Cuts to program too close to the bone
Outfitter, biologist both want jawbone collection to remain
Outfitter Wayne Holloway realizes that cuts to wildlife funding aren’t what’s on many people’s minds with this controversial budget.
“I understand the dilemma. It’s hard to stand up in the House and defend spending money on wildlife when you don’t have money for a set of dentures for some senior citizen.”
Nevertheless, the discontinuation of the jawbone collection program that has seen hunters bring in that part of the animal for years has him grinding his teeth.
“The jawbone is where the nutrition issue shows up the earliest because there’s nobody going out there doing body weights or calf birth-weight measurements,” Holloway says.
“It’s the guaranteed signpost to show you what’s going on out there - and now we have nothing.”
Holloway has had Pine Ridge Lodge outfitting camp since 1988. He represented Newfoundland outfitters during a five-year $15-million caribou study beginning in 2008 that addressed the province’s alarmingly shrinking herds. He points to some of what was learned during that study to exemplify the importance of jawbone collection. While the data collected on caribou were good quality for years, there was a fiveyear period leading up to the collapse of herds where jawbones were collected, but the data not analyzed. When the data was looked at during the study, information collected from the jawbones indicated that there was a severe nutrition problem with the caribou herds in parts of the province.
“Had they been plotting the data on an annual basis they would have seen when the decline began and they would have known then that there was a nutrition deficiency in the habitat and the caribou, as a consequence of that, was going to collapse,” says Holloway.
“Now we’re not even going to collect the data.”
Certain measurements of the jawbones of moose and caribou can give demographic information such as age, nutrition and there is also a surrogate measurement for body size. Environment and Conservation Minister Perry Trimper, however, argues that discontinuing the jawbone collection program, which was eliminated as part of cuts in Budget 2016, isn’t a loss.
“It’s certainly not necessarily a reflection of the population. It’s been a tool. It’s been a secondary tool,” Trimper says.
“When you’re working solely say with jawbones what you’re actually doing is you’re working with a bias. You’re working with jaws from animals that were selected by hunters.”
Holloway isn’t arguing for the sole use of jawbone data, but for the continued use of it with other study options. Jeff Higdon, a wildlife biologist from here who now has his own environmental consulting business in Manitoba, seconds Holloway’s opinion and flatly disagrees with Trimper’s.
“My first thought was that it’s incredibly stupid to stop it and the data ...I won’t say it’s the only way, but it’s certainly the best way the province had for collecting demographic data on moose and caribou harvests.”
Higdon also isn’t buying Trimper’s argument about bias in jawbone collection.
“I think any issue about bias is just trying to deflect from the issue in the first place,” he says.
The jawbone collection program has hunters doing a lot of the grunt work. They cut the bones out and drop them off at a wildlife office. Later the bones are boiled and measured by lab staff.
“It actually represents quite a substantial cost,” Trimper says about cancelling the program.
The savings is $25,000 to $30,000 annually. That amount seems small to both Higdon and Holloway when measured against the value of the data.
“The problem is that none of these animals shows up at the voting booth. That’s the problem,” says Holloway.
“We have no barometer to follow the health of these resources.” Trimper disagrees. He said the government is moving more toward habitat modelling and drawing associations between that habitat and the animals you should see there.
“Once you understand what’s out there versus the habitat, that’s where the modelling comes in,” he says.
“It’s not so much quantity of data. It’s quality.”
With jawbones you get both, Higdon contends. He says replacing such data with habitat modelling misses an important point.
“That still ignores the fact that they’re not going to have any demographic data. To link a habitat model to a population, you need that demographic data to do it.”
Holloway is now worried that the government has no real knowledge of the number of moose out there and aerial surveys will only tell so much. The loss of such a cheap program has him gravely concerned.
“I would prefer to sell this decision not so much as a loss, but more of a change in the way we’re doing things,” Trimper says.
No matter which way you sell it, it’s clear some hunters, outfitters and biologists aren’t buying it.
A biologist holds a caribou jawbone. The jawbone can provide valuable information about the health and history of a caribou.