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Opinion: Vanishing caribou, dwindling moose and poor hunting? Blame the bureaucrats

Retired ministry moose biologist Alan Bisset says Ontario has the ability to save disappearing caribou and improve moose populations, but an incompetent bureaucracy keeps getting in its own way
180222_Woodland_Caribou_Southern_Selkirk_Mountains_of_Idaho_2007 (Steve Forrest, Creative Cokmmons Attribution 2.0 Generic)
Woodland caribou.

In the past few months I’ve submitted evidence-based, not opinion-based, articles to The editor felt they were worthy enough to publish. 

Although somewhat critical of the excessive influence hunters have on wildlife management decisions, there was not one negative, and very many positive and supportive comments from both hunters and others. 

It isn’t the hunters’ fault for asking to be involved in resource management decisions. It’s the ministry’s and the government’s fault for including them, to the exclusion of other stakeholders like First Nations and ordinary citizens who have an interest in and are affected by those decisions. 

Prior to the first article regarding what I believe were excessive numbers of moose tags and an excessive cow harvest, I had sent a rant to a number of friends. 

It happens that Greg Rickford, the Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, is also a good friend of a friend of mine. My friend is seriously concerned about the moose situation.

My friend said that Mr. Rickford was “interested and capable”. On the basis of that statement, I expected great things from him.

Prior to the first article in October, my friend had mentioned my concerns to Mr. Rickford and copied parts of the rant to him. Apparently he committed to investigate and get back. As I understood things, there was also a commitment to get in touch with me to discuss my concerns personally.

On the basis of those commitments, I had hoped to write a very positive article that Mr. Rickford had taken notice of the situation and was prepared to act. Alas, it was not to be. 

Interestingly, as a response to that first article, Mr. Rickford’s press secretary called to express his concerns about my criticism. 

I was curious to know what information a press secretary, with only a few months involvement with Natural Resources, and as far as I know, no professional training in resource management, had to criticize what was essentially a referenced, science-based article? 

I provided him with my email, and offered to answer his concerns directly. Of course, I never received a reply. Under the circumstances, I considered it a veiled attempt to intimidate the press. Apparently, Mr. Rickford had read the article and didn’t have a problem with it. I considered that a positive sign. 

Life in a bureaucracy

That was four months and four more articles ago critical of both the actions taken and lack of action by staff in the ministry he is charged with leading. At this time neither my friend nor I have had a response to the initial questions regarding the high cow harvest or tags issued. 

Nor has there been a response to the public articles regarding the inclusion of First Nations and non-hunters in the planning process, even though it is implied in all the policies I’ve read and explicitly stated in the moose population guidelines (1, p 7 & 9) written in 2009. 

Mr. Rickford is a “super minister”, also responsible for Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation. One might think in that portfolio he would be wanting to ensure First Nations were given equality in resource management decisions that affect them. 

Of course with the provincial level policies (2, 3) being rewritten, that probably means that current policies and any statements made therein (like public involvement) are “null and void” until they are brought in line with the new policies when completed. 

Based on the argument that nothing could be done to protect the Lake Superior caribou during the 12 years it took to approve the Caribou Conservation Plan, one can’t reasonably expect any decisions to be made, or action to be taken until the rewrite exercise is completed (in another decade or so?) and everyone is in lockstep. 

By then, the provincial policies will be outdated and everything will require rewriting again.

Such is the circle of life within the bureaucracy. “Hakuna matata, what a wonderful phrase, Hakuna matata, ain’t no passing craze. Means no worries for the rest of our days. It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata!” (4, from Disney’s Lion King).

Government isn’t run by politicians. It‘s mostly run by bureaucrats. The control elected officials have is through the funding of different ministries and attention to delivering on a few election promises. Few politicians are in office long enough to really understand how government functions. They only get to know what the bureaucrats tell them. 

Ministers seldom know or understand what actually goes on within their ministries. They, too, are controlled by professional staff from the deputy minister down and ministers depend on “briefing notes” to keep them informed on the current issues that they might have to appear knowledgeable about. 

