work of concerned hunters—who lobbied the government for better laws, regulations and enforcement—led to better fish and wildlife management and the creation of the Fish and Wildlife Division. As a result, we have enjoyed quality hunting in this province for most of the latter part of the 20th century into the 21st century.

Much of that success in the early to mid 1900s was the result of many legislators also being hunters and anglers. They too saw the deteriorating habitats and loss of big game and didn’t take too much convincing that something needed to be done about it. In other words the lobbyists and legislators worked from the same baseline of information.

2015-10 Meredith-GhostMain-2

Are devastated landscapes the new norm?

Sadly, that is no longer the case. I don’t have information about the hunting and fishing habits of our Members of the Legislative Assembly but based on their actions in the last many years I would speculate that few hunt and fish. Yes, some—especially government ministers—have stated they do so, but their actions in support of fish and wildlife conservation have left a lot to be desired.

AEP Business Plan
The new NDP government appears to be working from the same baseline of information their predecessors used as evidenced in the Alberta Environment and Parks Business Plan 2015-18 (PDF, published as part of the 2015 budget process,). In that document fish and wildlife are barely mentioned, then only as a revenue item where it is noted that in 2013-14 fishing licence sales dropped by 1.1% and hunting licence sales increased by 6.5% (sales targets for the following years will be based on “Rolling average of last five years’ results”…?). Yes, there are mentions of invasive species, biodiversity and species-at-risk, but nothing to indicate anything that might support fishing, hunting or trapping. Except of course for “Desired Outcome One: Environment and ecosystem health and integrity,” where, “fish and wildlife harvest limits” are listed as one of the many factors essential “To protect Alberta’s environment and ecosystem.” There is no mention of habitat, except perhaps in the Priority Initiatives that mention completing and implementing regional plans—and of course, Parks.

Alberta Parks
As part of the department’s reorganization after the election, Alberta Parks was added, changing the name of the department to Alberta Environment and Parks. As such, Parks was given divisional status—the same status that Fish and Wildlife use to have (Fish and Wildlife as an entity is found as one of the many branches in the Policy and Planning Division—Fish and Wildlife Policy Branch). Personally, I’m glad to see Parks retain such status. Provincial Parks have too long been neglected in this province and they provide the opportunity to retain and improve wildlife habitat; and in terms of wildland parks, quality hunting and fishing experiences. However, as I’ve stated here before, Fish and Wildlife’s loss of divisional status and a seat in the executive board room is a slap in the face to the conservationists who fought so hard over the decades to keep fish and wildlife conservation on the government’s agenda.

Fish and Wildlife
The closest things to fish and wildlife conservation mentioned in the business plan are the vague references to biodiversity and species-at-risk. Now biodiversity is important; our ecosystems require the widest diversity of species to keep them healthy. Likewise, species-at-risk are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine,” their distress telling us much about the health of our environment. But the management of game species populations also tells us much about our environment, and includes the involvement of citizens who actually spend time in field and stream, and not just experience their wildlife and wild areas on a TV screen or an annual trip to the mountains. Good fish and wildlife management requires the support of people committed to the resource through their connections and experiences with pieces of the landscape.

I fear what we see today—stressed fisheries, deteriorating wildlife habitat, and dwindling public support—will become the new baseline from which future generations will judge fish and wildlife management in this province. As such, are hunters and anglers just a minor revenue source for the government, a footnote to the history of conservation in this province? I hope that’s not the case, because if it is true then we have lost a lot, including the will to bring it back.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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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.
This entry was posted in Alberta, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Shifting Baseline

  1. Stan Franklin says:

    Another great post Don.


    Sent from my iPad


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