By Barry Kent MacKay | General Manager
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? That famous riddle and its variants has sparked many a philosophical debate, which I won’t get into here because there is nothing “philosophical” about what I want to tell you. But let me reword that question, ever so darkly: If a coyote in Alberta writhes in agonized pain and dies for no reason without anyone knowing about it, does it matter?
No philosophical ambiguity there! But the truth is that not just coyotes, but many other individual animals – skunks, bears, wolves, eagles, ravens, and others in agricultural areas and in remote forested regions of northern Alberta, who have done nothing at all to any Ottawa bureaucrat or any other human being, die horrifically each year from something easily preventable. In fact, all other provinces and territories and numerous other jurisdictions have prevented it.
And to make this brutally cruel situation worse, what it is meant to do, it does not do.
And still worse, the problems it is supposed to solve are created by something it does not touch.
What is “it”? Poisons. Two of the deadliest of poisons available. One you have probably heard of, strychnine. It is a deadly neurotoxin that causes massive seizures and spasms, usually leading to an agonizing death from exhaustion or asphyxiation.
The second poison is sodium monofluoroacetate, better known as Compound 1080, less well known, but enough of it consumed leads to a convulsively prolonged death. Either or both may be out there, now, unseen in the forest as you read this. Both occur naturally, yes, but have been taken from nature, weaponized, and turned against animals.
The bureaucrats are in Ottawa, far from such horrors as they persistently allow such anguish to happen, as they work in their offices of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), far from the forests and mountains of Alberta. It’s all part of a classic sham, and to understand why I say that requires some background information.
Caribou and Wolves
Caribou in forested and mountainous areas of Alberta and B.C. have co-existed with their natural predators – wolves, cougars, bears, perhaps even the odd wolverine – for millennia. But they absolutely require viable habitat, meaning extensive tracts of old growth forest where their major winter food, hair lichens (Alectoria and Bryoria) grow. The caribou’s decline to endangered status resulted from habitat fragmentation and degradation as a result of an increase in fires – the intensity of which has been exacerbated by climate change; plus timber harvest; hydroelectric reservoirs; increasing proliferations of roads, buildings, powerlines, pipelines and other human infrastructure; and increases in human recreational activities such as snowmobiling and backcountry camping and their associated accommodations such as chalets and resorts.
All of this has significantly reduced caribou populations. Caribous are found across the width of Canada, and northern Eurasia, where they are called “reindeer” and are often domesticated. Caribou have evolved into various regionally distinct forms, some now extinct, others also rare, threatened and endangered – none of that caused by natural predators. It has all resulted from human (anthropogenic) activity.
Much of the damage to caribou can’t be repaired. The word “old” in “old growth forest” means many hundreds, or even thousands, of years of an infinite array of ecological interactions among climate, geology, microbial activities, flora and fauna, that simply cannot be replicated within any meaningful timeframe. Even if all anthropogenic destruction of forests halted today, it would take dozens to hundreds of times longer than caribou live to re-establish the old growth forests as they were before humans arrived.
Because humans don’t want to stop doing what they’re doing that is destroying caribou, predators are scapegoated and cruelly killed in response to what we, not they, have done. Wolves are cruelly killed by poisons that pose dangers to anyone who consumes them, from bugs to bears to birds and most other wildlife.
Many of us might be upset at the idea that these deadly poisons are simply put into bait and tossed into the forest, so rules and regulations are put into play to assure us that they are only used if nothing else works, and then most prudently to reduce the risk to species that do not prey upon caribou.
It is a sham, a farce, a deception! In the off chance that we know this is happening and complain, we can be told not to worry, it is all tightly regulated; everything is under control.
But it is not! Not at all. That’s why the rest of Canada has banned these two poisons. We may not like what they do instead, but at least they have abandoned the pretense we have found to be inherent to the use of these poisons.
What We Discovered
What we found, by looking at the PMRA’s own reports, is that Alberta has consistently failed to implement those rules that were put in place to minimize cruel destruction of harmless wildlife species, resulting in the deaths of at least three animals that are species at risk, those being two grizzly bears and a golden eagle, plus other animals.
PMRA knows that there have been many more toxic baits used than allowed, killing more animals and species than would die if the rules had been followed.
They know that the requirement of keeping records of deaths of “non-target” species was not met.
They know that the poisoned baits were too often not properly disposed of, but not what happened to them.
They know that dead bodies of poisoned animals, themselves toxic to scavenging animals and the environment, were not properly disposed of.
They know that some poisoned baits were left unattended for much longer than is permitted.
And most importantly, perhaps, they know that the requirement to try other methods – the sorts of things done in the rest of Canada – were not done.
Put simply what the instructions on the bottles of poisons tell the users to do were often not done; mandatory reports and summaries were often sloppy, or simply ignored, and animals who could do no harm to any caribou died horribly as, year after year, permits were renewed. Rubber stamping superseded compassion, conservation, and public safety. Inertia exceeded responsibility.
