The Myth of Hyper-Abundance
By Barry Kent MacKay
As I write, Parks Canada is consulting with interested Canadians to decide how to deal with the captive elk in Elk Island National Park just 35 kilometres east of Edmonton. For years elk from within the park have been relocated, but for now it appears that for various reasons relocation is not longer an option. Instead the park’s staff is looking at other “options”, and they include a hunt to remove some 200 animals. Most people would probably assume that the animals are safe from such a threat in a National Park.
Before we get into the specifics, let me say that as a naturalist I have a life-long association with zoologists and wildlife managers. I separate the two while acknowledging that these professions can overlap, with no hard-edged line between them. And yet they are different.
Put simplistically, to me zoologists and other scientists who study animals seek to determine what is true, to build on our understanding of how things work by observing, experimenting and correcting past conclusions as new information refines knowledge.
And put it just as simplistically, I think that wildlife managers, who may be, and often are, also scientists in terms of their training and methodologies, and who use the same terms and language used by scientists, ultimately serve political ends, not so much seeking knowledge for its own sake, but to further an agenda, usually to satisfy various demands made by their political bosses.
Science is supposedly “value-neutral”. Compassion is a “value”. Part of scientific methodology requires experimentation following observation in the interest of closing in on truth, actuality and understanding.
Wildlife management is not directed toward truth and understanding, generally speaking, so much as it is directed toward achieving a political goal, a purpose in the interests of whomever the wildlife managers serve, which are ultimately political, economic, and/or social.
That brings us to Elk Island National Park, and the situation we face in 2017 as we are concerned that the intent of Parks Canada is to kill about 200 elk within the park.
It comes down to a concept much beloved by wildlife managers: “hyper-abundance” and its derivatives I have come to detest that word, and others like it, such as “over-abundant”. They of course mean that there are “too many” of whatever species, in this case elk. They are employed to justify both a lack of compassion and respect for the natural forces that have been in play and guided life for the last three billion years. Too often wildlife managers will apply scientific, or pseudo-scientific, terminology and methodology in ways that make it look as though they are objective, fact-driven and reflective of current scientific knowledge.
Don’t be fooled. Hyper-abundance is a human construct, an idea that has no natural origin. It’s true that the numbers of any given animal or plant species can vary enormously and that there are times when the amount of food available is less than the amount needed for every individual of a species that eats it, to be able to survive.
Let us say that a species we’ll call X has a huge dependency on a food we’ll call Y. Normally X thrives because Y is common. When there is a decrease in Y, for whatever reason many, of X become undernourished, maybe even starve.
That sort of thing happens all the time, and has done so for literally billions of years.
To me it seems that wildlife managers are unclear and inconsistent about what constitutes hyper-abundance, and that’s true whether they are federal or provincial employees. We have often been told, for example, that white-tailed deer are “hyper-abundant”. For example, one official at the Ontario Ministry of Environment told Liz White that there were “ten times” more deer now than in the past, in defense of an annual “hunt” or “cull” that takes place in Short Hills Provincial Park, each winter. Short Hills is Ontario’s smallest provincial park at a mere 6.6 km2 or 735 hectares.
Since it was established in 1985 the park was what most of us perhaps think a provincial or national park should be — a place of refuge for wildlife and humans alike. Too small to maintain a residential staff, it nevertheless had scenic hiking trails and bridges, all safely maintained, and was open to anyone, for free. For all its smallness it is still the largest such park in the Niagara region, and a popular place to visit, being nearly attached to the city of St. Catherines (population 131,000).
Since 2013 the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) has, for a few days each winter, closed the park off, or tried to (people can enter from any direction) and assisted hunters armed with crossbows to shoot deer. I have heard from both the MNRF and hunters that the hunt is aimed at reducing numbers of deer, as though there were too many.
But in fact, there is plenty of browse, of underbrush, and the deer that have been shot and examined by MNRF biologists are in good health. No sign of “hyper-abundance”, and no threatened or endangered species in the park seems to be at any real risk from the deer. Does who have been shot were pregnant and, until killed, in good health.
I’m not a scientist, but here is what a friend of mine who is a scientist, Dr. David Lavigne, formerly a professor at the University of Guelph and author of numerous peer-reviewed published scientific papers, had to say about the concept of “hyper-abundance”:
In my humble (scientific) opinion, the term “hyper-abundant” has absolutely NO scientific validity. I don’t know who invented the term, but Parks Canada “scientists” have spent years defining it and trying to justify it as a basis for culling … and, as you know, Parks Canada culls just about anywhere they can, i.e. in virtually every park under their “care”.
The terms “over-abundant” and, later, hyper-abundant (to emphasize just how overabundant a species might be) presume you know how many animals should be in a particular place at a particular time. As I (and others) pointed out years ago, science can’t tell you the ideal number of animals of a given species that should live in a given area at a specific time. Without that guidance, how can there be any basis for evaluating when a population exceeds that unknown number by a bit (over-abundance) or a lot (hyper-abundance)?
So, the terms “over-abundant” and “hyper-abundant” are simply value judgements promulgated by inept or dishonest “scientists” who don’t seem (or want) to understand just how unscientific they are being when they use such terms. What they actually mean is that there are more, or many more, animals than they (or their clients) want on the land or in the water. … As we pointed out (yet again) in a recent paper on animal welfare and conservation, science tells us that humans are part of “nature” — just another species — and not the “rulers” of the world that they see themselves to be.
