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Serving the public is not on MNR's agenda

The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, February 05, 2007

Re: When cuts become silly, Jan. 31.

Kelly Egan's column demonstrates why the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources needs an overhaul from top to bottom.

After more than three dozen Freedom of Information Act applications following the debacle the MNR carried out at the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre in 2002, the evidence shows that serving the public is simply not on this ministry's agenda.

The gas money that is no longer available to conservation officers has no doubt been hived off to the ministry's bogus wildlife-disease initiatives. A handful of wildlife researchers have been able to propel rabies operations and research into a major industry that keeps the career scientists in jobs and the vaccine and bait businesses happy.

Taxpayers would be shocked to learn how much has been spent to sustain these efforts -- all for the least-risk disease in North America, thanks to pet vaccination. The MNR rabies research and development unit, housed at Trent University, even has its own public-relations person, churning out press releases about a research program that should have been put to bed years ago.

And if the politicians finally cotton onto the rabies scam, then MNR wildlife staff have the newest bug du jour waiting -- avian flu or perhaps chronic wasting disease.

It doesn't matter that neither of these exist in Ontario because, with enough fear-mongering, they can surely raise the profile sufficiently to keep the funds flowing. Meanwhile, the conservation officers are left with the serious task of harassing people caring for orphaned deer or baby squirrels.

The Ministry of Natural Resources had the choice 15 years ago, given changing demographics, to expand its client group, which is solely based on harvesting interests, to include the broader community and the growing interest in non-consumptive activities.

I was involved in a public consultation established by the MNR in 1990 that produced a wildlife strategy for Ontario, calling for such changes. It was widely rejected by MNR staff and was shelved.

It is hard to be terribly sympathetic with the plight of MNR staff. It is easier to be sorry for the public, given the damage done by this ministry and the lack of government oversight that has caused it.

Donna DuBreuil, Ottawa
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre


Re: When cuts become silly, Jan. 31.

What a wonderful article and unfortunately, how true! Yet as outrageous as this may appear, it is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the MNR.

Although I am not an Ottawa area resident, as a former wildlife (rehabilitator) custodian, I have been following the BAM-BAM situation very closely. Former, because I feel that I can not provide humane and responsible rehabilitation under the current regulations. Be it BAM BAM, issues pertaining to the the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, or the closure of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre, these actions along with the respective allocation of funds within the ministry's departments clearly demonstrates a lack of interest or commitment to the preservation and rehabilitation of wildlife at all levels. And wildlife rehabilitation doesn't even have a financial impact on the MNR's fiscal resources!

The MNR continues to pour millions of dollars into rabies research even though Mr. Ramsay himself has stated in writing that "Ontario does have a low public health risk". In reality according to pharmaceutical companies that produce rabies vaccines, the medical threat is almost nonexistent. Yet in the same document, Mr. Ramsay also states "In June 2004, the committee confirmed it continued support for the policies and practices of the MNR rabies program."

If wildlife is truly a concern of the MNR, it's time for this government to start walking the talk. Let's see if the Premier gets involved in this one!

Deborah Harris
Denfield, Ontario
(London Ontario area)

When cuts become silly

Natural Resources staff can't even leave offices

Kelly Egan
The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What on earth is going on with the Ministry of Natural Resources?

A tipster tells me the department is so woefully underfunded that its conservation officers are stuck in their offices for weeks at a time because there's no money to gas up their trucks.

Sounds preposterous. It is, however, very close to the truth. Wild kingdom, indeed.

Conservation officers in two offices in Eastern Ontario report that, during the last fiscal year, they've spent weeks grounded in their offices, except for outright emergencies.

Jeff Bendig has been a conservation officer for 12 years, the last few in Kemptville. He is president of a local of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. He was careful to say he is speaking in that capacity and not on behalf of the ministry.

During the last seven months, he says, there has been a series of restrictions on how much, and what kind of patrolling the conservation officers can do. Recall that these officers are responsible for enforcing Ontario fish and game laws and act as a visible deterrent to violators. They aren't smiley-faced students at provincial campsites -- they're the cops chasing poachers through the woods.

In August, says Mr. Bendig, the officers were told they had sufficient funds to patrol about 1,200 kilometres a month, on average -- about half the former amount -- and only on priority calls.

In September came more restrictions. At the end of November came the hammer: the ministry was nearly out of money for enforcement. Until further notice, officers were limited to joint patrols, court commitments and following up on ongoing investigations.

Only serious public safety complaints, and those dealing with real threats to a species, would be investigated, and only on approval from a supervisor.

This continued through December and January.

"It means that three of us are sitting in the office, and have been for over a month, and it's looking like we'll be here till April 1," said Mr. Bendig.

So far, he reports, there has been enough paperwork to do. He is plowing through what he describes as a "four-inch" binder that serves as a manual for prosecutions.

Much has been made of the ministry's 1-800 tips line, which gathers complaints around the clock about infractions in Ontario forests.

"There have been a large number of complaints that have come in on that line and simply haven't been responded to," Mr. Bendig said.

A conservation officer in another depot in Eastern Ontario had much the same story. It should be added, too, that many are worried about speaking out publicly, for fear of being reprimanded.

The officer said an edict went out in the middle of last March to stop patrols. This continued for several weeks, only to see officers eventually given a $100 weekly cap for gas, meals and cellphone expenses. It was enough money for a day or two of patrolling, he said.

Then it got worse. He said last August, the detachment conservation officers did not do any patrols for the whole month. He admits there has been a fair bit of idle time during the last year. "If you're not responding and you're not patrolling, what else can you do? It drives us crazy."

It would be convenient to dismiss these concerns as nothing more than union fear-mongering, dedicated to preserving jobs and giving conservation officers more perks at public expense.

But listen to Robert Pye, a communications co-ordinator for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, hardly a left-wing organization.

"This is beyond hearsay and rhetoric. This is a fact that the MNR is in a lot of trouble."

It, too, has heard stories of conservation officers all over Ontario being told to park their vehicles for extended periods. The federation has many other concerns about MNR operations.

"The fish and wildlife program," said Mr. Pye, "is essentially bankrupt."

Andrew Houser is a former ministry director of fish and wildlife and the author of an analysis of ministry spending. Mr. Houser concluded the program needs $120 million to operate properly this year, more than $40 million more than it actually received.

To make matters worse, about 75 per cent of its $78-million allocation actually comes from fees charged to hunters, fishermen and trappers, Mr. Houser said. It is, he wrote, "a financial crisis."

It isn't just gas in trucks. Late last year, the federation joined with a number of groups to take over the Ringwood Fish Culture Station, northeast of Stouffville, after a cut in provincial funds threatened to close it.

"This is not just a fishing and hunting issue. It's an issue for anyone who cares about our natural resources," said Mr. Pye.

In December, ministry workers in North Bay and Hearst held symbolic bake sales to raise money to keep the ministry afloat and keep trucks on the road. Funny, if it weren't sad.

Add to this the spectacle of Bam-Bam, the found fawn that was raised by a couple near Greely, then seized in a raid by the ministry in December, then returned by Premier Dalton McGuinty as a goodwill gesture just before Christmas. Nice PR move. Now, will he ever get the ministry's real story one day?

Contact Kelly Egan at 613-726-5896 or by e-mail, kegan@thecitizen.canwest.com

The Ottawa Citizen 2007


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