04/11/2014 11:53 EDT | Updated 06/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland cut moose hunting permits when herd counts fell: former bureaucrat

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador did not increase moose hunting licences after promising to protect drivers because government counts of the herd had declined, a former top bureaucrat testified Friday.

Gary Norris, a former deputy minister for Tourism, Culture and Recreation in charge of wildlife, was called as a witness for the provincial government as it defends itself against a class-action lawsuit claiming it's liable for negligently failing to control the moose population.

Former premier Danny Williams promised during the 2003 election that more moose hunting licences would be issued to protect drivers if scientific research backed the move.

Norris acknowledged under cross-examination by Ches Crosbie, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, that government records show the quota for moose licences remained at 27,220 in 2004. It was then cut to 26,060 in 2005 and would not exceed 2003 levels over the next three years, he told the province's Supreme Court.

Norris said the allocations were apparently made after government counts in several moose management areas indicated "significant decline" of about 25 per cent to 75 per cent in some regions.

"Scientific data won out," Norris said.

Crosbie countered that the government's approach could also be seen as prioritizing a desire to maintain moose populations "over driver protection."

Norris had earlier referred to a government briefing note that linked moose vehicle accidents to the rate at which moose are hunted. He had also testified about what he described as the "politically sensitive" issue of allocations for outfitters that offer hunting packages for visitors from outside the province.

Norris, who went on to serve as clerk of the government's executive council from 2007 until 2010, said when overall hunting licences were cut, allocations for outfitters went down. Such decisions affected jobs in remote regions and were made at the cabinet level, he testified.

The lawsuit involves 135 plaintiffs who required hospital admission for their injuries, and at least 15 estates of those killed in collisions since 2001.

The province has expressed condolences to crash victims but is defending its use of roadside signs, brush cutting and public awareness campaigns urging drivers to be cautious and reduce speed.

A pilot project in 2011 included fencing about 14 kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway east of Barachois Pond Provincial Park in southwestern Newfoundland, and two highway sensory systems designed to warn drivers with flashing lights.

The province will continue presenting its case next week before Judge Robert Stack.

Proceedings began April 2 with testimony from representative plaintiff Ben Bellows. He became a quadriplegic after his car hit a moose July 10, 2003, near Clarenville on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Court also heard from Jennifer Pilgrim, whose husband Roy died March 11, 2009, when a moose darted in front of his vehicle near Bishop's Falls in central Newfoundland.

Adult moose weigh between 360 and 450 kilograms or 800 to 1,000 pounds. The top-heavy animals are known to run across roadways with no warning, often crashing over the hoods of vehicles into windshields.

Court has heard that Newfoundland has the highest moose density rate in North America with an average of 1.7 animals per square kilometre. An average of about 660 moose-vehicle collisions happen each year.