© — Telegram file photo
Environment Minister Tom Hedderson
Members of the wildlife community are sounding the alarm about budget cuts which could threaten programs and weaken government environmental research.
What’s more, one former longtime manager in the wildlife division of the Department of Environment and Conservation told The Telegram that people in the department worry that senior elected officials are deliberately trying to weaken environmental protection.
“When you look at the senior people in government now, the premier used to be the minister of natural resources. Jerome Kennedy used to be the minister of natural resources,” said Joe Brazil, who worked in the wildlife division for decades. “I think the division has, in the past, been an irritant for some of these ministers.”
Another source, who works closely with the division and spoke to The Telegram on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their job, said there’s a feeling that “there’s a bullseye on wildlife.”
It’s tough to determine whether the Wildlife Division is being targeted specifically, based on the numbers provided by government.
But according to information provided on budget day, 18 vacant positions were eliminated in the Department of Environment and Conservation, and another 42 people were laid off, for a total of 60 positions out of a department with 324 employees — or roughly 18 per cent of the workforce.
By comparison, in the Department of Natural Resources, four vacant positions were eliminated, and 17 people were laid off out of a much larger department of 564 employees — or roughly three per cent of the workforce.
There’s a natural push and pull between the development-oriented Natural Resources department and the wildlife division which is focused on environmental concerns.
Environment Minister Tom Hedderson said that 20 people lost their jobs in the wildlife division — equivalent to the entire Department of Natural Resources.
But Hedderson said he’s still convinced that the department can do its job when it comes to environmental assessments and wildlife management.
“I have a responsibility to make sure that I haven’t cut down below what I need in order to carry out the responsibilities that have been put on me, and that’s the balance,” he said. “I’m confident that I have.”
Hedderson said some of the cuts relate to the ending of a five-year, $15.3-million caribou study that’s coming to a conclusion.
“Basically we had people who were hired doing work specifically with regard to that particular strategy,” he said. “That project has pretty well come to conclusion now.”
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball wouldn’t speculate on why the government is making the cuts in the wildlife division.
“Regardless of what is motivating people to make this decision, this is not a smart decision. You’re attacking a department here that is tasked with the job of putting in measures that impact the environment and manage our wildlife,” he said.
New Democrat MHA George Murphy has been extremely vocal about oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing on the west coast, and he said he’s concerned about the effect of weakening the wildlife division.
“It just doesn’t seem to be very funny in this day and age, when they’re talking about massive development over on the west coast, the hunt for oil, that all of these people would be cut back,” he said. “It’s a bit sick.”
Murphy pointed out that it’s important for the government to maintain the environment for the sake of hunting, and the province’s tourism industry.
Brazil, meanwhile, said that some programs have already effectively been gutted, such as the biodiversity program.
“That was a massive program within the division; it managed and supplied a lot of the information feeding into other programs, because it was gathering information on tens of thousands of species and co-ordinating those effort,” Brazil said. “You just hope that people aren’t taking advantage of these sets of circumstances to eliminate certain voices that have been a nuisance.”