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Scientists expose ‘political populations’ of large carnivores

Sidney, British Columbia, Canada: “We have a record number of grizzly bears in the province, a huge and growing population …”, Christy Clark, then Premier of British Columbia, asserted in 2015, defending her government’s management of a controversial trophy hunt.

This authoritative and optimistic statement, which lacked supporting evidence, inspired an international group of conservation scientists to investigate the potential for political interference in setting wildlife policy more broadly. Reporting in an Open Access paper in the journal, Conservation Biology, a team led by researchers from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the University of Victoria, and Simon Fraser University reviewed the scientific literature for cases in which independent scientists scrutinized government reporting of wildlife population sizes, trends and associated policy.

Case studies from around the world revealed patterns of governments justifying politically preferred policies by exaggerating — without empirical justification — the size or resilience of carnivore populations. Such a process creates what the authors term, ‘political populations’ – those with attributes constructed to serve political interests.

One case was close to home. The province of British Columbia had long maintained a scientific basis for, and sustainability of, the trophy hunt of grizzly bears. But after a BC Supreme Court decision compelled that government to release hunting data to Raincoast scientists, that optimistic view was challenged. Using the data on hunter kills, peer-reviewed research by Raincoast and collaborators detected persistent failure by provincial managers to keep grizzly kills below government-set thresholds. After publicly dismissing the concerns, the previous government then announced an expansion of the hunt in some areas, and continued to emphasize the province’s “huge and growing population”. Although this debate persisted for another couple of years, grizzly hunting is now banned in British Columbia.

The researchers also identified political populations of wolves – perhaps the most politically charged of all wildlife – in the US and Europe. In Sweden, where a strong hunting lobby exists, the country’s Environmental Protection Agency contracted academics to model the consequences of wolf hunting to inform harvest decisions. The agency subsequently removed sections of the report that had suggested the wolf population might be smaller than previously thought, maintaining an official population estimate that was known to be potentially inflated.

The authors conclude their survey with an eye to the future. “In a post-truth world, qualified scientists at arm’s length now have the opportunity and responsibility to scrutinize government wildlife policies and the data underlying them”, says Chris Darimont, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria and Science Director at Raincoast, adding, “Such scrutiny could support transparent, adaptive, and ultimately trustworthy policy that could be generated and defended by governments”. Paul Paquet, co-author and Senior Scientist at Raincoast, identifies options to address when governments ignore scholarly criticism, saying, “Scientists concerned for the future of large carnivores can also exercise their rights to speak directly to the public about potential government malfeasance, which often deceptively shapes public opinions about predators like wolves and bears.”

Kyle Artelle, postdoctoral scholar at UVic and Raincoast Biologist who also co-authored added, “If we accept that governments might often invoke science in defending preferred policy options, oversight by scientists would allow for a clearer line between where the science begins and ends in policy formation. This remains important here in BC where other controversial management, such as wolf culling, is still defended as “science-based” despite uncertain science, and without proponents fully disclosing other factors beyond science likely at play”.

 

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