Researchers criticise the liaison between Politics and Science

A recently published study by Dr. Chris Darimont from the Geography department of the University of Victoria, Canada, and his international team, points out inadequate wildlife management of governments around the world. The scientists from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, together with associates from the U.S. and Sweden criticize not only the wildlife management in countries all over the world, but in particular, that management measures are justified with scientific data that is flawed, unfit, outdated or out of context. Such a misuse of scientific data not only diminishes the public trust in scientific research. It also destroys the trust in government actions.

Well-founded research as well as monitoring provide reliable arguments for the decision-making process of environmental protection and wilderness stewardship. Research improves the knowledge about nature and natural processes. Therefore, it is essential to base management measures on sound scientific data to guarantee its effectivness and conservation objectives.

Please also read: The symbiosis of Wilderness and Research 

Political Populations

A team of researchers from Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University scanned and reviewed the scientific literature. The goal of this was to find cases of independent scientists questioning official wildlife reports by governments concerning populations sizes and trends as well as associated policy. The open access paper was published in the journal Conservation Biology.

The paper speaks of case studies proofing that governments justify their political decisions concerning wildlife management by exaggerating population sizes and their resilience, but without any empirical confirmation. This especially affects carnivores. The authors call this violation of the public trust `political populations´. Thereby they mean the construction of imaginary attributes to serve political interests.

Justifying trophy hunting in British Columbia

An example of the province of British Columbia visualizes the extent of political populations. The province’s government had long declared that the trophy hunting of grizzly bears was sustainable. The government also claimed it was based on scientific research. A five-year legal battle by Ecojustice and Raincoast challenged this claim. The B.C. Supreme Court obligated the government to release their grizzly hunting data. Peer-reviewed research by Raincoast and collaborators found, based on the data on hunter kills, sound proof for the on-going failure of provincial managers to keep the number of grizzly kills below thresholds set by the government. The government rejected the concerns. Additionally, it reacted with an announcement to expand the grizzly hunt in some parts of the province. This was again justified with large and growing population sizes. This debate went on for another couple of years but the government banned the hunting of grizzly bears eventually.

Trophy hunting in Europe

Trophy hunting is a highly discussed topic in Europe as well. Approximately 11.7 million wild deer and about 2 million red deer roam through Europe. European governments allow trophy hunting to limit the impacts of these large deer populations. However, two Austrian scientists from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna just published a study that might prove the opposite. They concluded that trophy hunting actually led to population growth. The different hunting strategy of humans and predators, like the wolf, are the reason for that. The comeback of the wolf is therefore a huge chance to naturally regulate Europe’s large deer populations.

Estimated wolf population sizes

Another case of political populations picked up, concerned the population sizes of wolves in Europe and the US. The current comeback of the wolf to densely inhabited areas in Europe and the US has been a recurring topic on our homepage. The Spanish government, for example, bases their decisions on the wolf killing quota on official wolf population estimates. These official estimates are based on reproductive individuals but are highly questionable.

The paper talks about an example from Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency. It commissioned academics to model a report on the consequences of wolf hunting which was made to inform hunting decisions. According to the paper, Sweden has a strong hunting lobby. Sections of the report proposed that Sweden’s wolf population might be smaller than presumed. The agency subsequently removed these sections. This focused alteration of a scientific report contributed to maintaining a potentially over-exaggerated population estimate.

The European Wilderness Society regularly informed about the ongoing wolf killing in Norway. This controversial government decision is another example for far-reaching management measures without any scientific basis.

Management measures based on specious evidence

A similar example of political populations comes from Vancouver Island, B.C.. Provincial managers suggested an extension of the Island’s wolf killing season based on, as they admitted, specious evidence. Hunters and trappers kill more than 1200 wolves every year in B.C.. The justification of the proposed extension was based on anecdotal sightings and observations. These involved “a increased wolf population and a lack of ungulates (primarily deer)”. The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development admitted that,

“much of the information the province’s wildlife managers obtain regarding wolf populations is anecdotal, with a reliance on public sightings and observations”.

This proves that the wolf killing happening in B.C. is not based on any scientific data. Neither of wolf population sizes nor of their distributions. Furthermore, these estimates are not according to commonly known wolf ecology. The Calanda wolf pack in Switzerland prooves that wolves play an essential role in a forest ecosystem and the control of deer populations and.

Ecological context of population changes

Research data of a similar system in Southeast Alaska by the US Forest Service tries to explain the declining deer population with the widespread clear-cutting of forest. Deer accounts for large parts of the wolf’s diet. Consequently a declining deer population will eventually lead to a declining wolf population as well. This example of a government making decisions based on unreliable sightings rather than on sound scientific research is a textbook case of political populations. The interests of the strong hunting lobby, viewing the wolf as a competitor for ungulates, cannot be denied here. Governments standing behind national and international conservation objectives supporting the protective status of wildlife, such as the wolf, are therefore essential.


Optimistic look ahead

The authors of this paper hope that their findings will change the way governments approach their wildlife managment. Chris Darimont, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria and Science Director at Raincoast states that,

“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. Such scrutiny could support transparent, adaptive and ultimately trustworthy policy that could be generated and defended by governments.”

Co-author and Senior Scientist at Raincoast, Dr. Paup Paquet suggests options to address when governments ignore academic criticism. He states that,

“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.”

The authors’ conclusion

Dr. Kyle Artelle, another Co-author of the paper and Raincoast biologis and post-doctoral scholar at UVic, states the following conclusion to this matter:

“If we accept that governments might often invoke science in defending preferred policy options, oversight by independent scientists would allow for a clearer line between where the science begins and ends in policy formation. This remains important here in B.C. 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.”

Agreement on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores

The article and paper this post is based on shows recent examples of the United States and Europe. However, the real extent of political populations can just be assumed at this point. The comeback of large carnivores to Europe is a heavily discussed topic between government officials, farmers, hunters as well as environmentalists and researchers. However, these discussions need to be based on, and resulting management measures have to be justified with sound scientific research.

At the end of last year the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation (FACE) together with CIC (International Council for Game and WIldlife Conservation)  CIC, COPA-COGECA (European Farmers and European Agri-cooperaties Assisociation) the Finnish and Swedish Reindeer herders Association, the ELO (European Landowner Organization), IUCN, WWF and Europarc signed the Agreement to participate in the EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores. One of the agreement’s objectives is to ensure the necessary knowledge base. Meaning any management of large carnivores must be determined on the basis of sound scientific evidence using best available and reliable data. Such an agreement is an important sign for governements all over the world to co-operate with sience when it comes to wildlife management.


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