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Arbitrary Justice in our National Parks

November 18, 2010

Canadians can breathe a huge sigh of relief. Parks Canada is keeping our national parks safe for people and wildlife alike.

The Regina Leader-Post reported yesterday that a Saskatchewan provincial court fined a group of German tourists $750 for “chasing” a sow grizzly bear and her two cubs in Banff National Park last summer.

The group’s host, Eduard Saam, 30, was charged under the National Parks Act last June. Apparently Saam, his wife, and three family members were fishing beside the Bow River near the Lake Louise campground when they spotted the mother grizzly and two cubs. When they saw the bears, said defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle, all they could think of was getting a photo. Unthinkingly, they crashed into the woods with their cameras.

A passerby who witness the dramatic interplay between bear and tourist tattled on the perpetrators, and although no one from Parks Canada actually saw the “crime,” Parks Canada, our fearless defender of ecological integrity, whipped out the National Parks Act and slapped them silly.

Said Judge Marty Irwin: “Many people think its (sic) cute to have their kids feed black bears. But with one swipe of a paw, they could easily break the child’s neck. There’s a very good reason why wild animals are called wild animals.”

Thank you Judge Irwin for protecting us from ourselves on Parks Canada’s behalf. Now, if only we could get the Canadian judiciary to protect wild animals from Parks Canada.

To wit:

Candadian Pacific Rail has killed or orphaned more than a dozen grizzly bears on the tracks in Banff National Park over the last decade, but Parks Canada never thought it worthwhile to charge CP under the National Parks Act. Instead, Parks Canada bureaucrats sat on their butts and waited for Jim Pissot and other environmentalists to shame CP into solving the problem themselves. Where was Parks Canada and the National Parks Act for the last 10 years, while grizzly bears died and CP Rail waffled and denied responsibility for its deadly, irresponsible and potentially unlawful activity? No where.

Even worse, Parks Canada itself has allowed the caribou population in Banff National Park to disappear entirely. This population was once part of larger herds that ranged into British Columbia and Jasper National Park, but the cumulative impacts of human activity isolated them into a small population of just 35 animals by the 1970s. Parks Canada all but ignored the problem for the next 30 years, and despite being listed under the Species at Risk Act, the tattered remnants of Banff’s caribou population disappeared forever in a single avalanche in April 2009. (For more details, see this paper in Conservation Biology.) Unless something changes, two of Jasper’s caribou herds likely will follow the Banff herd into the history books within 15 years — despite living in a national park, and despite being “protected” by the Species at Risk Act.

Wildlife biologist Mark Hebblewhite calls the disappearance of Banff’s caribou the “canary in the coalmine.”

“Parks Canada is not just guilty of ignoring science and the spirit of SARA with the Maligne road issue,” he says. “They are presently travelling down a path that is in direct contravention of SARA. If there was a federally designated recovery plan, which is at least legally four years overdue, and if there was federally designated critical habitat, which is also at least two to four years legally overdue under SARA, their plans to consider a ski area expansion at Marmot Basin would be directly in contravention of how we defined critical habitat for the Boreal woodland population in 2009.”

Recent conversations with a variety of anonymous experts indicates that it is “certain” that Parks Canada will not reintroduce caribou to Banff National Park, and that the National Parks Act, used with abandon to protect tourists from themselves and the bears, likely isn’t strong enough to force them to do so (though SARA may be).

I asked one senior Parks Canada bureaucrat about the future of Banff’s caribou at a recent panel discussion on the future of ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks. “It’s complicated,” he said. “We don’t want to put them back just to see them die again.”

It’s actually even more complicated than that, of course. It’s really about money. The plan Parks Canada is reviewing right now may not be robust enough to put caribou back for good. How much would it cost Parks Canada, and therefore taxpayers, to successfully reintroduce caribou into Banff and to make the changes on the landscape, both inside and outside the park, to ensure their survival over the long term? Millions of dollars to be sure, which the tight-fisted neo-liberals who run the federal government don’t want to part with. Such large government expenditures for the benefit of mere animals are philosophically distasteful to such people, and the need to explain to the public how their negligence is going to cost taxpayers a whole lot of money is politically palatable.

