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over the world, but in particular, that management measures are justified with scientific data that is flawed, unfit, outdated or out of context.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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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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