In The Service of Canadian Wildlife

For the last few months I have been holding down the Landscape Analysis desk at the pacific regional branch of the Canadian Wildlife Service, while the regular guy was off doing emergency planning. This was the last week of the contract and I’m once again a private citizen. Most of my time was given to a particular project: an upcoming study of the impacts of salmon gillnet fishing on diving seabirds. I wanted to take the job because the project has some really interesting research challenges. I was also curious to get an inside view of how conservation science is done in government.

Many of the projects I’ve been involved with in academia share similar themes to the work being done by the CWS: landscape-scale, data-driven assessment of trends and interactions in environmental systems. But doing research at CWS had a different feel than the academic labs I’ve known. Government research answers to different criteria and has a different audience. The primary motivation is not to satisfy your personal sense of cosmic wonder, and share what you learn with the peers who might read your journal submission. Nor are you hoping that some government conservation type might eventually take note of your theory, and embed it somehow in conservation regulation. In government you’re supposed to be doing the right thing, right now, on behalf of everybody. And not only do you have to do the right thing, you might have to demonstrate that the thing you’ve chosen to do is, in some plausibly objective sense, right. In practice that seems to mean being able to tie your choices back to previously identified criteria, which in turn link back to pre-existing directives, which are all presumably grounded on specific bullet points in legislation. It’s meant to be science as a service, not as an interest. The result might be a more conservative approach to research. You can take more risks when it’s only your own thesis goals on the line.

I don’t mean that as a criticism. Transparency and accountability are necessary to good governance, and if the business of the day has to move a little more slowly to ensure a documented lineage of decision making, so be it. But I was struck by a comment made by a poster on an internal forum, who suggested that space for innovation be deliberately built into the CWS’s work practices. If you have to be able to prove that you can answer a question before you’re allowed to expend resources asking it, then there are a class of complex questions which will just get left alone. And a lot of those types of questions tend to show up in conservation. I wasn’t in the Service very long, but my impression was that many people there are very aware of the benefits of asking difficult questions, and are finding ways to do so. I also got the impression that that objective is turning out to be, not surprisingly, tricky.

More concretely, I think I was seeing an institution in the midst of a protracted shift from keeper-of-records to having a more actively analytical capacity. Which would certainly be a good thing. In a changing biosphere it isn’t enough to know what the trajectory is. If your mandate is to intervene beneficially, you have to know what is causing the trends. Those two goals of memory and interpretation are not mutually exclusive, and a history of record keeping could be a key foundation for a great research agency.

This transition will not be helped by the legacy of StĂ©phane Dion’s time as environment minister. I gather (from occasional passing references, so maybe this narrative is inaccurate) that Dion was responsible for deliberately splitting the Service into two halves, one charged with the traditional duties of counting things, and one given the tasks of “science and technology”. There must have been some compelling  reasons to do so, but in the absence of those arguments I can’t fathom how anyone would think that severing the two hemispheres of the brain would yield good results. For starters, it’s impossible to do biological survey work without doing science. Sampling the world is not as simple as going into it, jabbing an index finger at things, and counting off. I could write an entire blog post about that, so I won’t.

Not surprisingly, data is a topic of ongoing planning and debate at the CWS. The Service has an extraordinary institutional memory. Their internal records for some species include decades of repeated censuses and surveys (in some cases repeated by the same person — imagine that!). They have stacks of tech reports with beautiful typewriter-printed tables, and gorgeously hand-drafted survey maps depicting the state of bird-colonized pacific atolls in the 1970s, tucked into their back-flap pockets. The people of the CWS hold a collective image of the historic trends of distribution and movement of bird species on the coast and across the country. And they are very actively in the process of transcribing that tech-report and spreadsheet data into a living digital resource but hoo-boy, doing so leads to some thorny posers around process and infrastructure.

Whilst chipping away at my own corner of that issue, I was struck by just how screwed up the state of GIS data storage is in general. How does any institution store spatial data in a truly cross-platform, future-proof way that protects it for posterity whilst simultaneously exposing it for analysis? Particularly if that data has any kind of significant relational structure to it? There are some beautiful ideas for the future, but the current options aren’t very satisfying. I had somehow always assumed that problem was solved somewhere, but now I’m confused how anybody does it.

The study I was contributing to will ramp up this summer, and depending on the results of that field season (and on the future of the salmon gillnet fishery, which is hardly clear) could be ongoing for years. I hope I’ve helped set up that program for success. Another difference between government work and working in academia or private industry is that little voice in your head, constantly wondering if what you’re doing would be judged a reasonable expenditure of the taxpayer’s dollars, if they could watch you doing it. For my own sake it was a definite win. The challenges were interesting — I was especially pleased to enhance my experience with database wrangling — and that inside-government perspective did indeed yield plenty to think about.

Tyee Internship Application


The Tyee is a fabulous online newspaper doing regional investigative journalism in British Columbia. They’ve only been around for a few years, but while the crisis has come on to local news reporting The Tyee has managed to go from strength to strength, racking up readership and heavy-duty awards. I’ve been a subscriber since 2006, and I’ve discovered that they’re looking to hire a crop of interns for the fall.

