The government wants to come down hard on Manitoba poachers by imposing restitution on top of existing fines — a good, albeit small first step to address the province’s “alarming” moose and elk numbers, says the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.
Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh proposed the first-of-its-kind-in-Canada legislation Thursday, which the government expects to be implemented in early 2015.
“Poachers should pay the real price and they should hear a strong deterrent message when it comes to the impact of poaching on fish and game populations.” Mackintosh told the Sun.
Current provincial penalties for poaching deal with fines and the possibility of jail time, but not restitution. Under the proposed legislation, individuals would pay yet-to-be-established restitution for the fish or animals they killed illegally.
For example, the proposed restitution for a conviction involving a walleye fish could be about $40 and range from $500 to $4,000 for a white tailed deer, depending on the trophy value.
Restitution amounts would double for offences in areas closed to hunting or incidents involving protected species. This approach would reflect the damage and severity of the infractions and would act as a more effective deterrent than the current fine system alone, Mackintosh said.
MWF managing director Rob Olson said it’s a good first step, but wildlife restitution isn’t the first priority to address moose and elk “population crisis.”
“It’s a great thing, it’s a positive step, but restitution is not in the top 10 of what moose need right now,” Olson said.
“We’d like to see strong penalties towards some of the most valuable game we have, which are the female moose and elk,” Olson said, but “restitution won’t amount to anything without enough enforcement on the ground.”
Mackintosh said the province has maintained 119 natural resource officers throughout the province over the past four years and handed out tickets resulting in 1,000 prosecutions for fish and wildlife infractions in 2013, according to preliminary stats.
“That speaks to the level of enforcement on the front lines,” Mackintosh said, despite departmental belt-tightening in past years.
Olson said in the 20 years he has hunted deer south of Brandon, he has never seen a resource officer. Along with more enforcement, he said more population data for big game is desperately needed.
He said the declining moose numbers are alarming, but those statistics are anecdotal as there has been a lack of wildlife surveys conducted by the province for more than a decade.
“It’s anyone’s guess — we’re guessing how bad poaching is.”
Aside from a voluntary survey for licensed hunters that gives a rough estimate, Olson said it’s unclear how many animals are hunted and added there’s no good estimation about how many animals are killed as part of First Nations rights-based hunting.
“We don’t know what the population is doing year to year,” he said, “We don’t have a count and we don’t know how many are being hunted. If you don’t know those things, you’re not managing moose and elk. It’s the first step.”
Mackintosh said there were four “significant” moose and elk surveys conducted in 2013-14 and argues there has been an increase in enforcement and surveys in recent years. The province has also allocated $420,000 to surveying, he said, which is about a 23 per cent increase from the previous year.
Large swaths of territory in Westman are closed to hunting in the Duck Mountains, the Porcupine Hills and surrounding lands, though Olson believes there are other areas that need to be closed off as well.
“With all these areas being closed to hunting, to us it feels a bit like trying to catch the last cod fish here,” Olson said.
Revenue from restitution may go to, for example, additional enforcement, ecological studies or disease prevention efforts, Mackintosh said. Those decisions will be made in the fall.
» firstname.lastname@example.org, with files from the Winnipeg Free Press
» Twitter: @grjbruce