Canadian Projects: Other
Other Canadian issues we are working on include:
There are three species of bears in North America, and all three have their largest numbers in Canada. All three face various threats.
We are most involved with the American black bear, and were part of an effort that was successful in stopping spring hunts in Ontario, and in stopping trade in gall bladders and other bear parts, and in stopping the use of dogs to hunt bears — but there are still problems. Spring hunting and use of dogs is legal in Quebec, for example.
The polar bear is an iconic species that is widely believed to be both in decline and at further risk of decline from the effects of climate change. They, like the seals that are their major prey, depend on floating ice packs, and the ice is dramatically diminishing due to a warming climate in the far north. Unfortunately, the government of Nunavut is denying that the bears are in trouble as it promotes polar bear trophy hunts. The United States, which once banned import of polar bear trophies, then allowed them in, again has banned them and is strongly committed to polar bear conservation.
Much controversy swirls around the "grizzly" bear, the North American race of the brown bear, with provincial governments in western Canada allocating higher bag limits than is recommended by various experts, including their own. Meanwhile, as is true of the polar bear, environmental degradation of viable habitat continues to put these animals at risk.
All things in nature are interconnected, and one of the greatest threats faced by west coast grizzlies and American black bears (including a local population of pale-colored "black" bears known as "spirit bears") is the decline in salmon, due in part to overfishing and to diseases associated with burgeoning numbers of salmon (including non-native species) kept in sea pens, where they are bred and fattened for the seafood industry.
Learn more about bears — no matter where you live.
Coyotes now can be found throughout most of Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, east as far as Newfoundland and Labrador, as far south in the as southern Florida, and throughout all of the western United States and all of Mexico, deep into Central America. The key word in the above sentence is "now." The coyote is a dynamic species, highly adaptive and opportunistic and evolving, and its distribution has altered dramatically within human memory.
In Canada some people still traditionally think of the coyote as a western species of the plains and prairies. But there has been a significant movement of coyotes eastward. Before 1900, Canada's coyotes were not found east of the Rainy River district of northwestern Ontario. From there they continued to spread east and southeast, reaching Quebec in the 1940s, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the 1970s, and the island of Newfoundland in 1985.
And everywhere the coyote lives, it is relentlessly assaulted with traps, guns and poisons. Yes, there are many enlightened Canadians who understand the role of the natural predator, are willing to face the statistically minor risks posed by these intelligent predators in their midst, and will try find a middle ground where there is room for the coyote.
Bob Bjornerud is not such a person. Ignoring the advice of experts, he placed a $20 bounty on the coyote as the key component of a five-month pilot cull in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Bjornerud is the province's minister of agriculture. Hunters had to turn in all four of the coyote's paws to collect their reward.
The slaughter was horrific, with more than 71,000 coyotes killed. Dead coyotes, paws lopped off, were scattered about fields, visible from provincial highways.
Ironically, the same province has also voiced concerns about "too many" ground squirrels (popularly called "gophers"), other rodents and deer, all of which coyotes prey upon. Coyotes' litter sizes increase in response to an increase in the amount of prey available, particularly after harsh winters, when there are more ungulate carcasses available, or when there is an increase in snowshoe hares. Similarly, the percentage of females breeding each year will vary according to food supply. While the average litter size is six pups, nine is possible. As the size of the coyote population decreases, more food per animal becomes available and litter size, survival of young and fecundity of females increases.
After coyotes reached Newfoundland it did not take long — about 20 years — for some hunters to decide that they should be "wiped out." The concern is that the island's caribou population is in decline. While the coyote reached Newfoundland on its own (crossing a vast expanse of frozen sea ice), the moose — which is now considered to be "too common" in Newfoundland, and which wildlife managers also feel should be culled — was an intentional introduction. The island's entire moose population derives from a male and a female brought from Nova Scotia in 1878, and two males and two females brought from New Brunswick in 1904. By 1935, moose had spread to most of the island.
On the other hand, what would have been a natural predator of either the native Newfoundland caribou or the moose (there are no other deer species on the island), a distinct subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus beothucus), was exterminated. The last of these animals was shot in 1911, and the subspecies was declared officially extinct in 1930. It was a white wolf, with a black line down the back. Ironically its scientific name means "Beothuk Wolf," in honor of the Beothuk Indians, a distinct tribe with a unique language who became extinct in 1829. They were persecuted by Europeans and their tribal rivals, the Micmacs, in part out of concern that Beothuk, driven inland from their traditional coastal hunting grounds, were responsible for a decline in caribou.
Taxonomists struggle to define the various subspecies of the coyote, with one recent reference listing no fewer than 19 subspecies. Subspecies by definition overlap each other genetically, so it is not always a clear-cut matter to assign a given animal to this or that subspecies. Also, the coyote is occupying, in eastern North America, new areas and habitats. Eastern animals are larger than their ancestors, and in some instances — in regions where the gray wolf is now absent — larger size may have a strong selective advantage. In other words, they may be evolving as another distinct subspecies. Others claim that the "new" eastern coyote descends from a hybrid between the coyote and the gray wolf. There are also concerns about changes in behavior, both east and west, with the fear being that a species that is now forming packs and is losing its fear of humans. The issue is hugely complex and dealt with in detail here.
In urban areas coyotes occasionally have consumed a pet dog, and they certainly feast on cats who are allowed to roam outdoors. This has led to some being trapped and killed in some urban jurisdictions (such as Ottawa) while others (Toronto, Sarnia) have taken a far more enlightened approach. It may be necessary to remove individual animals that pose a specific threat, but education is really the answer. It is a myth that it is "natural" for coyotes and other wildlife to "fear" humans. Fear is acquired, as a result of persecution. But it is important that people not encourage coyotes. They may appear gentle and dog-like, but they are truly wild and very opportunistic predators. They do not need us as friends or as enemies, but they do need to be understood and respected.