Letters directed to the minister are usually answered by the very people the letters complain about. Ever wondered why you seldom get a positive response?

My articles will have generated briefing notes and I expect Mr. Rickford was told that I was just full of moose poop and knew little of which I spoke. “Times have changed. We’ve had lots of modernization and ‘change management initiatives’ (5, ‘reorganizations’ in common English) since he retired. We know what we are doing. We have new policies. We have computer simulations.” 

I expect they justified their actions with the same misinformation used to write the policies and mismanage moose and caribou in the first place. 

I will match my experience, knowledge and management success against anyone in his ministry today — even though I’ve been out of the field for 20 years and haven’t made any effort to remain current. The public response to my articles certainly suggests that they are supportive of my assessment of the current situation. 

The problem is politics

As a general principle, bureaucrats have little respect for politicians. After all, they are “politicians” and staff see from the inside what the public only suspects. They know how and why things are done, or not done. 

If a minister creates a problem, all they have to do is drag their feet for a couple of years and they will have a new minister to train. If a minister does prevail, the next minister probably won’t know or care if they revert to old practices. 

Based on my friend’s faith in Mr. Rickford, I had expected him to be the leader to better management, not be led by staff that, certainly in my opinion, are just not competent or capable.

This opinion is evidenced by the continued decline in moose numbers, taking 12 years to approve the Caribou Conservation Plan and still not even know who the minister is. It is also evidenced by the unresolved conflict in policies regarding caribou and moose that will certainly lead to the extirpation of caribou in some areas while reducing the social and economic opportunities from moose, and ignoring and undermining the legal mandate under the Endangered Species Act to protect the Lake Superior caribou population. 

I really don’t like to accuse folks of incompetence. It discourages those who are trying to do a good job and the people who are truly incompetent probably aren’t intelligent enough to know it or just don’t care. That said, when faced with the evidence cited above it is really difficult to find a more appropriate word. 

It is up to the leaders — the senior, senior managers to deal with these kinds of problems — if in fact they aren’t the source of the problem in the first place. 

They are paid to ensure that problems are addressed and that the organization functions effectively, efficiently and with a high level of competence towards the stated objectives of that organization. The minister is the ultimate leader if he or she chooses to be actively involved and take charge. 

As noted in the last article it is difficult to hold senior managers accountable for such vague and immeasurable things as “maintaining ecosystems” and “biodiversity”, but they should be held accountable for documented and measurable things like the decline in moose and caribou numbers, failure to include First Nations and the public as is written in policy and both permitting and contributing to the extirpation of caribou on Michipicoten Island, contrary to the Endangered Species Act. 

Members of the public or corporations who did anything like that would be changed and probably convicted. 

In the real world, a manager who failed to perform at the expected level would be looking for a new job. In government they are more likely to remain, get promoted, or move off to another unsuspecting ministry. 

Maybe Rickford isn’t all that capable after all

Mr. Rickford doesn’t know me and has no reason to accept my views, even though they are supported by his ministry’s documents and other referenced evidence. Consequently, I recommended, through my friend, that he initiate an independent, external review of the information system and management practices. Again, I have heard nothing on this front. 

The point of this is that judging by Mr. Rickford’s inaction on these problems, and contrary to my friends opinion, he is not “interested and capable.” 

He is just another politician and, at least to me, a major disappointment in his role as minister responsible for wildlife and Aboriginal Affairs.

He can ignore my concerns because in the political world they will blow over, even though the problems will persist in the real world and in all likelihood will get worse, perhaps with significant negative effects on the economy and social activities in northern Ontario for decades to come. 

If they do get worse, the responsibility can be laid directly at his feet. As GI Joe once said,  “Forewarned is forearmed.” 

If Mr. Rickford chooses to ignore the warnings, he does so not at his own peril, unfortunately, but at the peril of the resources and the people of Ontario. 

