Wildlife Protection

by: Tony Duke
December 1981

What does it take to protect an animal?

A law written on a piece of paper make s it illegal to kill red-eyed vireos. Yet a bull dozer, legally pushing its way through the forest to build a new road, crushes a tree, and four fledgling vireos that would have been able to fly within a week are lost in the pile of earth and twisted roots.

There is more to protecting wildlife than you might think.

Where dwindling wildlife populations are concerned, it seems hunters and trappers take most of the blame. But sportsmen have often been the leaders in the protection of wildlife. Nova Scotia's first laws to protect wildlife were passed in the mid 1800's. It was a small group of sportsmen and soldiers of the garrison who formed the Nova Scotia Game Society and pushed for the first hunting season which would limit the taking of moose. In 1856 the year-round slaughter was reduced to five months (September 1 to February 1). Furthermore, beginning in 1874, a three-year closed season was introduced with the appointment of the first game wardens to help build up the moose herd.

Before this time the wildlife resource was ruthlessly exploited to supply furs for European trade, meat and eggs for the growing colonies and feathers for fashion. In Nova Scotia the result was that most beaver colonies were wiped out, the marten and caribou were exterminated, the great auk, sea mink, Labrador duck and passenger pigeon became extinct. Market hunting was the major cause, but loss of the animal's habitat by uncontrolled fires and forest cutting probably contributed equally.

New laws to protect wildlife showed a change in the attitudes of the colonists. They were becoming "civilized", relying on their domestic stock for food and clothing and leaving the game for the sportsmen. Since then, interest in wildlife steadily grew until the present day's environmental movement, where most people have far-reaching concerns for wildlife. Television and magazines bring wildlife issues into our homes so vividly that we become concerned that the elephants are being over-hunted in Africa or that whales are being exterminated on the high seas. We fear the chemicals we use today will cause the death of animals for years to come. Before we criticize we should make sure we are protecting Nova Scotia's wildlife.

We have laws that protect our game animals, game birds and sport fish. They can be taken only during a short hunting, trapping or fishing season and often the hunter, trapper or fisherman is limited in the number he can take. These game animals are in large healthy populations that can support harvesting to provide food, furs and recreation for Nova Scotians. Wildlife biologists are monitoring these populations to regulate the seasons and bag limits so there will be no overharvest.

Moreover, all but three of the province's 225 bird species are protected by the Migratory Bird Convention Act or the Lands and Forests Act. Hawks, owls, robins, woodpeckers, gulls, sandpipers, etc., and their active nests, eggs and young are all protected by law. The three exceptions, English sparrows, starlings and crows, have always been considered pests and can be killed at any time.

There are also three sport fish - brook trout, Atlantic Salmon and black bass - that are protected by seasons and/or bag limits under the Fisheries Act.

However, none of the other 34 fish species found in Nova Scotia has any legal protection. Nor do any of our 30 non-game mammals (woodchuck, flying squirrel, porcupine, mice, shrews and bats, etc.), nor do any of our 23 amphibians and reptiles.

But laws are only one way to protect wildlife. Every fish, bird or mammal requires water, food and cover to survive and produce young. The place where an animal lives is called its habitat and without habitat there can be no wildlife. The loss of habitat - not overhunting - is the biggest threat to wildlife today.

To protect habitats, the Department of Lands and Forests and the Canadian Wildlife Service have developed sanctuaries, Wildlife Management areas and National Wildlife areas. For example, the Debert W.M.A. protects the limited nesting area of the America widgeon in Nova Scotia, just as the Eastern Shore W.M.A. protects the nesting areas of some seabird colonies. But the private landowners have a particularly important role in the protection of wildlife habitat because they own about two-thirds of the land in nova Scotia. Their decisions about forest cutting, farming or construction mean the life or death of the wildlife living there.

What about special protection for the endangered animals we hear so much about - the bald eagle, the osprey, the Ipswich sparrow, blueback herring and Atlantic whitefish? In Nova Scotia the Department of Lands and Forests does not consider these animals in any immediate danger.

We have a large healthy population of eagles nesting on Cape Breton Island that seems to be reproducing very well. This is the same eagle that nests all across Canada, and whose numbers are measured in the tens of thousands. At present the birds occupy reasonably remote areas; but future development could endanger their habitat. The Department is currently locating their nests to protect them in any forest-cutting plans submitted to Lands and Forests.

The Osprey nests here in large numbers each year. There are more active osprey nests on McNabs and Lawlor Islands in Halifax Harbour than there are in the entire British Isles! Osprey habitat includes large shallow bodies of water where they can easily fish. There are many such areas around Nova Scotia's coasts, but as with eagles, their nest sites are vulnerable and could be endangered by development.

Sable Island is the home of the Ipswich sparrow, which was once thought to be endangered. Hundreds of them live there; they also nest on the mainland. The fact is, they are really large, light-coloured savanna sparrows, a common bird in Nova Scotia. So there is a question of whether this bird really is rare. As long as Sable Island survives we have time to make up our minds about the status of the Ipswich sparrow.

Likewise, the Atlantic whitefish is found nowhere else in the world than the Tusket River in Yarmouth county. But it is so similar to the common lake whitefish that special laws to protect it could possibly restrict all fishing in the Tusket River. So new laws are unnecessary.

The blueback herring, a fish much like gaspereaux and often caught in the same nets as gaspereaux, was once believed to be in danger. However as fisheries biologists examined more rivers in the Maritimes, they found more blueback herring.

Clearly the subject is very complex and requires everyone's interest. By learning more about wildlife and supporting management programs, including protection of habitat, Nova Scotians can greatly help all their wildlife resources. Only with public support will governments be able to meet the wildlife-based needs of Nova Scotians both now and in the future.