Yes, [“hyper-abundant”] is a propaganda word, promoted by individuals masquerading as scientists…and passed on to bureaucrats, managers and politicians…none of whom seem to know that the term has absolutely no basis in science. Regardless, the term has been used so often that it has become part of the mythology and is used almost universally to justify the culling of animals.
The results at Short Hills has been no reduction of deer (indeed, according to the MNRF’s own surveys, there has been a slight increase in numbers) while neighbouring home owners have seen diminishing property values, endured trespass, and the sight of wounded deer, as well as a serious deterioration in the quality of the trails and bridges in the park, including an increase in garbage and litter and gut piles.
The fact is, as Dr. Lavigne has said, the wildlife managers (as distinct from scientists) have decided they know how many animals there “should” be at a particular place at a particular time. I’d go further and suggest that they apply this very value-laden decision only to certain species, such as (but not limited to) deer, elk, cormorants, geese, moose, mute swans, bears, coyotes and so on.
The Problem with Wildlife Management – An example:
There is a group of sea birds I prefer to call by their technical name, Sulids, because the common name of most of the species, boobies, tends to evoke tittering amusement. Gannets, which nest in huge colonies along the North Atlantic coasts, are also Sulids. There are ten Sulid species in all and all are “plunge divers”, who catch fish by diving from the air deep into the ocean. All but two species normally lay either one or two eggs. The Blue-footed Booby may lay three, but normally only two. But the Peruvian Booby lays two to four, with an average of four.
Why is that?
The Peruvian Booby is one of a suite of seabirds that nest in vast numbers on island sea-cliffs off the west coast of South America. This region is famed for the Humboldt Current, an upwelling of cold, oxygen-rich seawater that in turn has historically supported a truly astounding biomass of fish, including the small, herring-like species marketed as “anchovies”. Each species of Sulid has evolved a “strategy” to maximize survival of young based on its environment, and historically the environment of the Peruvian Booby has produced vast amounts of food that can easily support huge numbers of the birds and their large clutch of fast growing young, more young than any other Sulid produces per year.
But, every four years or so, that current fails to materialize. These are called “el niño” years, and are associated with various forms of climate disruption. During el niño years there are mass die-offs of Peruvian Boobies. Many chicks hatch, only to starve, unlike non- el niño years, when starvation does not occur. If, like the Northern Gannet, the Peruvian Booby laid only one egg, the die-offs could seriously compromise species survival, but because they lay about three eggs, so long as the cold water returns they will again have time to build the population back up to its normally enormous size before the next el niño event.
By typical wildlife management criteria this extremely common species could be termed “hyper-abundant” in el niño years, and yet it is really no such thing. We hate to see baby birds die of starvation, yes, but we know that there is no conservation concern, or wasn’t, until two changes started to occur: climate change, which may lead to an acceleration in frequency of el niño years, and overfishing made possible by so many technological advances in finding, catching, preserving, shipping and marketing fish taken from a once huge, but still finite, population.
Notice that each of these situations is different, yet similar, in that criteria used to define hyper-abundant can be applied to them, depending ultimately on factors that have nothing to do with conservation. Mind you, “conservation” concerns are also sometimes evoked to rationalize culling of “hyper-abundant” animals, but we will deal with that elsewhere.
Back to Elk Island:
Which brings us back to Elk Island. It is almost literally an “island”, fenced in and with farmland and urban sprawl, not water, surrounding a beautifully forested habitat suitable for elk, deer and bison, but minus many of the elements to be found in more natural habitat. To all intents it is a zoo, or a farm, where elk are restricted in isolation from natural disease and predators.
We were disturbed when wildlife managers decided to mislead the public, citing concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) as a rationale for reducing the Elk Island National Park’s elk herd. CWD is a rather mysterious, fatal neurological disorder that has been found in elk and other deer species (elk, moose, caribou and deer are all “Cervids”, members of the deer family). This was similar to an argument we heard about those Short Hills National Park White-tailed Deer, that they carried Lyme disease, which is transmitted via ticks found in mice and other small mammals.
But no CWD has been found in Elk Island National Park. For that matter, there has been no Lyme disease found in ticks or deer in Short Hills.
But unlike the situation with deer in Short Hills, who are free to enter and leave a park that adjoins plenty of suitable habitat and food sources where they are subjected to hunting, accidents and natural predation, the elk in Elk Island National Park are not free to come and go, do not have access to other food sources outside the park, and are protected from natural predators, as well as most accidents and, until now, hunters.
This is not even close to a “natural” situation, thus there is no “natural” solution. Even if the fence were removed it would only result in pressure from local farmers to “do something” about the elk eating their crops and intermingling with their livestock. Bears, wolves and puma would be most unwelcome.
But why is the default situation always seem to be killing? There is another, easily applied and ultimately cost-effective way of dealing with the issue and that is by simply sterilizing a percentage of the males. Elk so processed still have natural drives and instincts, still have the same hormones as before, will still act naturally, but the numbers will stabilize and in time attrition will reduce this captive population to a point that simulates what would occur in a natural setting.
To our delight, Parks Canada has agreed to meet with us to discuss this option and with your support we can do exactly that.