Bounties – reader dissent

Contrarian reader Denis Falvey writes:

A decision that flies in the face of one fact of science does not necessarily constitute ignorance. A bounty may not eradicate coyotes, it may not even lower their numbers appreciably, but it will change their habits. Coyotes live in an ecological niche; like any other animal, they will multiply to fill that niche. I would prefer that the limits on their ecological niche not include my doorstep, and the only way to achieve that is for the animals to be wary of coming near coyote-250my doorstep. That’s not going to happen with my singing Kumbayah’. It’s going to happen when animals get used to the idea that my doorstep is not their hunting ground, it’s where they are in danger.

My grandfather would have laughed in dismissal at the thought that vegetables could not be grown in the fields because the deer eat them, or that children can’t play in the woods for fear of coyotes. He was a quiet and peaceful man, but any deer eating the food off his family’s fields would have quickly joined the food on the table, and threats to his children were controlled when necessary. He had a better grasp of living with animals than do a lot of the voices raised against controlling the coyotes. Facts and experience are both important for knowledge, but doing nothing is usually a mistake.

Perhaps we should shift the focus by asking those opposed to support for the trapping industry in this instance what their solution might be. Ignoring the problem, or minimizing it is not an option. Live and let live works about as well with coyotes in the country as it does with gang activity in the city.

I do not advocate doing nothing. Minister MacDonell is a politician. He has to contend with the possibility that a coyote might maul some child, and he cannot be seen to have “done nothing.”

But the action he takes should be based on evidence, and the evidence in Nova Scotia and elsewhere is unequivocal that a bounty will neither reduce coyote numbers, nor change the behavior of the small minority of problem coyotes. Mr. MacDonell’s planned bounty does not target problem animals, or Mr. Falvey’s doorstep. It will not condition coyotes to be wary. You could argue that a general bounty might drive coyotes toward doorsteps, since regulations restrict hunting and trapping near dwellings. Doorsteps will be relatively safe places.

As retired DNR wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft has pointed out, a general bounty targets all coyotes, the vast majority of whom exhibit no problem behavior. This makes the bounty particularly reckless: it uses public funds to target innocent animals with measures that will not impact the few who cause problems.

What might work? MacDonell’s program to train elite trappers to go after problem coyotes is an idea worth trying. The province should consider complementing this with an program to haze animals near populated areas. A dead animal can’t teach pack mates anything, but a coyote that has been frightened or hit by a rubber bullet could increase wariness in a whole pack—particularly if the program were begun now, while coyotes are rearing pups, not delayed until next fall like the useless bounty.  The public education program to encourage sensible precautions when interacting with wildlife is also a good idea. We share this planet with other creatures, and that’s a good thing.

But the senseless bounty at the centre of the government’s response represents a flight from evidence-based decisions in favor of pandering to ignorant prejudice.

I suspect the unusually bold behavior we have seen in recent months reflects some change in the food cycle. A surge in coyote numbers may have overtaxed food supplies, so coyotes are hungry, and in a few cases, emboldened. If that’s the case, litter sizes will decrease this spring, the population will fall, food will be less scarce, and problem behavior may ease with or without human intervention.

Last word to Mr. Falvey:

On a lighter note, one solution might be to hand control of the coyotes and deer over to the DFO. They don’t have much to do anymore, and they did rid the oceans of cod in a generation.

“Bounties don’t work, so I’m implementing a bounty”

Experts say a bounty won’t lessen human encounters with aggressive coyotes, and might make matters worse. They base this conclusion, in part, on experience in Nova Scotia, where a $50 bounty in the 1980s failed to reduce coyote numbers.

They say it on the Department of Natural Resources website—or they used to, until inconvenient scientific information was expunged just in time for Minister John MacDonell’s flight from evidence-based decision making.

John MacDonnel, Minister of Pandering
John MacDonell

The Winston Smiths assigned to expunge the historical record missed a few spots. They failed to delete wildlife director Barry Sabean’s 1989 and 1991 declarations that “The $50 bounty [worth $109 today] in Nova Scotia from November 1982 to June 1986 did little, if anything, to slow their population growth.” They left in place a March 2010 news release quoting DNR wildlife biologist Mike Smith as saying, “Bounties have been tried across North America, however they have always been unsuccessful in reducing coyote populations. A bounty was initiated in Nova Scotia in 1982 and was removed in 1986 when it was determined to have no impact on population.”

Poor Mr. Smith was dragged out yesterday to support his minister’s theory that trapping would somehow make surviving coyotes more wary and less likely to interact with humans. The only other support for this crackpot notion came from the trappers who will receive the $20 bounty.

Dalhousie University animal behavior expert Simon Gadbois points out that a dead coyote cannot instill fear in fellow pack members, but a frightened coyote might. He suggests the province consider rubber bullets as a way to condition coyotes to avoid humans.

The problem is that as their numbers fall, coyotes have more frequent litters and larger litters. So culling adults can have the ironic result of increasing overall numbers.

The minister’s excuse for doing something he knows won’t work? People are upset.

