as the opseu strike drags into its fourth week, conservation officers and animal rights activists alike are increasingly worried that poachers have declared open season on wildlife. On Friday (April 5), the Ontario Conservation Officers Association (OCOA) reported that 23 of the Ministry of Natural Resources' 26 districts are reporting widespread poaching of fish, wild turkey and large game, including moose and deer.
A seven-page list of poaching activities released by OCOA includes 67 species of wildlife. And that was mere days after OCOA president Bill Fisher called on his membership for information.
The news was enough to alarm even the notoriously pro-hunting Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH). OFAH, OCOA and the Animal Alliance of Canada are now calling on Management Board chair Dave Tsubouchi, who's heading up strike negotiations for the government, to declare conservation officers an essential service. So far, no response.
While the Tories' record on the environment leaves much to be desired, it's even worse on the wildlife conservation front.
"Our resources are being depleted daily," says Fisher. "We can't take this much longer."
Mike Harris promised a doubling of the current 200-person conservation workforce. That never happened.
In fact, things have gotten much worse from an enforcement perspective, so bad that conservation officers in some regions of the province don't have enough gas to go out on patrol in their vehicles.
Factor in seniority, vacation time and reduced overtime budgets and what you have is no more than 130 officers patrolling the vast wilds at any one time. That number has dwindled to a few dozen managers since OPSEU took to the picket lines. Slim ranks for an outfit that typically deals with 10,000 wildlife-related offences province-wide every year.
"We could probably use three times the number of guys in the field," says Dave Harnish, senior supervisor for the Sault Ste. Marie area. Harnish is not on strike -- he's management."We see incidents of poaching escalating and an inability to respond.
"There's no deterrent effect. All you end up doing is investigating stuff after the fact. It's a vicious circle."
In the bush, poaching is big business, by most estimates worth some $100 million in Ontario. So sophisticated has the trade become that special intelligence units made up of conservation officers as well as canine units have been established within MNR to track it.
"We're dealing with organized crime," says Rick Maw, a conservation officer stationed near North Bay.
Astonishingly, the illegal profits from wildlife poaching in Canada rank third after drugs and tobacco and liquor smuggling.
More than 600 moose poaching-related charges were laid by the Ministry of Natural Resources in 2000 alone. Some 41 unlawfully hunted moose were seized in the first 10 months of last year.
Targets of conservation officers' investigations have included biker gangs, at least one prominent crime family and everything in between.
Now Animal Alliance of Canada people are sounding the alarm that the strike has dangerously increased the trade in bear gall bladders and other parts.
Just last week in the town of Tilbury near Chatham, not an area known for bears, garbage collectors came across two bear paws, a delicacy in south Asian cuisine, in the trash.
Says Alliance spokesperson Liz White: "We can expect poaching, killing bears for gall bladders and trading in endangered species as long as no one is out in the field protecting wildlife."
The trade in bear parts, whose gall bladders and other parts are coveted for their medicinal uses, is particularly lucrative and difficult to track. Gall bladders can go for anywhere from $200 to $500 each on the black market.
Many of the bear parts poached in Ontario are bound for markets abroad, mostly in Asia and to a lesser extent the U.S. Outfitters are a conduit for the trade.
But wildlife and police authorities have also tracked bear parts to stores in Chinatowns in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Investigations in northern Ontario have involved poaching rings of as many as 14 people.
A report by the Bear Alliance asserts that in addition to the 40,000 bears killed legally each year in North America, another 40,000 are poached, over half of them in Canada.
Caroline Knight, a spokesperson for Minister of Natural Resources John Snobelen, doubts the poaching problem is as serious as conservation officers or animal rights activists are making it out to be. The government continues to claim that no poaching has been reported during the current OPSEU strike.