Category Archives: Species & Ecosystems

Grizzly facts

Grizzly, grizzlies. bears, hunting, conservation

by Stan Hirst

“Wildlife management is a mish-mash of science, public relations and politics, not necessarily in that order”.

I came across that humble homily in a bundle of 50-year old lecture notes from my graduate student days. Why would I keep lecture notes for that long? I have no idea, probably an elder(ly) thing.

B.C. has several wild species which exemplify this categorization of resource governance: sockeye salmon, caribou and orcas come to mind. But the species that perhaps best exemplifies the sentiment for B.C. is probably the grizzly bear. Grizzlies have been in the news lately, not because they have munched anybody significant, but because of their conservation status.


Effective November 30, 2017 B.C.’s new NDP government legislated a total ban on trophy hunting of grizzly bears throughout the province. The announcement of the ban from the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development included the telling statement that “grizzly trophy hunting is not a socially acceptable practice [in B.C.] in 2017”.

Under the November proclamation, hunting of grizzles for food was still permissible under licence in the province outside of the Great Bear Rainforest. To forestall any devious behaviour, so-called “meat hunters” would not have been permitted to legally possess the paws, head and/or hide of a killed grizzly.

However, in the days following the proclamation the Ministry received more than 4000 emails from the public, of which 80% expressed strong opposition to the continued food hunt. Government reaction to the public repose was surprisingly rapid, and within a month the government announced a total ban on hunting of grizzly bears for trophies and food, effective immediately across B.C.

First Nations were the only exception to the ban and the new legislation recognized their aboriginal right to hunt grizzlies for food, social and ceremonial purposes. However, most First Nations have continued to express little interest in killing grizzlies for any purpose. The Coastal First Nations had originally led the move to stop hunting of grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest of B.C.


Grizzly bears in B.C. are classified as Vulnerable by the Conservation Data Centre and are listed as a Species of Special Concern by the Federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). They once ranged over most of B.C. and large parts of Alberta. They have been extirpated from several regions in British Columbia where they historically ranged, including the southern-central interior from the US border to north of Quesnel, the Peace Lowlands around Ft. St. John and Dawson Creek, and the lower Fraser Valley and the Sunshine Coast. Present-day habitat quality and population density vary widely across the province.

Ministry statistics reveal that, until the recent legislation changed the situation, about 170 grizzlies were killed annually in B.C. by resident hunters, and a further 80 by foreign hunters. The government issued about 1,700 grizzly bear permits in 2017, mostly to B.C. hunters.

Commercial grizzly hunts had generated about half a million dollars annually for B.C. provincial coffers from hunting licences, and further undisclosed sums in fees to commercial guides who typically make tens of thousands of dollars per grizzly hunt. In announcing the ban on trophy hunting the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development stated that recent research had indicated values higher than this for the economic value of grizzly viewing in many parts of the province.

Restrictions on grizzly hunting in B.C. are not new. A total ban was legislated by the NDP back in 2001. This was rescinded by the incoming Liberal government in the same year.

There are now an estimated 15,000 grizzly bears in B.C. About 16% of the total provincial population is classified as threatened. Provincial statistics show that 10-15 grizzlies are killed illegally each year, and a further 20-30 by animal control officers dealing with human/bear conflicts.


The advent of the new legislation exposed a long-standing schism in society about our social behaviour towards wild species. Conservation and green groups have generally applauded the decision banning trophy hunting and food hunting of grizzlies. Guiding and hunting groups, on the other hand, predictably criticized the ban on trophy hunting as being costly in terms of jobs and commercial benefits since the hunting ban will remove millions of future dollars from the industry in terms of fees, lodging, bush-plane and other travel and equipment.

Provincial political opposition framed the NDP government decision as an abandonment of scientific-based decision making in favour of “an appeasement of U.S.-based environmental groups”.


It is informative to compare the B.C. grizzly situation with that in the Yellowstone area in the western U.S. There the new federal administration in Washington moved to delist the Grizzly bear as an endangered species and awarded management responsibility to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. This means in effect that grizzlies can now be legally hunted in these western states (outside of national park boundaries).

A key factor in the decision was the fact that when grizzlies were declared endangered in the US way back in 1975 there were an estimated 136 bears in and around the Yellowstone ecosystem (which includes the national park plus surrounding federal, state and private lands). Today, following a quarter-century of strict protection, there an estimated 700 grizzlies in the Yellowstone area, both inside and outside the national park.


