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It used to be that the provincial government had an extensive and well-trained force of environmental monitors in the field checking up on everyone from fishermen and hunters to resource industries.

But where have they all gone?

The thin green line made up of forest ecologists, conservation officers, fisheries biologists, wildlife technicians and park wardens seems to have nearly been wiped out through attrition and layoffs.

Which begs the question: Who's watching out for fish and wildlife?

The B.C. Wildlife Federation has become so concerned it has written to the provincial Auditor-General asking for an investigation into how the government is spending the money it raises from fishing and hunting fees.

"We are concerned the money is going into general revenues and not into fish and wildlife management," said Patti MacAhonic, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, which has 35,000 members.

Bill Otway, a director of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, one of the regional groups that spurred the audit request, said the issue came up because fish and wildlife offices all over the province are increasingly vacant.

"The fish and wildlife branch has been cut almost 50 per cent in the past few years," Mr. Otway complained. "Most of your steelhead biologists are gone. There are very few wildlife technicians left. And when was the last time you saw a conservation officer? They just aren't out there any more."

Mr. Otway, a voice on the outdoor scene for more than three decades, said he can remember when the fish and wildlife branch had 600 people on staff.

"That was in 1976 - today there are 208."

Fishing and hunting, Mr. Otway said, generates $285-million annually for the provincial and federal governments - but the amount put back into fish and wildlife programs is only about $16-million, even though revenues from fishing and hunting are supposed to be dedicated to management of those resources.

"We asked for the audit because we want to know what the hell is going on," Mr. Otway said.

What is going on appears to be a systematic, widespread erosion of environmental monitoring by the provincial government.

In a letter earlier this year to Environment Minister Barry Penner, Andy Ackerman, president of Myriad Consulting Inc., in Fort Saint John, detailed "the gradual reduction in both size and capacity" of environmental staff in his region.

Mr. Ackerman, who worked for the province for 30 years before retiring in 2007 as regional manager of environmental stewardship, said staffing in the Peace River district has been reduced to "barely minimal levels" even though resource activity is booming.

"The staffing levels have always been meagre up here," said Mr. Ackerman in an interview. "But when I heard they had stopped replacing staff [who quit, retired or got laid off]I thought 'oh my lord, what's going on?'"

Mr. Ackerman did not get a reply to his letter.

Dennis Lloyd, a retired government research ecologist in Kamloops, said the Ministry of Forests has also been losing front-line staff.

In 2003, the ministry had 16 people working on its ecology research program, but by next year the staffing level will have fallen to just seven.

"How can the government be managing anything in a sustainable manner any more?" Mr. Lloyd asks.

He said there aren't enough people left to maintain an ecosystem classification program that's been the cornerstone of forest management in British Columbia for more than 30 years. A new forest ecology lab in Kamloops is sitting empty and a herbarium, a living library of plants with 6,000 specimens in it, is facing closing because there's no one to care for it.

But what bothers him most is also what's got the B.C. Wildlife Federation worried and that concerns Mr. Ackerman up in Fort Saint John.

"The fact that there's nobody out there in the field watching over industry is pretty scary," he said. "There's … no one out there telling society that things aren't being done correctly. … As I see it, the clock has been turned back 30, 40 years in terms of environmental care to the landscape and how it's managed. It's pretty tragic."

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