And we found that Alberta used to employ strychnine to kill skunks, but has not done so for over a decade. So why is it still being registered? Yes, the striped skunk can be a significant carrier (vector) of the rabies virus, but Ontario, once “the rabies capital of North America”, has discovered that removal of large numbers of individuals of vector species in rabies-infected areas simply led to more animals moving in, and risking more animals getting rabies. It does not work! Using baits to inoculate populations at risk does work! And it just happens that using baits laced with effective anti-rabies vaccinations is not severely painful. That may not matter deep in the corridors and offices of federal agencies, but it matters to us, to most Canadians, to the animals and, I trust, to you.
Each year, Alberta has sought to eliminate all wolves where there are caribou, using aerial shooting, as is also done in B.C., and poisoning, now unique to Alberta. Alberta has done this for the last seventeen years without increasing caribou numbers (you’d think people would learn, but no…). The strychnine label instructions says:
“For control of problem wolf (sic), coyotes or black bears when predation has been shown to be one of the primary mortality factors which is limiting a specific wildlife population density and where the wildlife population is threatened with extirpation or where the wildlife population is economically or ecologically important. Such a program must be approved by the Minister responsible for wildlife.”
It is important to note that not all wolves are to be removed, just those contributing to the decline of the prey species of concern. It appears that no effort is made to understand which wolves those may be.
Wolves are the modern apex predators, a class of wildlife that invariably plays an important ecological function, none of which seems to have been assessed by the Alberta government, with all that science has discovered about ecology and predator-prey relationships in the last two centuries largely disregarded.
According to PMRA,
“Based on a review of the available scientific information, risks to the environment are acceptable at a population level when strychnine and sodium monofluoroacetate are used according to the proposed label directions, including new mitigation measures (improved label directions, updated reporting requirements and a registrant-implemented product stewardship program…”
Risks to the environment are not acceptable to us, or to the animals who suffer such agonizing deaths. If the “reporting requirements” now existing are not applied by many users, why would “updated” ones be applied?
Perilous pellets – Compound 1080
Compound 1080 is inserted into pellets that are attractive as food to animal species that Alberta wants killed – and to other animals that just happen to find them tasty as well, leading to them also dying horribly.
If, as is required by PMRA, the uneaten tablets were properly recovered and disposed of, there would be a lot fewer animals in that second category. But the PMRA’s own records show that they have no idea what happened to nearly half – 49% – of the tablets used, the rest having been either eaten, or recovered.
Only 4% of PMRA’s records indicate proper disposal of unconsumed tablets; there is no way to know what happened the rest. Five wolves, which were the “target” species, were listed in four records, with no wolves reported in the remaining 127 records. Species other than wolves were identified in three reports. Leghold traps and snares were used according to 20 reports, killing six wolves and one coyote.
Also, nearly half the uses of Compound 1080 were inconsistent with label instructions and yet several users were allowed to again apply the baits even though they had not reported as required.
There was similar lack of reporting on how uneaten baits were disposed of, and only 26% placed the tablets as instructed on the label, with the rest either not doing so, or simply not saying.
Over an eleven-year period most Alberta municipalities using Compound 1080 didn’t bother collecting data on the number of “target” coyotes killed, as required, nor collect the bodies, an important necessity to avoid secondary poisoning of species like golden eagles, ravens, foxes and others that hungrily eat what meat they can find. Even chickadees and Canada jays will search out such food, their small bodies unlikely ever to be found.
Meanwhile, elsewhere: The fate of the forest-dwelling forms of caribou that are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act, and provincially in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, and Alberta, certainly concern us. But only Alberta sees it as “necessary” to use strychnine to “protect” caribou. This even though strychnine is clearly banned for such use unless “…there is no other practical alternative control measures.”
Contrary to what is required, so far as our search of PMRA’s records have shown, Alberta has provided no assurance that the methods used in the rest of the country have been tried and found to fail to work in Alberta.
Why does PMRA think the farce will not continue?
And so after a review of the situation, knowing that directions on labels are very often irrelevant, PMRA’s interim decision is to allow that situation to go on, claiming that the “risks”, even though unknown and undocumented, were “acceptable at a population level”. But also the claim was made that somehow new and improved labels will change everything.
Therefore, the Animal Protection Party of Canada, Animal Alliance of Canada, the Humane Society International/Canada, Zoocheck, IFAW, and Wolf Awareness have filed reports strongly advocating that the PMRA put a stop all use of both Compound 1080 and strychnine, after more than ten years of Alberta’s failure to comply with the most basic requirements of the instruction labels.
While beyond the scope of PMRA to address it, what Alberta needs to do if protecting caribou from extirpation is the goal, is not to kill wolves in perpetuity, but immediately stop the fragmentation and destruction of viable caribou habitat, a habitat that served the needs of wolves, golden eagles, coyotes, caribou, ravens, Canada jays, grizzly bears, hair lichens and vast numbers of other species quite well, until we came along, the deadliest species this world has ever known, but also one capable of doing better.