The partisan reaction to the legalization of grizzly hunting in the Yellowstone area has been comparable to that in B.C. for the banning of legal hunting. Guiding industries and interests have predictably endorsed the change, while the broad conservation community has condemned it. Some 125 western U.S. tribes have signed a treaty opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears, which Native Americans consider a sacred animal.

Conservation groups insist that Yellowstone bears face threats to their continued existence from many sources, not just hunting. They have cited climate change and other factors. They observe that the US Endangered Species Act, under which grizzlies remain listed as an endangered species, sets strict rules to protect species from being killed or their habitat from being harmed. State management agencies, now in control of public hunting and harvesting, classify hunting and/or trapping as valid and legal measures to keep wildlife population in check.


Emotion is usually at the forefront of public debate on the hunting and killing of grizzly bears in North America. When the debates and deliberations move to agency board rooms and academic seminar rooms the exchanges become way more measured, extensive and rational, and reveal the biological, social and political complexities of managing an iconic and far-ranging species such as the grizzly.

Is hunting harmful to grizzly bear populations? (“Stupid question” I hear the animal rights folks muttering, but I point out the use of the word ‘populations’, which is what government and various agencies are mandated to address). The answer is complex and to be sought in huge piles of field notes, research studies, theses, journals and coffee-table volumes.

Hunting and killing are certainly the prime factors which reduced North American grizzlies from their historic abundance to their present-day status. When Europeans first set foot on the continent there were roughly 100,000 grizzly bears ranging from the Mississippi to the California coast, and throughout Canada and Alaska to Mexico. By the seventies they had been drastically reduced in numbers and were categorized as vulnerable in Canada and endangered in the US.

But the direct killing of grizzlies is not the only factor leading to a decline in numbers. Habitat loss has probably eliminated far more bears from the scene over the decades, and continues to do so, either directly or by fragmenting vulnerable bear populations. In addition, hunting has negative effects which extend beyond the direct killing of the animals. Studies have revealed negative indirect effects on hunted bear population through destabilization of social structure and increased mortality in cubs and juveniles.



Stewardship: Being Involved

by Josef Kuhn

As human-beings we interact on an ongoing basis with other beings. Some of these beings are living, some are not. Alive or not, all beings come from the creative flow of the universe, the Supreme Being, God, the Creator, or other cultural designation of highest spiritual recognition and respect. We human-beings are especially gifted, and challenged, to play a meaningful role in creation. Being involved in stewardship empowers us, individually and collectively, in assessing opportunities and problems and making choices for the protection and enhancement of life, especially human life.

Stewardship of the wonders of creation, also referred to as conservation and environmental protection, is an ethical choice for each of us. Maintaining our truly awesome life-support systems, our ecosystems, through stewardship is being involved in a responsible way. It requires respect, appreciation and working with others making choices and taking action that can contribute to the well-being of our children and grandchildren, and bring joy to our lives.

Being involved requires being in the present. Stories of the past and visions of the future exist in our individual and collective minds. This is an aspect of our unique human nature, but it is not being present, as Eckhart Tolle explains so well in his book A New Earth. This awareness, consciousness at a deeper level, is becoming much stronger around the world as more and more people recognize the rapidly developing life crises we all face, or ignore, each day.

Being is about the creative flow of energy. Quantum physics, one of our newer learning tools, is showing us that energy not only moves and changes things in the universe, it forms strings that develop into matter and ultimately into beings, including ecosystems and us human-beings. Ecologists are concerned about entropy, the loss of energy and biodiversity, when ecosystems break down. The time has come for people who are not ecologists to share this concern and become more involved in protecting ecosystems, in stewardship.

When the Sun radiates energy to the Earth, life is created in countless forms that share this energy. I think of this life as a collective being, as Mother Nature, the daughter of Mother Earth and the Sun. Human-beings need to recognize, respect and care for this life. We are part of it. We can practice stewardship and protect life, or we can do great harm. Human-beings had limited impact on ecosystems in the initial 200,000 or so years of our existence. However, in the last couple of hundred years we have ‘developed’ and now take an approach to life that is vague about homeland, consumes and pollutes at very high levels, and mostly ignores stewardship.

It is important for us to recognize the relationship between development and stewardship. Development is touted as a process to improve the well-being of people. Good development is possible, but only if people who really care about stewardship become involved in the regulatory framework that determines the use and the protection of our lands, waters and natural resources. Without stewardship this protection will not happen.

Legislation requiring bio-physical and socio-economic environmental impact assessment was supposed to insure this protection, but these laws are being diluted or ignored today. This happens by reporting only short-term benefits and costs of proposed development, and not relating these impacts to ecosystems. Information on long term impacts to life-support systems is missing. The biological and economic well-being of future generations is being ignored.

