[Note: The following was first published in the October 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
Back in May of 2008 the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed Bill 201, the Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Heritage Act. There was a lot of fanfare and pats on the back in the hunting, fishing and trapping communities because their lobbying to enshrine these rights into law had finally paid off.
The bill is simple enough, only one page of text. After the preamble of requisite whereas statements outlining the role of hunting, fishing and trapping in Alberta’s heritage, wildlife conservation and the needs of future generations, the bill lists only two sections. Section 1 states that “A person has a right to hunt, fish and trap in accordance with the law” and that law includes “the Wildlife Act, the Fisheries Act (Canada), the Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) and the regulations made under those Acts.” Section 2 states “Nothing in this Act derogates from any aboriginal right to hunt, fish or trap.”
And that’s it—short and sweet with no confusing cross-references to obscure subsections pages away or in other bills, as often found in legislation. Indeed, the private member’s bill (introduced by the late Len Mitzel) received royal assent less than a month after first reading in the legislature—not an easy feat for any piece of legislation, let alone a private member’s bill. It passed so quickly because there was little or no debate, as the bill was stating what was already a fact in the province: people can hunt, fish and trap, provided they do so lawfully. In reality it was a “motherhood” statement that was now cast into law.
But was it enough? If you read the bill carefully, you realize the legislation does not prevent specific hunting, fishing and trapping rights being taken away through changes to the mentioned provincial and federal acts and regulations. For example, the right to hunt grizzly bears or catch and keep bull trout was taken away via a regulation change. Those and other changes didn’t take away your overall right to hunt or fish, just your right to hunt or fish certain species or in certain locations. If we are indeed to lose our right to hunt, fish or trap, it will most likely occur piecemeal as the government closes the season for each species that can no longer sustain a harvest. In effect, we have already seen that in our fishing regulations. In many water bodies, we can no longer harvest fish. As well, a succeeding government could rescind the bill by the passage of another act. So, while it was good to have our legislature recognize hunting, fishing and trapping as legitimate activities, Bill 201 didn’t provide any real protection for those activities.
What would provide that protection? In my opinion, a better piece of legislation would have also guaranteed the protection of sufficient wild spaces that support diverse ecosystems (i.e., biodiversity) including viable populations of fish, game and furbearers, such that fishing, hunting and trapping in these areas can be sustained. Of course, such legislation would not have passed quite as quickly, but the debate might have educated the legislators in what is needed to sustain a valuable heritage, and that maybe exploitation of our resources needs to be slowed to accommodate that heritage.
The problem with any legislation is that it is only as good as the will to enforce it. As pointed out in Lorne Fitch’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou? (July 2017), there are already numerous pieces of legislation and agreements between various governments to protect and maintain biodiversity, including species-at-risk. But where the boots hit the ground, governments are reluctant to enforce those rules for fear of slowing the economy.
One of the best examples is this province’s treatment of woodland caribou, a threatened species that used to be hunted. Despite ample warnings that this iconic species was in trouble, the province granted rights to forestry and petroleum companies to mow down the animal’s prime winter habitat. Then in a desperate bid to show the federal government that they were doing something to protect the caribou, expensive programs to eradicate wolves and reduce moose numbers were employed in the area where the most distressed herds are found. Meanwhile the resource companies continued to tear down the one thing the caribou need to survive: their habitat. The lesson continues not to be learned. If you want a diverse economy and a high quality of life, then you must preserve sufficient wildlands. What’s sufficient? How about protecting enough wildlands to sustain hunting, fishing and trapping, and maintain species-at-risk?
Why are species-at-risk so important? As Fitch stated in his essay, and I’ve said several times in this space, it’s because species-at-risk are the “canaries in the coal mine.” Their impending demise is telling us that our ecosystems (that support all life, including us) are in trouble.
To be fair, our current government has been attempting to provide more protection for our wildlands. The creation of the Castle parks was a good step in the right direction (and despite what you hear, you can still hunt and fish there). But there is still a lot more to do to roll back the damage that previous governments allowed to happen, especially in our headwater areas and the woodland caribou ranges in our north.
Last year, the government announced its plans for woodland caribou, and especially for the two most critical herds (if you don’t count the oil sands herds), the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds. Again, the plans were positive steps forward, especially for the herds in the northwest and north-central portions of the province. However, as I mentioned in my August 2016 column, the plans for the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds (near Grande Cache) are woefully insufficient. Having to depend on a wolf cull and a “caribou rearing facility” to restore the herd, while we wait the 100 or more years for the habitat to grow back after the forestry and oil companies finish their work, is truly a non-starter.
As Lorne Fitch facetiously suggested, perhaps it’s time to write the caribou off and let the business of resource exploitation continue unabated. But that would just continue the nickel and diming away of our right to have wild places and benefit from the species that occupy those places. When we lose a species, we lose a part of what makes us whole as human beings. As ecosystems lose their diversity, they also lose their ability to cope with change, such as the change that is happening with our climate. If we want to continue to have a diverse choice of outdoor experiences, we need to be protecting a diversity of wild landscapes and environments.
Perhaps it is time for the government to start asking its citizens just what kind of Alberta they want to see in the next decades. With our continuing human population growth, climate change and a limited amount of resources, we need to see a vision of the future that goes beyond four years. We need to see how we are going to cope with the coming changes while holding on to what we value in terms of our heritage and human experience. Instead of nickel and diming our rights away, maybe we should be investing in them.
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