On April 13 2019, I attended the Symposium titled Big Game Management: Reversing the Numbers, hosted by the Kootenay Wildlife Heritage Fund (KWHF). I am fairly certain that I was the only animal and environmental advocate in the room with opposing views to the majority of hunters and trappers in attendance. Below is my first-hand experience of the conference which I have checked for accuracy based on an audio recording of the event.
When reading the sub-heading of the Symposium, “reversing the numbers,” it is hard not to think it is just as much about reversing the loss of hunters, trophy hunters, and trappers as it is the number of big game species they want to kill. They appeared to be locked in the past and resentful of the rest of the world moving forward. Their heritage, of which they are proud, includes guns, poisons, traps and killing wildlife.
It is important to recognize that the Symposium was a remarkable gathering of hunters, trappers, guide outfitters, and generally people who enjoy killing wildlife. Of equal interest was the attendance of nine BC Liberal MLAs even though the event was billed as politically non-partisan. Even Jane Thornthwaite, MLA for North Vancouver-Seymour was in attendance, although hers is not a particularly rural riding. While there was no partisan grandstanding allowed, the political fight for rural hunting communities was clearly evident and the Liberals’ attendance showed that if they are elected in 2021, we can look forward to more policy informed by this insular and unscientific mindset. You can find posts about the event posted to these politicians Facebook pages praising the speakers and organizers.
Here is a full list of the politicians present or acknowledged at the event:
Jane Thornthwaite: Liberal MLA, North Vancouver-Seymour
Rich Coleman: Liberal MLA, Landley East
Mike Morris: Liberal MLA, Prince George-Mackenzie
Mike Bernier: Liberal MLA, Peace River South
Steve Thomson: Liberal MLA, Kelowna-Mission
Wayne Stetsky: NDP MP, Kootenay-Columbia
Rob Morrision: Conservative MP candidate, Kootenay-Columbia
Doug Clovechok: Liberal MLA, Columbia River-Revelstoke
Tom Shypitka: Liberal MLA, Kootenay-East
Donna Barnett: Liberal MLA, Cariboo-Chilcotin
Michelle Stilwell: Liberal MLA, Parksville-Qualicum
The first speaker, Ray Demarchi, a former regional biologist in the Kootenay district referenced animal rights activists and stated “you won’t change their minds anymore than you would have changed their ancestor’s minds who burned witches.” I realized then that any opinion or science that opposed the hunter’s perspectives would be treated with hostility. He also recognized that a fundamental issue hunters face today is that they are perceived as “bad” by the public and non-hunters as “good.” According to him, what the hunters need to do is convince people that hunters help wildlife, people, and make things safer by killing more animals.
I thought it might just be the first speaker trying to work the pro-hunting crowd, but then the second speaker of the day, Dr. Valerius Geist, a wildlife biologist and professor emeritus, compared the “greens,” (read environmentalists) behaviour to “communists,” “fascists,” and “Nazis.” This was because he believed they had a “We are right. You are wrong” approach to policy. At one point he argued that you shouldn’t take away people’s right to hunt and fish as killing animals builds relationships with them. So, the problem with all the hunting and fishing isn’t the killing of these animals, it is that we don’t have enough of it to build relationships with the animals that are being killed.
At this point it was clear that the speakers who had been gathered for this symposium were only here to reinforce the views of the organizers, the KWHF.
As if the tree-hugging, animal protecting anger wasn’t enough to get the crowd of 500 hunters and politicians appetites going, after this second talk, the lunch break was pre-empted with Carmen Purdy, founder and chair of the KWHF, showing off a wolf pelt for auction. This lifeless mass of fur from a once beautiful wolf who undoubtedly suffered for this wildlife killing cause, sold for $550. Ironically, this money will likely go to feeding big game through the winter, so that they can have enough targets to kill again next year. The circle of life.
After the lunch break, the Symposium’s trajectory took a further nosedive by not dealing with the question at hand: with many big game populations in steep decline, how are these hunters going to be able to continue killing wildlife with as little government intervention as possible?
While Dr. Vince Crichton, wildlife biologist and professor emeritus, gave an interesting discussion on the behaviour and biology of moose, it didn’t really have much to do with game management policy in B.C. or the topic of the symposium. The next speaker, Dr. Charles Kay a wildlife ecologist, continued to attack predators such as wolves, cougars, and bears as taking more than their “share” of wildlife and championed trophy hunting as “the epitome of land management,” based on his trophy hunting experiences in Africa
The last speaker, Jim Beers a former refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spent his entire tangential talk speaking of his experience in the U.S., which he did not appear to have prepared to situate in Canadian terms of government or policy. To be fair, he did state that the talk was not finished and that he was still working on it. It clearly was not ready and the general restlessness of the audience at this point of the Symposium made me wonder why he was invited to talk at all.
This brings up the major issue with the Symposium itself: what was the point? I overheard one hunter after the event respond that he felt “it was a waste of oxygen,” when he was asked his opinion on the value of the Symposium. There was almost no discussion on the issue of the day “Reversing the numbers” of wildlife loss, there was no opportunity to ask questions, and no organizing.
From an outsider’s perspective, it was an inside look at the hunter’s world that seemed predicated on policy and sentiment of a century ago. A great deal of the Symposium consisted of purely anecdotal stories of the legacy of these hunters. Most of the talks centered around decades old experiences when there were more animals to kill, isolated incidents of what they think went wrong, and lamenting the current state of affairs with big game hunting in B.C. and the world. The sentiment of the entire event was summed up by the last person to speak for the day, Ken Sumanik, who said we can’t have laws for separate groups of people hunting (read indigenous hunting), and that environmentalists are “eco-psychotic” and “wackos.” Both statements received applause.
Many of these people have been involved in wildlife management for decades either as a government manager or as a lobbyist. Their opinion is that if they were just left to do their job everything would be fine. However, everything is not fine.
Pressures facing wildlife have increased significantly over the past century. Climate change, increased and cumulative industrial activity such as mining and forestry, recreational disturbances, competition from introduced species such as non-native fish and bait species for the benefit of anglers, hunting, agriculture, forest fires, introduction of toxins into the environment, urban and suburban sprawl and other significant stressors of anthropomorphic origin, have all continued to take a toll on many wild animals and their habitats. However, the people who kill wildlife and disrupt their habitat want to make sure that they can continue to hunt and trap and fish regardless of the negative impact. Science based decisions challenge their practices. They argue that hunters are conservationists and environmentalists. However, they don’t resonate with the broader public. Their arguments and thinking are causing their own decline and the thing they seem to love most, the killing itself, becomes increasingly difficult for them to rationalize.
If there is one thing I would want people to know about the Symposium on Big Game Management I attended, it is that if we want to protect wildlife in BC or anywhere in Canada, we can not leave policy-making in the hands of those who do not see past the barrel of their rifle as the solution.
Animal Alliance of Canada