Study queries how much science behind government wildlife management

Study queries how much science behind government wildlife management

Governments everywhere say they use science to manage wildlife, but newly published research questions whether they actually do.

"We were surprised by the overall pattern," said Kyle Artelle, lead author of a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. "We certainly weren't expecting it to be such a low score."

Artelle, a biologist with Simon Fraser University and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, noticed something odd a few years ago when studying bear management in British Columbia. Although the province said its approach was based on science, Artelle found basic scientific tenets — measurable objectives, clear evidence, transparency and independent review — were missing.

How common was that? he wondered.

He and his colleagues began looking around. They surveyed 667 management plans for 27 different species that are either hunted or trapped in 62 states, provinces and territories in the United States and Canada.

They looked for 11 different indicators that those four basic principles were being used. Clear evidence, for example, would be information such as population numbers. A description of how those numbers were derived would demonstrate transparency.

The results were disconcerting.

Almost two-thirds — 60 per cent — of management programs demonstrated fewer than half the indicators. The average across all 667 plans was 4.6.

Measurable objectives were found in 26 per cent of the plans. Evidence on hunting rates was present about 80 per cent of the time, but about half the programs offered no data on populations.

Just over half described how population numbers and trends were set and only 11 per cent described how hunting quotas were determined. 

Only nine per cent had any sort of independent review.

There was little difference between U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions. Artelle did find more evidence of scientific thinking in management of big-game animals.

The point is not that wildlife is necessarily being poorly managed, or even that management decisions should be based solely on science, said Artelle.

"Managers have to balance the interests of a whole bunch of people, budgets, political realities. We don't expect every decision is going to be driven entirely by science. It's not possible.

"A lot of the decisions that need to be made science can't answer."

Science can tell us how many deer there are and what might happen if more are hunted. It can't tell us if that's a good idea.

"These are value decisions," Artelle said. "What's important is that we separate out the science from the values.

"In a lot of ways, that doesn't yet happen."

Science ends up becoming a fig leaf for how decisions are really made, he said.

"Agencies will just say, 'It's based on science.' Full stop. Of course there are other considerations and we expect them to come into play.

"But it's all about transparency and saying, 'This is what the science tells us and this is what we're going to do with it,' instead of saying the whole thing is science-based and masking the value judgments or the other political or economic judgments that come into play."  

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter 

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press