As our growing consumption contributes to climate change, including the warming and acidification of our oceans, we create tremendous energy disruptions, infrastructure and personal property damage. As we pollute our air and water and ignore the decline of fish and wildlife populations, we are causing ecosystems to lose the structure and beauty Nature provided. Sustainability of healthy, productive lives is compromised. This is not stewardship.

Each of us human-beings need to be aware of our stewardship responsibilities each day. Better interpretation of our laws and making necessary improvements is one aspect. This requires our being involved as citizens and communities in government decision-making processes and court rooms. In the private sector, how we use energy and spend and invest our money determines our positive and negative environmental impacts. What we teach our youth by example and in schools is also very important. Their future well-being depends on our stewardship today.



Wildfires and climate change: seeking the facts through the haze

by Stan Hirst

Living under smoky skies every day is an uncommon experience for Vancouverites. The TV spectacle of thousands of people having to evacuate their homes and ranches in the interior of British Columbia as threatening forest fires advance is not so unfamiliar. Just one year ago we watched over 88,000 people leaving their homes in Fort McMurray as wildfires swept through nearly 600,000 hectares in northern Alberta. This year nearly 500,000 hectares have burned within B.C., 75% of those in the Cariboo region and another 25% around Kamloops.

It was probably inevitable that the conversation would switch easily to global climate change and its connection to the wildfire blight. For many people and most Suzuki Elders the link between wildfires and climate change is taken as a given. The linkage is now commonly quoted in the press, in current literature and in conversations. The same theme of wildfires becoming ever more frequent as the world warms appears often in the media for western Canada, the western U.S.A., Australia, Portugal and parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

Yet the sceptics remain unmoved and say so through social media. “Fires have always been a feature of forests and rangelands in North America” they say. They point to history books abounding with descriptions of massive fires, some deliberately set, but many linked to natural causes, especially lightning.

It’s not uncommon to find fire scars in centuries-old trees such as sequoias and western junipers across western North America. Studies of lake sediments have found wood charcoal layers which can be dated back for thousands of years. Early researchers attributed these historic fires to lightning strikes, but studies in the past few decades indicate that they may also have resulted from deliberate burning by aboriginals to keep forests free of undergrowth and small trees.

The specific question is not whether wildfires are a natural feature of North American forests or not, but whether global climate change is prompting an increase in wildfires. By being overly simplistic about the two parts of the equation (climate change and fire) we could obscure the underlying linkages between the two and possibly mistake the causalities.

I find it helpful to break the subject matter into simpler relationships (dissecting the argument always helps in winning arguments anyway).

First, the question of a changing climate. This is the easy part; the answers are unequivocally yes. Temperature trends summarized by Environment Canada for the period 1948 through 2012 show statistically highly significant rises across most of Canada. Mean increases range from 0.5 to 3oC, with the highest numbers occurring in the arctic and subarctic regions. Mean ambient temperatures in the Pacific region of B.C. rose 0.7 oC over the same period and 1.2oC in the mountainous areas of southern B.C.

There are also statistically significant changes in geophysical and ecological parameters which are driven by ambient temperatures:

  • longer growing seasons, more heat waves and fewer cold spells, thawing permafrost;
  • earlier river ice break-up;
  • increase in precipitation over large parts of Canada;
  • more snowfall in the northwest Arctic;
  • earlier spring runoff and the earlier budding of trees.

Indigenous people of the Arctic are no longer able to predict the weather as accurately as their forefathers did (cited by the Society for Ecological Restoration).

Have wildfires increased significantly in B.C. over the same period? This brings us to the realization that fires can be measured by more than one parameter, i.e. the frequency with which they occur, the area which is burned over, the costs of fire damage, suppression and management, etc. Any, all or none could be linked to climate change.

Three measures of wildfire activity in B.C. are available from the B.C. government website. These are all shown below for the twelve most recent years.


The broad conclusions from these data are that while the annual frequency of wildfires across B.C. has dropped by roughly one-half over little more than a decade, the areal extent of wildfires for the same period has increased six-fold and the associated costs of dealing with the fires has increased twelve-fold.

These results are very similar to those reported in the western U.S. for recent years. University researchers and federal and state forest agencies in California have linked the occurrence of more widespread, bigger, longer-lasting wildfires to higher ambient temperatures and less or later snowfall. They have also indicted past practices of aggressively preventing fires as having had the perverse effect of creating much more fuel within forests themselves to feed future wildfires. The average California wildfire in the 2000s was double the size and burned twice as long as the average fire in the 1990s. Escalating fire-associated costs have also been linked to higher levels of damage as more homes are built on picturesque hillsides and mountains and other areas prone to wildfire.

