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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Budget freeze endangers wildlife agency, scientists say

Worth Repeating:


A year in which Canada geese forgot to fly south and bears failed to hibernate is not the time for the federal government to cut funding and begin dismantling the country's national wildlife service.

That is the message leading Canadian wildlife biologists, many of them working in Quebec, are delivering to Ottawa in emails and letters protesting against drastic budget cuts to the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Since the creation of the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1947, the Quebec scientists note, hundreds of endangered birds, animals and habitats have been identified and saved from extinction.

The wildlife service's budgets have been frozen, travel cancelled and research put on hold until the end of the fiscal year, March 1, 2008.

For their part, Environment Canada officials in Ottawa maintain it is business as usual for the agency and its work.

Gregory Jack, manager of ministerial services for Environment Minister John Baird's office, said the service is simply "re-evaluating" its priorities.

Privately, however, biologists working inside the department and many on the outside, have another take on the funding freeze.

Although staff at the wildlife service have been ordered not to speak to the media, emails obtained by The Gazette reveal the federal government wildlife biologists fear the agency is being gutted.

"Despite the green wave that has hit Canadian politics, I have never seen morale so low in this outfit in the 15 years I have worked here," one senior research scientist wrote.

"There is going to be a profound impact on wildlife," said David Bird, a McGill University professor and incoming president of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists.

In addition to research and monitoring programs, he said, the agency also enforces Canada's Environmental Protection Act and various international commitments, including the Migratory Birds Convention and the Canadian Wildlife Act.

Canada can't afford to stop monitoring bird and wildlife species now, many of the alarmed scientists are saying, especially since they also serve as an early-warning system of climate change and its impact on both the environment and humans.

"We need to understand the population dynamics of these species," said Jean-François Giroux, a wildlife biologist and professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

The waterfowl specialist signed a letter sent last week from the 400-member Society of Canadian Ornithologists urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Baird to reconsider the budget restrictions now undermining the department's historic mandate.

He argues that the recent freeze of the wildlife service's field and research programs could jeopardize dozens of scientific projects, some with human health ramifications.

Among the projects in Quebec:

A study looking at ways to control Canada geese in urban areas and based on the 30,000-strong colony now exploding on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River near Varennes.

Continued satellite tracking of and monitoring for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza in snow geese, a migratory species. More than a million snow geese travel over Quebec each year from the Canadian Arctic to the eastern United States.

Monitoring for avian cholera of the colony of 30,000 common eider on islands near Quebec City.

Lynn Miller, a wildlife biologist at Concordia University, said she is concerned what will happen to public education on several serious wildlife concerns.

For the agency, Miller has prepared online updates on bird flu, West Nile virus and other issues that workers in wildlife rehabilitation centres across Canada must know about if they handle dead and injured birds.

"We can't afford not to keep our eyes open to what is happening with wildlife," she said.

Paul Milot, a communications director in the Quebec City office of the wildlife service, said that in Quebec there are between 40 and 45 people working for the agency.

However, he said, he was unable to say anything more about the cuts and directed queries to Ottawa.