Of course they are. Folksinger Taylor Mitchell suffered a gruesome death last fall in a freak attack by a rogue coyote. The incident has heightened public sensibilities to the point that every coyote sighting is elevated to a “close call”—and to front-page prominence. People who know nothing about wildlife, let alone coyote population dynamics, demand action, and slaughtering coyotes is the first thing that comes to mind.

It. Won’t. Work.

This is another case of: “Something must be done.” “This is something.” “Therefore we will do this .”

Forced to chose between decisions based on evidence, and pandering to sincere but ignorant constituents, MacDonell went with ignorance.

An important meeting about Sable Island

In addition to her invaluable work on Sable Island, Zoe Lucas has, for the last five years,  hosted annual public meetings where scientists, government officials, industry representatives, and naturalists like herself have briefed the public on developments affecting the island.

The sixth of these sessions takes place at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 3, at the Theatre Auditorium, McNally Building, Saint Mary’s University. This year’s meeting takes on special significance because of the secret deliberations currently underway between the Harper and Dexter governments over the level of protection to be afforded Sable in years to come.

Federal Parks Minister Jim Prentice and provincial Natural Resources Minister John Macdonell announced the negotiations in January, when they signed an MOU promising to designate the island either a National Wildlife Area or a National Park. Unfortunately, the MOU also stipulated that bureaucrats would make the decision as to which behind closed doors, with the public consulted only after matters were settled.

What’s worse, Prentice raised fears about the Park option when he spoke of  “encouraging” more people to visit and enjoy Sable, and speculated that private operators could be invited to transport tourists to and from the island. Some people cannot gaze at a spectacular natural landscape* without imagining “improvements.”

Nevertheless, some people who have worked long and hard to protect Sable against government indifference and cupidity favor the park option because it would provide broader legislative protection than a National Wildlife Area. They point to a few very remote parks in the far north that limit visitors and eschew the usual array of parks structures. I worry that, once a park is established, it will take only a hot dog like the current minister, and a few craven Parks bureaucrats, to open the floodgates.

Whatever their view of the park vs. NWA decision, I think most participants in the debate object to the highhanded way the two governments are excluding the public from their deliberations. Officials from both Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service have asked for time to speak at Wednesday’s meeting, so perhaps they will at least give us some insight into their private discussions.

All these issues are discussed and debated more fully at Zoe’s Green Horse Society website, at my Hands Off Sable Island Facebook Page (2,300 members!), and in previous Contrarian posts here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday’s meeting will also hear presentations from ornithologist Ian McLaren and biologist Bill Freedman—both eminent scientists with deep knowledge of Sable. Zoe Lucas, a highly accomplished autodidact whose life’s work has deepened public understanding of and respect for Sable, will report on the year’s happenings on the island. This will likely include a fresh round of her always inspiring photographs.

Finally, Zoe and Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre will lead a discussion on next steps for the island.

I hope that discussion will call on the bureaucrats to bring deliberations about the island’s future out into the open. I would like to hear whether legislation establishing a park (or a wildife area) could include provisions preventing a future minister from turning it into yet another ocean playground.  I would like to know why plans for protecting Sable are limited to those two options. Why not a unique legislative framework for protecting a unique island, rather than a cookie cutter approach?

Come early. It’s a big hall, but it’s always packed.

* To head off a flurry of email, I do recognize that Sable has been affected by human intervention over the last two centuries, most dramatically in the introduction of horses, who now play a significant role in the island’s ecology. But compared to any National Park in Atlantic Canada, it is pristine.

Sable MOU

For the on-line record, and thanks to Joey Schwartz’s OCR magic, here is the start of the Sable MOU signed Monday, with the remainder after the jump. To download the official PDF version, click here and the unofficial Word version here.

(hereinafter referred to as “MOU)


(hereinafter referred to as “CANADA”)


(hereinafter referred to as “NOVA SCOTIA”)



WHEREAS Sable Island is a remote island located about 160 kilometres from mainland Nova Scotia near the edge of the continental shelf;

Continue reading Sable MOU

Protecting Sable: The MOU

Canada and Nova Scotia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the future of Sable Island Monday amidst considerable fanfare and media coverage.  Surprisingly, and unusually, the actual text of the agreement was not made public at the time. Normally such agreements are posted on government websites at the time of such announcements.

Thanks to the communications folks at the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, Contrarian has posted a copy which you can download here. [PDF file].*

queen_of_heartsThe MOU confirms that the process annouced Monday will unfold in two stages, only the second of which will involve the public.

First, provincial and federal bureaucrats will form a task force to consider various issues surrounding the protection of Sable Island and, within 90 days, recommend that Sable become either a national wildlife area (under the Canada Wildlife Act) or a national park (under the Canada National Parks Act). The public will have no role in this discussion.

Only after the decision was made will the public be invited to “comment on the conservation, management, and operational issues associated with the designation” recommended by the task force.

Suffice to say that people who attended Monday’s announcement came away with a very different impression: that the public would be consulted about the decision, not after it.

Where have we heard this approach to natural justice before? Oh yes:

‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

[* The pdf is a scan of the original document. This means the text is not searchable. The document is not very long. If any Contrarian reader is a really good typist, or has optical recognition software, and would like to convert it to text, I will p[ost that version, which will ensure that people can find it using text searches. Please send the text to comments[@] Thanks!]