As we welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors to B.C. for the 2010 Winter Olympics, we should be encouraging them to stay and experience our province’s abundant wildlife spectacles. From watching magnificent bald eagles soaring overhead or clouds of shorebirds performing aerial displays over Boundary Bay, chased by peregrine falcons stooping at 200 kilometres per hour, to the excitement of spotting whales and porpoises leaping in the Georgia Strait, there is a wealth of wildlife entertainment within 30 kilometres of downtown Vancouver. Nature’s marvels are free for everyone to see, and a surprisingly large number of people already take advantage of that fact.
Wildlife watching has quietly become a major economic generator. Studies show that 71 million Americans, nearly a third of the population, spent US$45.7 billion in 2006 on goods and services directly related to wildlife watching. This expenditure is equivalent to the total revenue from all spectator sports (including football and baseball), all amusement parks, and all non-hotel casinos, bowling arcades, and skiing facilities. Participation in wildlife watching increased by 12 percent from 1996 to 2006, and with the advent of digital cameras and increased interest in wildlife photography, income from these activities grew even faster. Wildlife watching does not include fishing and hunting, enjoyed by 30 million and 13 million Americans a year respectively, activities which also depend on healthy, natural environments. In total, wildlife-related activities generated US$122.3 billion in 2006.
Far from being a nerdy pursuit enjoyed by people in funny hats, birding has become a popular mainstream activity. If you like staring at hawks through binoculars you are not alone: 48 million U.S. adults enjoy being out in nature, watching birds, either in their local neighbourhood or further afield. Favourite birds to see include waterfowl, birds of prey and herons, all of which are abundant in winter around Vancouver. In 2006, American birders spent US$36 billion, generating US$82 billion in total industry output and 671,000 jobs.
There are no recent Canadian figures, yet it is a good bet that residents and visitors are just as keen on wildlife here. The latest Environment Canada survey on the subject, from 1996, lumped all wildlife-related activities together, including wildlife watching, fishing, and hunting. The survey showed that 85 percent of Canadians, about 20 million people, take part in one or more of these activities, spending $11.7 billion a year. Furthermore, British Columbians are very keen on fitness and there is a synergistic benefit, both physical and mental, to doing physical activities while outside in nature. By protecting natural environments and encouraging people to get outside and enjoy them, we will save money on future health services.
It is time for Environment Canada to take a look at those U.S. figures and do an up-to-date analysis on wildlife watching. Times have changed, and it is clear that the old focus solely on game species is out of date. There should be a much greater investment in habitat protection around cities and towns, allowing people to take advantage of wildlife viewing opportunities close to home. Governments should be celebrating, not exploiting, B.C.’s beautiful natural assets: the forests, coastlines, rivers, and ocean without which there can be no wildlife viewing.
For years, parks budgets have been slashed, but now with the world spotlight turned on B.C., and with tourism predicted to rise in the wake of the Olympics, surely it is time to restore B.C. Parks interpretation and backcountry services, ensure wildlife protection from poaching, and develop a plan to welcome birders to the province. Building megaprojects is not the only way to generate money; we can profit in many ways from nature, and watching and learning from wildlife is perhaps the most satisfying of recreational pursuits.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books about the Lower Mainland, A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, with photographs by David Blevins.