My response to is the same one my father might have chided me with as a child: “Then you shouldn’t have let them disappear in the first place.”

It should be said that I know numerous people who work for Parks Canada, and almost all of them (including the anonymous bureaucrat above, for whom I have a great deal of respect) are wonderfully committed individuals who do care about the future of our parks and the wildlife and wilderness they purport to protect. It’s also worth noting that Parks Canada is not wholly incompetent: it continues to establish new parks and work to make parks more accessible and meaningful to Canadians.

But the farce of justice that is playing out in some of our national parks cannot continue. If Parks Canada (as an institution) continues to refuse to obey the letter and intent of both the National Parks Act and the Species at Risk Act in the management and protection of caribou and the other natural wonders that bless our Rocky Mountain National Parks, it must be held to account. Parks Canada, after all, is an arm of government, an agency that is accountable to the people of Canada (through our elected representatives) to ensure ecological integrity is maintained or restored in our national parks. Surely the disappearance of caribou from Banff is as egregious an offense to our Canadian sense of propriety and justice as the excessive use of force by the RCMP that results in the deaths of our fellow citizens.

Police officers who abuse the rights and privileges they enjoy should be punished swiftly and severely, wrote the Edmonton Journal editorial board recently, and the system must be designed in a way that allows these people to be held accountable in a court of law. Without punishment, the Journal wrote, there is no deterrence. The same goes for those who fail to protect the lives of entire populations of endangered animals and the habitats on which they (and we) depend.

But when Parks Canada has been challenged in court, the courts have been reluctant to rule on the merits of the case, almost always deferring to Parks Canada as the “expert” best able to make judgements about what is, or is not, in the best interests of ecological integrity. Given the plight of caribou and grizzly bears in our national parks, and the lack of federal action to protect them, this assumption deserves reconsideration.

Perhaps what we need in the short term is a public accountability commission similar to the one the federal government established (on behalf of Canadians) for the RCMP, which has been on the hot seat several times over the last few years for its, well, incompetence and lack of accountability.

Still, nothing is better than strong, clear legislation and a judiciary empowered to force Parks Canada to act on behalf of Canadians by protecting caribou and grizzly bears (and water and wilderness and on the list goes) in our national parks.

I cherish the day when Judge Irwin or someone like him looks down from his (or her) bench on the federal Minister of Environment and the CEO of Parks Canada and says:  “You may think it’s cute to let wild animals be killed and extirpated in our national parks. But the people of Canada won’t stand for it, and with one swipe of their giant (collective) paw, they could easily remove you from your posts. There’s a very good reason why national parks are called national parks. Now do your job and go out there and protect them.”

But the only way that’s going to happen, as Dr. Seuss so eloquently wrote, is if “someone like you cares a whole awful lot.” But rather than planting Truffala seeds in the over-cut deserts left by industrial production (which is what Seuss’s Onceler suggests), you and I and all of us need to plant the seeds of accountability in the minds of our political representatives, and if they refuse to care for them the way they should, we need to get in the streets and hold them accountable.

We need to start a revolution.

Judge Marty Irwin said a lot of wildlife in Canada is romanticized. “Many people think its cute to have their kids feed black bears. But with one swipe of a paw, they could easily break the child’s neck. There’s a very good reason why wild animals are called wild animals.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 1:58 pm

    YEAH! Awesome piece, Jeff! Tell it, brother. Man, it’s all the same wherever we are, isn’t it? you could insert buffalo for griz, Yellowstone for Banff, and the U.S. National Park Service for Parks Canada here, and this article would read as a mirror for many of the issues we below the border are challenged with. Press on, my friend. We will get there…. Viva la revolution!!!


  1. end of the line for Caribou in Jasper – Maligne Lake Road « Environmental Law Centre (Alberta)

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