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Trevor Hancock: Just which predator needs to be controlled?

An opinion piece in this newspaper on June 4 from the B.C.

An opinion piece in this newspaper on June 4 from the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Thriving Orcas, Thriving Communities Coalition (composed of a number of coastal communities’ chambers of commerce) warned that coastal communities are on the brink of extinction because they rely on recreational fishing, which is in jeopardy.

Part of their proposed strategy to protect the orca and the chinook salmon — and their livelihoods — is “predator control.”

But just which predator is it that needs to be controlled? Ironically, two other reports released the same day made it clear; the chief predator is us. The first was a report from NatureServe Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada on the crisis facing endemic species — species that are found only in Canada. The second, released by the Sierra Club of B.C., was a report from three independent scientists on the state of B.C.’s old-growth forests.

The endemic species report identified 308 of them, most being vascular plants and invertebrates (bugs and slugs, if you like). In B.C. we have 105 of these endemic species, 76 of which are unique to B.C. (the rest overlap with other provinces or the United States), with many found only on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and other islands. Ten of them are “critically imperilled” and 13 are “imperilled.” But this is only a small part of the picture.

There are more than 50,000 species of plants and animals in B.C., according to the Royal B.C. Museum — more than in any other province. Of them, 1,807 species are at risk of extinction, according to an opinion piece in The Narwhal last year by a group of prominent academics, most from B.C., who conduct research on endangered species. Overall, 784 species present in B.C. are “red-listed,” meaning they are extirpated, endangered, or threatened in B.C.

The lead researcher on the third report, on old-growth forests, was Dr. Rachel Holt, a conservation biologist and the principal of Veridian Ecological Consulting, based in Nelson. In the past she has served as vice-chair of the B.C. Forest Practices Board.

Shockingly, she and her colleagues found that “many old-growth management areas, created to protect old-growth forests, do not actually contain old forest,” but that “government information was either misleading or not making it out to the public,” hence their independent report. They agree with the information on the website of B.C.’s Old Growth Strategic Review (due to report about now) that old-growth forests comprise about 23 per cent of forested areas in B.C.

But the bulk of this old-growth forest, they write, is not the iconic old growth with big trees that we think of when we hear the term “old growth.” Instead, they report, “the vast majority of this forest (80 per cent) consists of small trees,” including “black spruce bog forests in the northeast, subalpine forests at high elevation and low-productivity western red cedar forests on the outer coast.”

In fact, they note: “Sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than three per cent of the province,” and of this small amount, only about three per cent is old forest. Large tree old-growth forest ecosystems, they say, “are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging.”

And yet, they note “little human effort is tasked with protecting old forest values, while much is focused on harvesting.” Similarly, the endangered species researchers note “B.C. is still one of the only provinces in Canada without legislation dedicated to protecting and recovering species at risk.”

The harsh reality is that communities that rely on the over-exploitation of natural systems such as old-growth forests or salmon fisheries, or that are affected by the actions of others that have seriously damaged those ecosystems, are indeed threatened with extinction, because their natural-resources base is heading for extinction.

So when we talk about predator control, let’s be clear what predator we are talking about. We are the planet’s apex predator, and so the predator we need to control is us. Because as the 19th-century Duwamish elder, Chief Seattle, is recorded saying: “We are part of the web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.” We forget that wisdom at our peril.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.