Editorial: Wild things roaming

A few years back, an acquaintance returned to school at mid-career and studied natural resource management.

He was lucky enough to land a job with the province that first summer, checking boats at a stop on the Trans-Canada Highway at the Manitoba-Ontario border, to prevent the spread of zebra mussels.

I mentioned that this sounded like a great idea, since I’d heard that the invasive species was becoming a real problem in other jurisdictions. He hemmed and hawed a bit, and then sheepishly admitted that, while he didn’t like bad-mouthing his employer, he also wasn’t accomplishing much, in his opinion.

It was, he explained, one checkpoint on one highway, which was only operated at peak hours. This to manage a problem that essentially had a zero-tolerance requirement.

“All it will take is one boat,” he observed. “Then it’s here, and you’ll never stop it.”

The effort was, in his opinion, more about optics than anything else. The whole thing was designed to allow the minister of the day who was responsible for the conservation portfolio to stand up during question period at the provincial legislature and respond, ‘I am glad my honourable colleague on the opposite bench has asked this question. Allow me to familiarize the house with our zebra mussel interdiction efforts… ’

Bearing in mind that zebra mussels now infest Lake Winnipeg, and have since 2013, you can be the judge whether it was effective policy.

Invasive species are a growing concern throughout the world, fuelled by our ever-shrinking globe. With goods travelling around the globe, so too are ships, trains and containers, all of which can be vectors for transmission.

Zebra mussels originated in lakes in southern Russia and Ukraine. They’ve been present in the Great Lakes system since the 1980s.

They damage ecosystems and infest harbours, waterways, ships and boats, and water treatment and power plants. They clog water pipes and intakes and otherwise damage infrastructure — including Manitoba’s economically important hydroelectric plants.

If there was ever a problem that should have been taken seriously from the start and a jurisdiction with an economic case for taking action, it was the zebra mussel.

Other invasive species don’t have to sneak in. They’re introduced. Probably the most famous — and devastating — example of this comes from Australia.

There, the humble European rabbit was introduced in 1788 as a food animal when the penal colony that later became Australia was founded.

It wasn’t long before the critters escaped custody and quickly began running amok across the Antipodean landscape. Some say it happened accidentally. Others say it was a deliberate release to provide a touch of home in the form of sport hunting for homesick Brits. The truth is a bit of both.

The epicentre of the real issue, it is largely agreed, was 1859, when 24 animals were released on one estate for sport, where there were few natural predators, and the animals were of a hardier breed.

Within 10 years of this introduction, the numbers had climbed so rapidly that, to quote one article on the topic “… two million could be shot or trapped annually without having any noticeable effect on the population. It was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world.”

For the settlers Down Under, the effects were devastating, causing millions of dollars in annual crop losses. The ecological effects were even worse. The rabbits first overgrazed all the available natural pasture vegetation and then turned their attention to the woody plants. The net effect was soil erosion and species loss.

Efforts to control them have included introduction of new predators, diseases and the old standby, poison. At one point the government of Australia resorted to building a ‘rabbit-proof fence’ that, today, stretches 530 km through the state of Queensland.

We won’t even delve deeply into the Great Emu War of 1932, other than to note that when you’ve deployed soldiers with Lewis guns to do battle against 20,000 six-foot-tall birds that were industriously eating farmers out of house and home, you’ve got a pest problem.

Clearly these are situations that require careful surveillance and management, and like most of these issues, the bigger the problem becomes, the more expensive and harder to fix.

That’s why Manitoba Sustainable Development’s seeming lack of interest in wild pigs is troubling. Granted, these elusive creatures are difficult to monitor and harder to control. There is evidence that hunting activities might scatter them and increase breeding.

But they are a threat both to the domestic hog industry as well as the public good that merits more attention than it’s getting.

About the author


Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

Gord Gilmour's recent articles



Stories from our other publications