04/10/2014 12:09 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland government linked moose-vehicle accidents, hunting 10 years ago

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A former senior bureaucrat testified Thursday that the Newfoundland and Labrador government had research 10 years ago from its own scientists linking moose-vehicle collisions and the extent to which moose are hunted.

Gary Norris said research reported as part of a review of how the province was handling such accidents indicated "a clear relationship between moose-vehicle collisions and moose harvests."

Norris, who retired as clerk of the executive council in 2010, was deputy minister for Tourism, Culture and Recreation in 2003-04 when the research came to light, he told provincial Supreme Court. The department at the time was responsible for wildlife issues.

Norris was called as a witness for the province as it defends itself against a class-action lawsuit that claims it negligently failed to control the moose population. It involves 135 plaintiffs, including at least 15 estates of those killed in collisions since 2001.

Under cross-examination by Ches Crosbie, lawyer for the plaintiffs, Norris spoke of the link between highway crashes and the extent to which moose are hunted, though the court did not hear what the link was specifically.

Crosbie is arguing that the province should be found liable for not doing more to limit risks created after the government introduced moose, a non-native species, to the island of Newfoundland more than a century ago.

Norris had earlier told the court under questioning by Peter Ralph, the lawyer for the province, that the new government under former premier Danny Williams had moose on its radar.

During the election campaign in October 2003, before the Progressive Conservatives formed government, Williams had promised to protect drivers. He said efforts would include increasing the number of hunting licences if scientific research supported the move.

"He certainly had his head around this issue," Norris testified.

The government went so far as to craft a related strategy but there were staff changes and Norris described the financial situation at the time.

"To be blunt, we were in dire straits," he said of major deficits and a climate in which ministers knew that any new program spending would have to be cut elsewhere.

Crosbie's cross-examination of Norris is to resume Friday.

Earlier Thursday, a wildlife expert whose credibility was questioned by the province's lawyer said he stands by his critique of the government's prevention efforts.

Tony Clevenger, a Montana State University wildlife ecologist based in Alberta, specializes in how to prevent vehicle collisions with animals.

His report submitted as a witness for the plaintiffs concludes the government has relied on ineffective measures instead of adopting best practices.

Clevenger said those efforts — public awareness campaigns, signs and brush clearing — have been replaced in other regions with fencing and highway warning devices.

Clevenger admitted after cross-examination by Ralph that his report contains some errors, including a mistaken citation for a reference article.

But he said his conclusions stand.

Outside court, Clevenger said the provincial government should present its moose mitigation strategy to an international conference held every two years for transportation engineers and environmental scientists.

"If they went there and gave a case study about what's happening here, I mean, people would think that they literally just crawled out (from) under a rock," he said. Provincial officials appear to "have had their heads in the sand for a couple of decades," he added.

"Nobody is relying on public awareness and brush cutting and signage."