In apparently typical political fashion, Mr. Rickford is ignoring real issues until they become a political flash points. 

I doubt that either moose or caribou will ever be politically significant at the provincial level, but I hope for the sake of these resources they might become so in his riding and among the First Nations people he is supposed to represent.

I think someone characterized politicians as self-serving, insincere and disinterested. I’m not a judge of such things, but I do recognize that inaction when presented with evidence of a problem is a character trait that is not well respected by many people. 

Moose, and to a much lesser extent caribou, are a significant part of the culture and economy of the North. They probably don’t generate as much income in a year as Canada’s Wonderland does in a day, but they do generate it in an area with relatively little other economic opportunities. 

They provide food and recreation for Northerners as well other Ontario residents. They amaze travellers when seen along a highway or on a canoe trip. They provide direct economic opportunities for tourist outfitters through hunting and indirect benefits through sightings while fishing. They are fundamental to the culture of First Nations. 

They are threatened by mismanagement within Mr. Rickford’s ministry and his apparent indifference to the problems they face. 

If my observations and success in moose management are meaningful, then I believe that the social and economic opportunities should be far greater through effective management, as I have described in my first article.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Rickford doesn’t appear to share this vision, or even care enough to contact me to discuss the matter as he apparently committed to do. I think he is doing his constituents a disservice by ignoring an obvious problem that is important to so many of them, and for which he has been offered potential and relatively simple solutions. 

Certainly that is just my opinion, but perhaps it is also a fact.

Funding was provided to do a caribou population survey in about 2010. Apparently the estimate was 20,000 animals. That number has not been released publicly, supposedly because it conflicts with the narrative that they are a threatened species. 

With the significant range reduction, mainly due to logging, it is questionable whether there is even a “harvestable surplus” from a population of 20,000. If there is, the rationale assumes that the harvest is relatively uniformly distributed over the entire population. I would expect the impact of killing an entire band would be extremely deleterious. 

Caribou occur in small numbers distributed over large home ranges during the summer. They band together during the winter. Killing all or most members of such bands leaves a very large void in their range.

I also expect there is an inherent or learned knowledge of how to move through that range. Forming a winter herd cannot be a random event. It would be passed down through generations and permit them to exist in a very hostile environment. It would be difficult or take a very long time to replace that knowledge.

As noted previously, population surveys can be very inaccurate. Depending on one estimate is both naive and unprofessional. Surveys should be repeated until there is reasonable confidence that you know what the population size is and how much estimates vary. That would dictate how often surveys would need to be done to get a clear understanding of the population trend. 

I have advocated for First Nations to be fully included in resource management decisions regarding moose. If what I have been told is true, the impact of their hunting practices could completely jeopardize any plan to sustain a viable caribou population in Ontario. 

Again, their involvement and knowledge about caribou, and their cooperation are essential to protecting and managing this species. 

The bottom line is that the ministry needs to crap or get off the pot. Either start to manage them actively as is required under the Endangered Species Act (by more population surveys, wolf control and working with First Nations regarding hunting) or delist them and leave them to their fate. 

Doing nothing is certainly an option, and apparently the one chosen to date, but it is the option of incompetence and callus disregard for our wildlife heritage and the law.

Alan Bisset is a retired regional moose biologist and wildlife inventory program leader with the former Ministry of Natural Resources. He has written and published many papers on moose management, both Internally and in scientific journals. Bisset lives in Strathroy, west of London, Ontario.


1. Moose Population Objective Setting Guidelines. 2009.

2. Protecting What Sustains Us – Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy. Queen’s Printer of Ontario. OMNR. 2005. 44 p. Online: [link inactive]

3.  Our Sustainable Future. 2005. Queen’s Printer of Ontario. OMNR. 23 p. Online: [link inactive]

5 : Hakuna matata

5. Read the career of Monique Rolf von den Baumen-Clark, the current Deputy Minister who “contributed to several modernization and change management initiatives”:


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