In addition to top-flight news writing, they also have an on-again off-again podcast series that I’ve enjoyed whilst cooking dinner in various places in Canada and the US. It seems to me that they should acquire an intern to build on that wonderful experiment, and it seems to me that intern should be me.

Hence I am today submitting my application package, including the audio above, which is composed of two segments:

1: Tamara Herman on the Cerro de San Pedro mine 12 minutes

View larger map.
Tamara Herman is a Victoria-based researcher and activist who has spent months in Mexico investigating social conflict around a mine currently operated by Canadian company NewGold.

I interviewed Tamara for the purposes of this application, and the interview forms a follow-on to an opinion piece about Canadian mining and the Honduran coup which recently appeared in The Tyee.

A different version of this interview will also probably be broadcast on It’s Hot in Here sometime soon (I’m really really going to make good on my promise of becoming the official Canada Correspondent for the show). Thanks to Randy, Rachelle and Emma at CFUV for ultra-friendly recording support for this piece.

2: Howard French on Chinese Development in Africa 8 minutes

Howard French is author of A Continent for the Taking, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, and former Senior Writer for the New York Times.

This is an edit of an It’s Hot in Here interview from November of 2008, which I conducted when Howard was in Ann Arbor to lecture based on his book. We talked about the state of African infrastructure and institutions, the accelerating trajectory of Chinese industrial development on the continent, and what good and what bad might come of it.

De-Mobbed to the Coast

“De-mobbing” is a term I had heard before, but never with sufficient context to understand. Now that I have personally been de-mobbed I’ve learned that it’s the opposite of mobbing, which is mobilizing. As in, mobilizing your troops and their complement of vehicles and materiel to the area of operations. Which for us was (as discussed in the preceding post), the oil sands of Fort McMurray.

“Oh man, the last day is going to be a knee-deep gong show.” — Somebody
“No, Pierre’s pretty experienced with de-mob, it should run smoothly enough” — Somebody else.

installing wattle with handtools

The last day turned out to be long by several hours but only partially a gong show, and fun in the sense that I prefer too much to do over looking busy while drawing out remaining tasks. Pick axes make poor props but decent tools. When the day ended we drove out of the main mine site with all our trucks in convoy, our boss’s little Kootenay Toyota in point position, looking madly undersized but triumphant. Anywhere north of 55 degrees latitude compact pickups start to look odd next to the 1-ton 350 super duties that are de riguer in the oil patch, and alongside the world’s largest trucks in the worlds largest hole it’s just comical. I rode shotgun in our 5-ton moving truck and I’ve rarely felt better to be outbound from a contract. We bumped and heaved our rolling box of unneeded supplies onto that big beautiful divided highway to nowhere, and pointed ourselves north to camp one last time. I was grinning like crazy. Done was what I wanted to be.

Liz in truck

The company I was working for were good people. Smart, competent, worldly, pleasant, funny people who did a good job and took care with it. And being in the midst of the oil sands operation was, as an abstract exercise, just as fascinating as could be. But as a daily thing living and working there is no place to live and, long-term, no way to work. I say that knowing that I may someday be grateful to compromise my ideals and my preferences to make money there again. But I was surely glad at the end to be leaving. We were there on a one month contract, significantly short by tar sands standards. We didn’t chat much with the other folks at our work camp, but it seemed like months and years are not uncommon stints. Most employees are on shifts of 10-and-4 and it’s routine practice for companies to pay to fly people back to their homes for the 4. Despite the short contracts my company does there, they too are considering breaking it up into two halves with a paid flight home in between. All this flying of folks around seemed rash to me at the start, but I’m now thinking there are good reasons for it. Staying in Fort McMurray, especially in camp, can wear down your character. I suspect that might be true even if a person was sanguine about the environmental implications of the work they did. A significant break in real life might help to make people real people again. Even in a recession there is work to be had there, and it can pay extremely well, but the process of shuttling between pit mine and dinner line and dorm room strips your sense of what’s worth doing and what’s worth spending money on. That puts some kind of limits on the value of the cash you might make. You need to know why you’re there, or else you’ll just keep buying trucks, parking them in front of the work lodge, totaling them while you still owe payments, and going back to work.

Courtney reading The Express

At least that was my impression from my little 1-month mini-contract. That doesn’t put me in a good position to generalize or judge the people who work there year-round, so maybe I should shut up about it. In any case, I’m gone.

photographing dinosaurs

There are 14 ferry sailings a day from Vancouver to Victoria, and I’m on one of them. I’ve been back on the coast for three weeks now, mostly working on an interesting contract involving caribou and Google Earth, and hanging out with Jane, and getting moved in to our new place. I’ve many times in the past made the transition from work camp life to town life, and given that “camp” this go round meant a roof and a bed and wireless broadband, this could have been one of the less abrupt transitions. But hitting the streets my first morning in Kitsalano, I felt stranger than I can ever remember feeling post-planting. The people looked weird, and the personal scenarios suggested by their bearing and friends and clothing and packages struck me as theatrically improbable. Life here is more complex than working in a pit mine. I’m feeling very pleased about that complexity right now, very pleased.