Planning by a thousand cuts

After too many years of arbitrary budget cuts, it’s time to put some serious thought into our wildlife agency.

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”
— Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (1911-1998), Captain, Merrill’s Marauders

Among the myriad of negative measures in the 2016 budget, the cuts to the Wildlife Division have largely gone unnoticed by the general public. A few voices have tried to raise the issue, but by and large issues such as library closures, seniors’ homes and deficit levies have garnered the most attention. This is to be expected, of course, but just because an issue is not at the forefront of the public mind doesn’t mean it’s not important. Budget 2016 was certainly not the first budget to hack and slash Wildlife Division; Budget 2013 was another particularly bad year.

But it’s time to stop.

Time to stop, at least, the unplanned disintegration of a vitally important agency. Wildlife Division has been lurching from one series of budget cuts to another without any coherent long-term plan. In June environment and conservation minister Perry Trimper told the Western Star that “[p]ersonally and professionally, this was a very painful process.”

I’m sure it was. Most people are uncomfortable when they have to make serious decisions in the dark. Sure, ministers and department executives devise some sort of rationale for cuts. According to the same Western Star article, the most recent cuts reflect Wildlife Division’s core mandate and “new approaches to how it does things.” The right words, perhaps, but really they’re just the most recent rationalization for cutting expenditures.

I have a different idea. We need a white paper on wildlife management and conservation in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A white paper is not only a well-considered policy document, it is an invitation for the public and interest groups to participate in long-term planning. It is not a guarantee of success, but it is a far sight better than planning through budget cuts.

 A  white paper…is not a guarantee of success, but it is a far sight better than planning through budget cuts.

What are our wildlife management and conservation needs? How much do they cost? Are there new ways and technologies available to accomplish these goals? If we can’t afford them all right now, can we devise a 10-year plan to implement them? The last time these sort of questions were asked about Wildlife Division was more than 60 years ago.

Shortly after Confederation the nascent Newfoundland provincial government obtained the services of the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington, D.C. to provide advice on how to structure a wildlife program.

The result was the Gabrielson Report, released in 1955. This report was authored by the highly respected Dr. Ira Gabrielson, first director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The report included recommendations on how to structure the wildlife agency with the technologies and science of the day in mind. In other words, it represented the state of the art at the time. It provided guidance on the structure and priorities of Wildlife Division for decades. But, by the mid-1990s, wildlife science and the associated tools had changed significantly.

Full disclosure: I have not seen the Gabrielson Report. Instead, I learned of it through a lengthy document (an appeal, really) submitted to the provincial government in 2010. This document, authored by retired biologist Neil F. Payne, Ph.D., made for difficult reading. The seemingly unending upheavals in Wildlife Division, especially after the mid-1990s, was frankly mind-numbing. Here is a small sampling of them:

  • In 1996-97, wildlife enforcement is moved from Wildlife Division to the Department of Forestry and Agrifoods. Officials would later characterize this move as a disaster.
  • In 2001, Wildlife Division is moved from the seat of government in St. John’s to Corner Brook as part of a larger “re-location plan”. All agencies involved were coincidentally moved to cabinet ministers’ districts.
  • After 2001, new agencies were created with different names but with similar responsibilities of Wildlife Division. This created duplication, confusion and inter-agency rivalry.
  • Between 1980 and 2000, Wildlife Division was constantly being moved between departments, never spending more than a few years in any one department. As Dr. Payne states, they could not change the department decals on their vehicles fast enough to keep up.
  • The 2013 budget saw very deep cuts to Wildlife Division, more than twice the percentage of other agencies (12.9 percent vs 5.6 percent). In 2016, the division’s budget was cut by another 13 percent. These are deep cuts to make in the absence of a long-term vision for the agency.

I could go on, but I’m not that cruel. The point is, enough is enough. We have to start acting like grown-ups, take a pause and put some serious consideration into the future of our wildlife agency.

There’s a lot at stake

On one level, we risk having some wildlife populations fail by falling through the cracks. Monitoring and research are inescapably important to understanding trends in plant and animal populations. The worst case scenario could see some of our iconic wildlife becoming threatened or extinct in localized areas.

On another level, we risk the health of our ecosystem and, consequently, ourselves.

Here’s my suggestion as to how we should proceed: Form a small committee of local and international experts. Review the current strengths and weaknesses of Wildlife Division. Conduct an analysis of our current wildlife management efforts—where we are succeeding and where we are not. Survey best practices across the country and the world. Assess the current state of wildlife science and technology. Identify new ways of accomplishing our goals. Hold meaningful consultations with interest groups, industry, retired biologists and other staff. Put all of this information together and devise several options or models for our wildlife management and conservation agency. Finally, see which option we can best afford.

Or, we can stumble from budget to budget, minister to minister, department to department, until some future government comes to its senses and puts the house back in order.

The thing is, the time is now. Let’s do it right and take the guesswork out of managing the the agency that safeguards our smiling land.

Douglas Ballam has worked in the conservation field for more than 25 years, with federal and provincial governments as well as non-government organizations. He believes that protected areas are one of the highest benefits a government can provide its citizens. He lives in Mt. Pearl with his wife Bridget and children Katie and Andrew.

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