As long as I can remember, I have been interested in animal welfare issues, so when the second item on the consent agenda for the Planning and Environment Committee was listed as dealing with Potential Adverse Impacts to Municipal Infrastructure, Private and/or Public Lands and Ecological Conditions of the Water Resources System from Beaver Activity, I took note.
The issue arose out of a concern that a beaver lodge in the Stanton Pond west of Hyde Park Road was interfering with the drainage infrastructure. It appears that the automatic reaction of engineering staff has been to have the offending creatures trapped and killed or possibly relocated. To this end they hire trappers to remove the beavers.
It’s a fairly typical response to wildlife/human conflicts in urban settings. A few years ago, police shot a bear that came too close to the city. While I was on council, there was a major effort on the part of some councillors to cull the deer in the Byron Bog. They beat a hasty retreat in the face of significant public opposition. Instead, we requested that an actual professional study be done to determine the deer numbers and their impact on the bog. The resulting report showed that the numbers of deer in the bog was actually very low and in decline and major damage to the bog came more from off leash dogs, humans and buckthorn than from deer.
The deer study, however, proved to be very helpful, as a model to understand other forms of wildlife/human conflicts.
This was one of the tasks of the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AWAC), to advise the council on how to deal with conflicts of this nature.
AWAC takes its responsibilities seriously. Its members are solidly committed to animal welfare, and they are not afraid to do the needed research to speak knowledgeably on the issues they undertake. They read and bring in qualified guest speakers to make presentations.
To that end, they entertained a presentation from the city ecologist, Bonnie Bergsma, who invited them:
to participate in the development of a Wildlife Strategy relating to the City’s beaver management practices, including development of a risk management evaluation process for responding to conflicts between beavers and infrastructure, such as municipal drains, culverts and storm water facilities.
Also, when undertaking stream restoration projects where there are existing beaver lodges and dams, that the recommended solution should not be to trap, kill and remove the beavers and their habitat, but to undertake the restoration with the protection of the beaver’s habitat in mind.
The advisory committee responded by receiving the report and noting that “the AWAC will work with Civic Administration to develop recommendations for policies and best practices to handle wildlife specific to the City’s beaver management practice.” That report was ultimately received by the Public Safety Committee and council, neither of whom indicated that the AWAC should cease and desist.
AWAC meets monthly, while the Public Safety Committee, to which it reports, meets rather infrequently. Thus it was that AWAC continued to study the issue, identifying non-lethal alternatives for dealing with bad beaver behaviour, and eventually made recommendations for the Public Safety Committee’s and the council’s consideration.
What AWAC recommended was that, in accordance with a request from the Ontario Wildlife Coalition, council support a progressive, nonlethal approach to beaver management and that staff be directed to stop their current practices in this regard. The committee wanted an opportunity to complete its report and offer concrete suggestions for dealing with the problem. The Public Safety committee agreed and so recommended to council, which on June 26, 2012 passed the following motion:
i) the Municipal Council BE REQUESTED to support and implement a progressive and humane response program related to human-wildlife conflicts in the municipality; it being noted that this matter was identified in the Beaver Wildlife Management Strategy, dated December 13, 2011 and relating to the Stanton Drain Remediation and Storm Water Management Facility Construction;
ii) Civic Administration BE DIRECTED to refrain from further action with respect to any current beaver intervention, pending the development of the program noted in a) above; it being noted that AWAC is reviewing the environmental impact study and will submit an additional report with recommendations to Municipal Council regarding the resident beaver noted in the above-noted report; and,
iii) a representative from Stormwater Management BE INVITED to a future meeting of the AWAC to discuss strategies to discourage circumstances which foster human-wildlife conflicts.
So why, only a month later, did that same staff come forward with a recommendation to carry on business as usual, to continue trapping and killing of beavers and destroying their habitat if staff deemed them to have an adverse impact on infrastructure?
Staff made the recommendation to the Planning and Environment Committee without any word to AWAC. Was it a deliberate attempt to circumvent the input of AWAC or was everyone so confused by the myriad of changes in committee structure and reporting relationships over the last two years that no one knows what he is doing?
Certainly, the members of the Planning and Environment Committee seemed baffled. Chair Bud Pohill wondered why he had received emails and phone calls from the public about killing and trapping beavers. What was going on? Councillor Judy Bryant wondered if that was what they had to do, to protect infrastructure? It seems that no one on the committee remembered that they had voted on this very issue only a few short weeks ago.
Nor did city engineer, John Braam, who had recommended the strategy upon a submission by stormwater manager, Berta Kritchker, seem to have a good grasp on what this was all about. He could only reply that they would act in accordance with the provincial requirements. Polhill wanted to know what they were. Braam wouldn’t say. He was not prepared to go into the specifics. Suffice it to say that they would be in accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).
“We’re not experts,” he acknowledged, but they used “licensed trappers.” What these trappers did, he did not say, but “the MNR are the experts” and they were not just going forth “willy-nilly.”
But surely, although he did not write the report, he would have read background documents. He should have known that council had already taken a position on this. At the very least, it should have been pointed out that, since this was a contradiction of what had been passed the previous month, it would require a reconsideration and two-thirds vote of council to get this through.
As it was, Pohill was not comfortable with what he was hearing, and requested a report back. Good for him.
But the question is still, what happened? And why had they not read the added communication from AWAC? And why, when members of AWAC were right there to clarify, were they not consulted?
My guess is that there have been so many changes in committees and so many shuffles in staff, that people do not have a good grasp of their portfolios. With respect to AWAC, they used to report to the Environment and Transportation Committee, then the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee and now the Public Safety Committee, all within a single term of office. They had good relations with Environmental Programs director Jay Stanford, but now the department that deals with animal welfare issues is the By-law Enforcement division of the Building Department. So they will now have to generate a relationship with manager Orest Katolyk and director George Kotsifas.
And it’s not just the advisory committee although they, being volunteers, will find these constant changes disorienting; it’s also the staff, constantly switching portfolios with limited time to prepare for them. It’s embarrassing being required to defend proposals of which you have limited knowledge and little background.
Then, to top it all off, the advisory committee is expected to monitor all the reports and agendas for all the standing committees just in case something it is working on get sent in a new direction. It’s an impossible task.
As for the elected officials, what accounts for them not knowing what they voted on and what position they took?
I can only assume that they too have their attention pulled in so many directions, following so many new ideas and plans, that it’s impossible to keep up. Let’s hope that when tonight they vote themselves a 71% raise in their expense accounts and a 300% or more increase in administrative support, they use some of those resources to keep a record of what they voted on and why.