Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Wildlife Act changes with the times

Wildlife Act changes with the times

By: Les Layne
Victoria Time Colonist
July 4, 2007

East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett deals with the same range of issues most other politicians do, but finds there's one topic that stands out above all others.

It's wildlife. Hardly top of mind among urban dwellers, unless you count bear and coyote encounters in Greater Vancouver, and routine deer vandalism in Victoria. (Personal disclosure: The barren moonscape that used to be my vegetable garden is very much top of my mind.)

But in what used to be known as the heartlands, wildlife is very close to home. "There's no other thing I've encountered that attracts as much passion," Bennett said.

He knows whereof he speaks. It was wildlife management that prompted his flaming e-mail to a constituent last year, which in turn brought about his resignation from cabinet.

So the discussion forum set up to collect input on a proposed rewrite of B.C.'s Wildlife Act is bristling with ideas, criticisms and observations on what the government has in mind.

The idea is to bring the act up to date. It hasn't been updated in 25 years, and the world has changed quite a bit since then. There's been a quarter-century more development and encroachment on wild lands. And people are another generation removed from nature. The number of hunting and fishing licences issued is at an all-time low.

But the remaining outdoors people are intensely interested, to the point where the consultation period for the Wildlife Act review has been extended another few weeks, to July 15. (Try

Partly it's because Environment Minister Barry Penner met with various Vancouver Island First Nations and heard a number of concerns about how they felt left out of the Wildlife Act as it stands. Although their constitutional rights to access are recognized, some traditional practices weren't taken into account. Penner said the native bands are keenly interested in recommending some changes, so the time was extended.

The government decided to extend the consultation even longer for primary stakeholders. Various outdoors groups can submit arguments until the end of August.

Bennett occupied his time after leaving cabinet by forming the B.C. outdoors caucus, in order to champion wildlife and related causes. He stays in touch with those outdoors groups and said they are keen to see some fundamental stands written into the act.

Priority access for residents, for one thing. The ranking principles now, according to policy, are: Conservation, First Nations access, B.C. residents' access and non-resident access to the resource.

But that's policy, not a statutory requirement. Enshrining preferential access for B.C. residents would ease some people's minds.

Recognizing a right to hunt and fish is also on the agenda. Bennett once introduced a private member's bill to that effect. Installing that in the Wildlife Act is also on the wish list, given that there is more opposition to the whole concept than there once was. One contributor said it was "absolutely disgusting" that the government is trying to encourage more people to go hunting.

There's also an odd wrinkle in the list of concerns. Most of the routine policy decisions related to wildlife are made by regional managers. Some groups have concern about a lack of uniformity across B.C., since each manager makes decisions based on personal experience.

There is a call now for more decisions to be made by the minister, which is the first time anyone has recommended more power and decision-making be vested in Victoria.

Apart from high-level changes in policy and law, there are also some practical changes in the works that people may notice on the ground.

A new tax on eco-tourism that features commercial wildlife viewing is being contemplated. That sector is gaining increasing significance and the government has developed standards and guidelines to prevent conflicts from developing and to ensure the impact is minimal. But the thinking is that hunters and anglers already pay a surcharge on licences to the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund. Why shouldn't sightseers?

There's also some new thinking on wildlife-human conflicts. The discussion paper concedes that translocation of nuisance animals has proven ineffective. Lately they've been favouring local release of such animals.

In addition, the government has been working with farmers on pilot projects that allow for deer and elk hunts where the animals are damaging crops. That has led to a recommendation that the hunting licence system be modified to facilitate hunting on farmland to control problem wildlife.

If the ministry can follow the current timetable, all the work under way will lead to the introduction of a new Wildlife Act next spring.

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