I first met Darrel Rowledge sometime around 1999 or 2000. I'm pretty sure it wasn't anytime sooner than that because this magazine was still in its infant stages, that I do remember. And I'm not sure why or how Darrel and I connected but we did. Our first face-to-face meeting—about some outdoor gear he had designed—took place in Sports Scene's old office. He had a good idea and the prototype was already in its early design. You see, Darrel is one of those guys that have a million ideas on the go—an idea man slash inventor if you will.
But Rowledge is also an avid hunter who, as most hunters go, has a passion for the health of the animals he pursues. So when the topic of public wildlife comes to surface, Rowledge isn't afraid to speak his mind. In fact, Rowledge has been speaking his mind for more than 20-years now warning anybody who would listen about the dangers of privatizing public wildlife.
And how the greatest success story in world history—the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, where untold numbers of wildlife were restored on North American soil because governments of the day decreed wildlife be held in the public trust—was slowly being dismantled.
And how the legalization of commercial game farming contradicted wildlife conservation policies and would open the door to a host of problems, including the introduction of diseases.
Less than five years after the legalization of game farming, an outbreak of tuberculosis on game farms across Canada spread to domestics and to people. Just a few short years later, chronic wasting disease showed up on a Saskatchewan game farm.
Nobody, namely those in appropriate government agencies, was listening to the warnings provided by scientists and pathologists. Let alone Darrel Rowledge.
"The domestication of wildlife significantly increases exposure and stress that fosters and spreads disease," said Rowledge. "Just about every significant infectious disease that has hampered mankind has evolved from the diseases of animals."
Fast forward to 2008, and despite those warnings, CWD and a host of other diseases are still showing up on game farms and in our wild cervids. In fact, six new cases of chronic wasting disease from the fall 2008 surveillance program have been detected in Alberta.
And Saskatchewan continues to find positives including two cow elk in April of 2008 that many believe either escaped or were purposely freed from a game farm. Worth no monetary value, it is easy to see how the gates could be opened and cow elk released to the wild.
But the questions are, how did we get where we are today, and what can we do about it?
Nobody can answer those questions better than Darrel Rowledge. And he has, in a book prepared for the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society (APOS), titled "No Accident..." Rowledge lays the cards on the table.
He also made it perfectly clear that when he took on the challenge of writing this book, everything would be based on scientific fact and the truth. There was, and would be, no other way.
"It's been a learning process for over 20 years," said Rowledge from his office in Calgary. "In retrospect, we needed this kind of book years ago."
The book begins with an Executive Summary provided by APOS clearly laying out the society's recommendations—APOS, for obvious reasons, has a vested interest in the health of our wild cervid populations and has become very proactive. As they state in the summary, "This assessment examines those issues and policies, with goals of first, defending the interest and well-being of wildlife as a public resource upon which the livelihood of APOS members is directly dependent; and second, attempting to outline a common, scientifically-based platform from which APOS and other interests can work with government to achieve public policies, strategies, and management positions that will protect and sustain the resource, and the long term prosperity of its related industries."
Obviously industries that need to be protected.
Wildlife related industries, in a 1996 study, contributed $12.1 billion to the Canadian GDP—an amount virtually identical to the $12.3 billion that was the total contribution to the GDP in the same year from all of Agriculture.
Rowledge then takes the reader through the entire gamut and ends it with a hard look at the political process that brought us this mess in the first place.
"This wasn't just a mistake," said Rowledge, "there was corruption at many levels of government. But I left a lot of that out of the book because what we need to do now is get government to act. It is far more important that we get process rather than retribution."
Having a background in economics, Rowledge knew, even way back then, that the numbers didn't work and that game farming was an accident waiting to happen.
"None of this is speculation any more. Now we need to act," said Rowledge. "The governments that have this book are now part of the process. If they don't act, well..."
Rowledge suggests that a change in the hierarchy of some government agencies, namely the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency (CFIA), has been refreshing.
"For the first time the CFIA has been helpful. We finally seem to be on the same page," said Rowledge, who has a degree in political science from the University of Calgary. "They (CFIA) have confirmed that game farmed animals have recently been moved illegally and that 'inventory irregularities' have made it impossible to trace new cases of CWD.
"Before they (CFIA) were promoters of game farming, now many government attitudes have changed.
"This is serious and it can't be brushed aside any longer. We're in a time when governments can't keep pouring good money after bad. At the end of the day, we have to ask them in Agriculture just what the hell is going on."
And Rowledge is right. There is no denying it. The world's leading scientists aren't all wrong. In fact, the problem lies in public policy, not in the science. Decisions made at government levels have led to the disaster we now face. It is time that government take action and put an end to this game of disease promotion and the privatization and commercialization of public wildlife.
Those impacted by an end to game farming need to be fairly compensated, and that means our game farmers, who have been left holding the poison bag by irresponsible governments, who have a responsibility to protect public interests and to ensure the safety of that same public. This is not the fault of the game farmer; rather, it is the fault of government decisions that clearly ignored scientific fact.
But Rowledge and others, namely Professor Valerius Geist, have an even bigger vision.
"Our hope is to secure protection for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation in international treaty between Canada and the US; to put it beyond short term profit motives of any government."
Which gives back the public its right to protect wildlife from private ownership, which also protects that same public from the inherent risks that come with the domestication of wildlife.
"CWD isn't the problem," says Rowledge emphatically, "it's the symptom. Until we stop the problem, we're going to continue to have the symptom."
"No Accident..." is an excellent read and quite clearly lays out what went wrong and how we can correct the problems associated with game farming. If we can get governments to listen, to live up to their responsibilities and take action to correct past mistakes, we may once again be able to protect our greatest environmental success, which is public wildlife. ■
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