No event on the animal protectionist's calendar is more iconic, more controversial and more detested than the so-called "Canadian seal hunt." It is too complex and too changeable to accurately describe in simple, sound-bite terms. But in broad strokes, the phrase refers to the annual commercial "hunt," conducted late each winter, for harp seals (and, to a lesser degree, it also traditionally included the less common hooded seals, now no longer part of the commercial hunt) on the ice floes off Canada's east coast. That is where these two species of seal "whelp" (give birth). The harp seals do so in large assemblies the sealers call "patches," or herds. Hooded seals tend to give solitary birth.
The numbers of animals allocated for killing are staggering — in the hundreds of thousands. The uses made of the seals killed are variable. In the "golden" age of sealing, from 1818 to 1862, seals, like the great whales and other marine mammals and birds in the same era, were killed for their fat, which contained rich oil used to light lamps or as a lubricant, as the industrial age came into being. In 1832 it was reported some 740,000 seals were killed. When the skin is removed from a baby seal, the fat adheres to the skin, and the pelt with fat attached is called a "sculp." The hunting by people primarily of European origin dates back some five centuries. Of course, aboriginal peoples killed seals even before then, but then as now their "take" was of minimal size and they made use of meat and skins as well as the fat and oil.
The seal hunt started to become controversial as the result of a filmed image of a sealer demonstrating how to club a baby seal broadcast on national television in Canada on March 16, 1964. By then the newly born harp and hooded seal pups were the main target of a hunt that was as unregulated as it was bloody. Small, radio-equipped airplanes found the patches and directed ships to free-for-all slaughters. Sculps were dragged across the ice to great piles that the ships would later wench onboard while the skinned bodies were left on the ice.
Harp seal pups, called "whitecoats," are covered in white foetal, or "lanugo," hair, which became much in demand for trinkets and trim. This coat is shed starting as early as nine days of age (these animals are called "greycoats"), replaced, at about two weeks of age, by a more silvery coat of fur featuring an irregular pattern of small, dark blotches. Such seals are called "beaters." Hooded seal babies have a lovely fur that ranges from a dark blue color on the back to a silvery belly. That fur lasts from birth until they moult more than a year later. The young animals are colloquially known as "bluebacks."
Currently, bluebacks are protected from the commercial hunt. It is illegal to kill whitecoats in the commercial hunt until they start to shed their white hair. Thus the seal hunt backers claim no "baby" seals are killed, and further claim that anti-seal hunt propaganda misleads people into thinking otherwise.
Whether a baby seal stops being a baby seal once it is 9 days to 2 weeks old is surely a matter of semantics, and somewhat beside the point given the magnitude of animals, young and old, clubbed or shot out on the ice.
The market for seal products of any kind is vanishingly small. None can be legally imported into the United States, thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Europe has banned most products of Canada's commercial seal hunt.
But Canada is aggressively pursuing Asian markets while challenging the European ban and lobbying Americans to change their prohibition. It has been doing so for years. Although Canada claims that there is no waste, that all of the seal is used, there is really little demand for any part of the seals. The meat can, with effort, be made palatable, but outside of aboriginal traditional use, it is unlikely to catch on as it must be carefully prepared, and its rank flavor altered, to appeal to most tastes. The oil is high in healthful omega acids, but the seals are contaminated by heavy metals and other toxins, which increases the cost of production over other products, including flax oil, with similar properties. The penis of the adult male certainly has a market in parts of Asia, where it is sold as an aphrodisiac, but it does not work, while there are now new drugs on the market that do work, so demand is unlikely to remain. The leather is of attractive appearance but poor quality, leaving only the fur of any real commercial value, depending on the whims of fashion in those places where it is even acceptable.
To successfully give birth the harp and hooded seals require the great ice masses, called "pack ice," that normally form each year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the rugged northern coasts of the Newfoundland and Labrador. But some years those ice floes form poorly, and the pregnant seals are forced to give birth in open water, where their babies quickly drown. Some desperate animals may give birth on land, but those babies are unlikely to survive.
Increasingly there has been very little pack ice, and it is feared that global climate change may lead to still less, as experts predict current warming trends will increase. It is also believed by many in the animal protection movement that the cost of the hunt to the Canadian taxpayer is greater than any possible income. There are enormous expenses involved in monitoring the hunt and in trying to enforce such regulations as exist — an impossible task given the enormity of the region in which seals are killed. Costly ice breakers and aircraft augment steel-hulled ships during the hunt in an orgy of carbon-fuel consumption, and the government is not averse to sending representatives overseas to try to promote sales of seal products. But the government does not care — supporting the hunt gains votes in eastern Canada.
Furthermore, seals are demonized as killers of fish. Generations of government-sanctioned overfishing has devastated stocks of various fish species, most particularly the northern cod, and it is easier to blame the seals as fish predators than to take responsibility. No politician advocating necessary conservation of fish stocks is likely to be elected.
But the hunt is dying as the world becomes increasingly concerned about ecological matters, the loss of top-of-the-food-chain predators from our planet's oceans, and animal cruelty. It will continue as long as the Canadian government pours money into it or if the animal protection movement fails to document and protest the slaughter.
Other and future work:
There is growing demand to kill off large numbers of abundant wild animals, while promoting hunting that is no longer sustainable. For example, many fish and waterfowl species are "harvested" even though they are in decline, thus violating governments' claims to support "sustainable" use. While wildlife issues are our main focus, we also are involved at various levels in all manner of animal issues, particularly various aspects of shelter reforms and, in the recent past, reducing cruelty inherent to transportation of livestock.