Should moose be eliminated from the island?
The obvious solution to the carnage caused by moose colliding with humans on our highways is to kill all the moose on the island. So says Steven Fletcher, a Manitoba MP and Minister of Transport for Canada, himself left a quadriplegic after a 1996 moose/vehicle collision: “Moose cull makes sense for road safety,” Telegram, Aug. 10, 2013.
As Minister Fletcher recites, moose are not native to the island of Newfoundland and were introduced by government, they cause great environmental damage (enough for the two national parks on the island to institute a massive cull), and they cause about 800 vehicle collisions per year.
We can understand why victims of this public safety crisis might favour the drastic road safety solution of a complete cull. Fletcher points to other effective solutions such as fencing and increased hunting without total elimination of moose, but states the truism that “the only foolproof method to eliminate moose collisions is to eliminate the moose.”
As class counsel to the moose vehicle collision class action, I have learned a lot about the provincial government’s analysis and approach to the moose/vehicle collision problem, and I want to share a few ideas with readers to inform the debate.
No government policy
The moose/vehicle collision problem is an economic, social and political problem which presents an issue of core governmental policy making. It is not an issue which class action lawsuits and courts can directly resolve. The problem has been that until the moose class action was launched, there was no core governmental policy on mitigation of moose/vehicle collisions.
In our system of government, the role of public officials is to assist the executive in identifying public policy issues, conduct a reasonable level of research on the options, and provide policy advice.
The role of the executive level of government, meaning ministers, premier and cabinet, is to decide core governmental policy issues. The job of government is to govern, and whether to take drastic measures to mitigate moose/vehicle collisions, take intermediate science-based measures, or take no measures at all, is a decision for ministers and cabinet led by the premier.
The great failure of government on the moose/vehicle collision mitigation issue is that it has not governed.
For decades, the cabinets of successive governments failed to decide what core governmental policy should be on moose/vehicle collision mitigation — until that is, government got sued in January 2011. Government did not decide to do nothing. Instead, it simply made no decision. This is a matter of record in documents filed in court by the government itself.
In July 2011, government announced that it would invest about $5 million in a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the number of moose/vehicle collisions, including wildlife fencing and detection systems and an increase in the number of moose hunting licences by more than 5,000. This was the result of a personal intervention by Premier Kathy Dunderdale, and she deserves full credit for taking a policy decision and doing the hard job of governing.
This is not to say that government did nothing about moose/vehicle collisions before July 2011. A comparatively small amount of money was invested in standard moose warning signs, clearing of roadside brush and increasing public awareness of the danger. But these initiatives were taken at the public officials level in default of formal guidance from cabinet.
Public officials did what they thought they could do within the scope of their authority and of existing budgets, and without any policy direction from cabinet.
This is also not to be critical of any previous premier. Premiers and ministers did not receive accurate advice from public officials on the proven options to tackle the moose/vehicle collision crisis, and premiers seldom intervene in departmental policy issues which have not reached the cabinet agenda.
There is good reliable science on what works to mitigate moose/vehicle collisions. Fencing and reduction in moose densities surrounding highways are two proven effective strategies. There is scientific consensus as to what mitigation measures work. If we make a public policy commitment to effective mitigation measures, experts advise that we can reduce moose/vehicle collisions on the island by more than 50 per cent over a five-year period.
Some may think that government should do nothing. Some may think that government should cull all moose. Some may think that moose are a valued addition to our cultural and economic landscapes and that a program of fencing and reduction of moose densities is the way to go.
These are legitimate points of view in a democratic society.
Finally, government is listening, learning and developing moose strategy options. Next year, when results from the moose fencing and moose detection system pilot projects are available, government will make another core policy choice about moose/vehicle collision mitigation. Prompted, perhaps, by a little lawsuit.