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Wildlife Management and the Call of the Wild

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Sometimes we avoid clarifying our thoughts on controversial topics. We're not even aware of our inclinations until we contact our deeper feelings. Recently I awoke at 4 am to the howling of coyotes on the hills to the east of our home. Our Akita-Shepherd dog, still lonely from the death of his sidekick dog, found his primordial canine voice and joined in. The choir before sunrise was entrancing, but it was also unsettling, for the day before I'd heard that 23,000 coyotes had been killed since the bounty was declared.

I had a dream a few nights before that our dog and I were up in the hills, where the coyotes now howled. I had gone over the crest of one hill but my dog hadn't followed. When I retraced my steps I found him, bearing his fangs, with one paw on the chest of a large dog-like creature with a head like a horse, lying on its side in complete surrender. There were about ten of them all lying on their sides stretched out in a row. As my dog realized there was no threat to us, and relaxed his jaw, I coaxed him to come away. I'd gone through so many emotions -- loss, apprehension, startle, fear, relaxation and security -- so far in my dream. But it wasn't over, for as my dog and I left the hills, I glanced up, and there were hundreds of these creatures on the horizon contently watching us depart.

Perhaps this dream was simply about having faith that unexpected future challenges don't have to derail us. But I wondered if it was "telling me" that if we truly committed to co-existing with other creatures they wouldn't give us trouble.

THE MAGNITUDE OF KILLING

Human rights assert that each person has inalienable dignity and deserves respect and protection. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a large number of humans being slaughtered, such as in Cambodia or Rwanda, to get international attention. However, the term "genocide", or the slaughtering of a people, carries far more weight than does the term "murder".

Is there any number of coyotes killed in a bounty that will touch our conscience? Or are we able to successfully demonize them, saying they deserve this indiscriminate killing because a few of them have killed our sheep or livestock? Isn't this a form of scape-goating? And underneath all this, the question remains: should protecting owned-animals always trump the needs of wildlife?

I know this touches many nerves. When we lived north of Thunder Bay, I had a 22 rifle to protect our range-free chickens from being snapped up by a very smart fox. Once I successfully predicted the fox's behavior and had the creature in my sights, but at the moment of reckoning I shot to the side. Nevertheless, the fox never returned. I also had a 303 gauge rifle available when a neighbor with livestock was dealing with a rowdy black bear. I wasn't out to cull the foxes and black bears as a pre-emptive strike on creatures that may or may not threaten my livelihood. There's a difference, and we have a different relationship to the killing.

One morning I heard a First Nations women on CBC radio saying how hard it was to come across a coyote carcass, with its paws cut off, left lying on the ground. "What about the fur, the meat and the spirit that was left behind", she asked. But bounty hunting doesn't encourage us to acknowledge what we're doing. It makes the object of our destruction into something so alien or nasty that we can justify indiscriminate killing. It's a little like what we do when we dehumanize, and we know where this can lead.

HABITAT PROTECTION

But even larger questions remain. Unbeknown to many, the prairie eco-region is already the most transformed in Canada. This is mostly due to massive agriculture; we all know this when we see the seemingly endless patchwork of fields as we fly in and out of southern Saskatchewan airports. Smaller farmers are more prone to plant their crops around sloughs, small hills and bush, while sustaining more diversity and habitats. Mammoth equipment for larger-scale agribusiness, however, levels more land for production, and wildlife is left to survive through more desperate actions. As human activity spreads we inevitably end up in more conflict with the creatures that were here before the land was broken.

Sometimes these indigenous creatures are decimated. Only a few generations ago, millions of bison inhabited the Great Plains. Often these magnificent herds couldn't even be seen as they wandered through the long-grasses that grew from the rich, inter-glacial lake-bed soil that is the prairies. The steady decline of prairie biodiversity continues to deplete the song birds that come here.

Are we going to continue on this path, and expropriate even more land for agribusiness, coal mining, or whatever, while continuing to encroach on habitats of other creatures? This surely isn't sustainable; and, as the car oil filter ad says, "pay me now or pay me later". The limits to growth are real. They are limits in space, limits on land and water; limits on the viability of human intervention in natural systems. Until we get this sorted out we'll remain confused about wildlife management, including the coyote.

A marine biologist was recently talking on The Nature of Things about New Zealand's success in restoring endangered fish populations in protected marine areas. The diversity of aquatic life is returning as humans withdraw from destructive activities in the eco-system. When the interviewer asked whether this was a success in wildlife management, the elderly biologist smiled and said these species don't need our management as "they were here one million years before us". He continued that their well-being depends on us better managing ourselves.

Is the "call of the wild" perhaps beckoning us to reconsider our views of wildlife management? The quest for sustainability will surely require a major shift in perspective.