A recently published study from the University of Idaho has neatly linked wildfires in western forests to human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. The research group has quantitatively examined the statistical relationship between the essential requirements for wildfires (fuel availability, fuel aridity, etc.) to climate variables such as ambient temperature and vapour pressure which are changed by human activities such as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The university research group concluded that for the period 2000–2015 climate change contributed to 75% more forested area across the western U.S. experiencing high fire-season fuel aridity. It also added an average of nine additional days per year of very high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate changes were calculated to have accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in forest fire fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests.

Hopefully this all adds a little more fuel to the fire in a quest to hasten meaningful climate action in B.C. and the rest of the reasonable world.




Extinction is forever

The Living Planet Report 2016 – risk and resilience in the new era

by Stan Hirst

4ff8753daf761f70af20b5e0c0ed9b0cExtinction is one of those words in the English language which seem distant and not particularly relevant to anything until you grasp the context. For me the significance of the term came on a hot summer day more than 60 years ago when my high school class shuffled obediently through the musty halls of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa.  We stopped in front of one ancient cupboard from which the museum guide brought forth a yellowing and battered skull, no jawbone attached.  It looked like a horse or a donkey, but Mr Naudé proudly advised it was the skull of a quagga which had once roamed the barren plains of the Karoo. We were sombrely reminded that the quagga had been extinct since 1885.

Gone forever, extinct not just in the Karoo or just in southern Africa, but everywhere in the world. Hunted to extinction because they were considered by farmers to be expendable and a damned nuisance, competitors with their sheep and cattle for scarce grazing, and good for nothing except maybe for the hides which made passable thongs for stock whips.

Extinction seemed profound to me at the time but it has always been passé for Earth. Over the past 500 million years there have been five major periods of mass earth wide extinctions, each one linked to profound changes in climate.  The Cretaceous mass extinction 65 million years ago is famously associated with the demise of the dinosaurs. Virtually no large land animals survived, while plants were greatly affected and tropical marine life decimated.

Now we’re well into the sixth extinction which has garnered the name Anthropocene extinction because of the strong causal links to human activity.  At least 875 extinctions of whole families of plants and animals  – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods – have been documented to date by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  The rate of extinction has been roughly estimated at something like 140,000 species per year, making it the greatest loss of biodiversity since the Cretaceous extinctions.

lpr-coverScientists have been warning for decades that human actions are pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction, and more evidence comes from the recent 2016 Living Planet Report. This report documents how wildlife populations have declined, on average, by 67 per cent over the past decade, mainly the result of rampant poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The Anthropocene climate is changing rapidly, oceans are acidifying and entire biomes are disappearing – all at rates measurable during a single human lifetime. The future of many living organisms is now in question. Not only are wild plants and animals at risk, we ourselves are now the victims of the deteriorating state of nature. Climate and other predictive models indicate that, without decisive action, the Earth is on its way to becoming considerably less hospitable to modern globalized society.

global-living-planet-indexThe Living Planet Index (LPI) is a measure of biodiversity.  It draws on population data from 14,000 monitored populations of 3,700 vertebrate species (mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles) around the world and then calculates an average change in abundance over time.  From 1970 to 2012 the LPI showed a 58 per cent overall decline in vertebrate population abundance. That means that global vertebrate populations have, on average, dropped by more than 50% in little more than 40 years.

Five threats show up consistently as the causes of wildlife population declines:


The most common threat to declining terrestrial populations is the loss and degradation of habitat, followed by overexploitation by humans. For marine species overexploitation is the main impacting factor, followed by loss and degradation of marine habitats.

wordl-populationWe have strained the limits of natural resilience all the way to the planetary level. The world’s population has grown from about 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s 7.3 billion.

In the early 1900s an industrial method was developed for fixing nitrogen into ammonia; the resulting synthetic fertilizers now sustain more than half of the world’s population, but at the same time causing massive pollution of air, water and soils. Fossil fuels incur tremendous costs in terms of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resultant global climate change. (Figure C)

Since the early 1970s we have been demanding much more than the planet can sustainably provide. By 2012, the biocapacity equivalent of 1.6 Earths was needed to provide the natural resources and services we humans consumed in that year. Exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity to such a degree is simply not possible in the long term. We cannot cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish, or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb. The consequences of this “overshoot” are already abundantly clear everywhere.

How can we change the course of socio-economic development onto a pathway that does not conflict with the welfare of the biosphere? How can we begin to affect development in a way that will make essential changes at a relevant magnitude?

We’d better decide fast.  In the time it took to read this post one more species somewhere on Earth – maybe a plant, an  insect, a fungus, a bird, a fish, a marine invertebrate  or maybe a mammal, went extinct.



Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).

Table 1
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450

Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.

So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.


The crow – a bird for the times

by Stan Hirst

Some years ago the Elders, in casting about for a suitable logo to represent our image, chose the owl. They said it was a universally recognized symbol of wisdom and beloved by all, unless you happened to be a mouse. Now we’re stuck with this goggle-eyed fowl on the blue background you see over on the right. My fellow elders will likely disagree with me but I think we may have erred. We should have opted for a more adaptable, resourceful and smarter bird as an icon. We should have gone with the common or garden crow,

Consider their merits. Crows are adaptable in their choice of domicile. They typically nest in tall coniferous or deciduous trees, but readily opt for hedgerows or shrubbery as well. In urban areas they often nest on window ledges or the sides of buildings. They believe sincerely in gender equity and family support. Both sexes build the nest during a period of 1 to 2 weeks, from mid-March to mid-July, depending on latitude and elevation. Females incubate four to five eggs for 18 days, and are fed at times by the male or sometimes by offspring from the previous year.

Crows are omnivorous and eat whatever is available—insects, spiders, snails, fish, snakes, eggs, nestling birds, cultivated fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The crow population in the B.C. Lower Mainland has increased over the past 40 years as burgeoning human populations and urbanization have reduced forest cover, creating open foraging areas and generating food sources such as garbage that crows have been adept at exploiting. We too might have to adapt similar foraging habits here in B.C. as our productive land base is progressively depleted by subdivisions, highways, hydroelectric dams and drought.

hungrycrowCrows are gregarious – surely a useful trait in these trying times. They roost communally during the non-breeding season for the same reason many other birds do—to avoid predation and to share information about food resources. As winter moves in the birds form large roosts when they congregate at sunset. The birds disperse from their roosting areas early in the morning and follow each other to traditional foraging sites. Generally, the larger the roosts the greater the dispersal distances during the day. Feeding and roosting sites may be many kilometres apart.

Crows are regular in their habits, just like elders. They typically commute along regular flight paths, stopping at traditional feeding and staging sites along the way, where they usually vocalize loudly and noticeably. Large roosts usually number in the hundreds or even thousands, but can reach truly huge numbers, e.g. up to 2 million birds in the mid-western U.S.

Ornithologists speculate that roosting crows return to the same tree night after night, possibly even to the same branch. Some studies have shown that crows who occupy superior positions in the group hierarchy are more likely to take sleeping spots in the higher branches. That alone would seem a good indicator of intelligence.

Intelligent they certainly are. Crows are ranked amongst tool-using wild creatures, along with parrots, finches, monkeys and chimpanzees, and have been observed to use twigs to dig worms and insects out of holes. They are commonly observed to post sentries at foraging sites to alert feeding crows of danger.

Crow intelligence has been tested on the university campus in Seattle. Researchers donned masks and then captured and tagged a group of resident crows. They released the birds and checked their reactions on subsequent days when they wore the same masks and, alternatively, when they walked about maskless and when wearing a different set of masks. The results were somewhat in excess of what the researchers expected. Tagged crows would not react to people clad in unfamiliar masks, but they scolded and dive-bombed researchers wearing the same masks as the people who had initially captured and tagged them. Not only that, untagged crows in the neighbourhood rapidly caught on and joined in the dive-bombing.

This all confirmed what had been seen in other behavioural studies on crows, i.e. they communicate with one another in an advanced fashion. Its a contentious point whether crows actually employ what could be called “language”, but they do obviously communicate information to one another. Some researchers have surmised that different crow populations might have different ‘accents’. Its a common belief in the American mid-west that crows will modify their daily or seasonal movement patterns to avoid farms or localities where other crows have been killed in the past. The avoidance response has been reported as persisting amongst subsequent generations of crows. Attractive idea, although at this point one might ask for a little more evidence.

One of the B.C. Lower Mainland’s most remarkable natural ornithological spectacles is still occasionally to be seen in Burnaby. Pre-roosting crows gather in the evening in their thousands around Still Creek near Willingdon and Lougheed. The site serves as a central location from which the crows can radiate out to feed around the Lower Mainland, flying as far afield as the North Shore and Richmond.

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