Hunting guides turn to ecotourism as COVID-19 keeps American hunters away – Chemainus Valley Courier

Hunting guides turn to ecotourism as COVID-19 keeps American hunters away – Chemainus Valley Courier
Written by Publishing Team

Hunting guides, hard hit by COVID-19 travel restrictions that keep foreign customers out of the country, are turning to ecotourism, including wildlife viewing, snowboarding and hiking, to keep their business going during the pandemic.

The body that represents Outfitters Canada says many more of its members have opened their huts and lodges in the Canadian outback — as well as plane rides and horseback riding — for people who want to enjoy the outdoors and see wild animals but don’t hunt them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen an increasing number of licenses reserved for fishermen from outside Canada available to Canadians, some of whom are beginning fishing for the first time.

Some outfitters say they haven’t had a single customer outside of Canada since March 2020 until recently, after borders reopened to vaccinated Americans in August.

With thousands of American hunters usually coming to Canada to shoot large game forced to stay away during COVID-19, some outfitters say there are also hundreds of other bears in their areas.

COVID-19 has led some provinces, including Saskatchewan, to try to boost the hard-pressed apparel industry by offering bear hunting licenses normally reserved for non-residents to local Canadians.

Dominique Dugri, president of the Canadian Federation of Outfitter Societies, said COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Canada’s directed fishing industry, although less so in Quebec where most fishing is local.

Some outfitters, who cater to fishermen from abroad, he said, “have lost 99 percent of their customers.”

COVID-19 benefits, including wage subsidies, have helped hard-pressed fishing guides. But many have branched out into ecotourism to survive, catering to the growing number of Canadians who are enjoying outdoor pursuits like snowboarding during the pandemic.

“It’s a trend to diversify right now because of COVID. Many outfitters have opened their huts to people. There are more and more outfitters doing a (oriented) view of wildlife. The fishermen have changed too. We have seen more and more women and families hunting and fishing, Dougray said.

Judy Hutchings, the federal minister of rural economic development, who co-formed the Canadian Federation of Processing Societies, said the destination fishing industry that caters to Americans and Europeans was “totally devastated” last year.

But she said the government has provided emergency assistance including wage subsidies, which have just been extended.

“Some provinces have pivoted to allow Canadians to apply for licenses,” she said, adding that in Newfoundland and Labrador where she lives, there has been “a half decent hunting season this year.”

Mike McIntosh, founder of Bear With Us, a center in Ontario that rescues orphaned and injured bears, said he fears that Canadians who have practiced bear hunting are killing more bears than Americans who hire professional guides to direct and watch the hunt.

Most licenses allow a hunter to kill only one bear, and this must be reported.

“The fact that we have a case of COVID and we have fewer non-resident hunters has not affected the bear numbers in Ontario. An equal number of bears, if not more, are still being killed by resident hunters who have engaged in bear hunting during COVID,” MacIntosh said.

Ontario’s Department of Natural Resources said it has postponed its regular surveys of black bear numbers for 2020 and 2021 until 2022 due to COVID-19.

Most outfitters guide fishermen from outside Canada, with many offers to buy including lodge accommodation and small plane transportation, valued at thousands of dollars. Canadian anglers tend to go alone or with friends or family.

Each county was a little different when it came to the number of non-resident hunters, but overall outfitters saw a 75 percent to 85 percent decline in the number of fishermen, said Scott Ellis, chief executive of the British Columbia Outfitters Directory Association, and vice president of the CFOA. From outside Canada since the start of the pandemic, with a 100 percent drop in some cases.

He said BC’s 180,000 bear population didn’t see a significant increase without American poachers, but he said “in local locations if you have 2,200 less-advised customers, there will be 2,200 more bears.”

Ellis said the outfitters were catering to the growing numbers of Canadians looking for safe outdoor recreational activities during the pandemic.

“Where there are no clients, some rent out cabins for people to do fishing or nature watching, or biking, which you can do in the snow,” he said.

During COVID-19 he has seen outdoor activity increase dramatically on the union-managed land, including wildlife viewing and blasting in geocaching as people use GPS Hide and search for containers containing treasures, trinkets or notes in remote locations.

Without the American hunters, Crabbe added, there were now “more bears around.”

“Most Saskatchewans don’t hunt bear. We know the population is going up based on the stats, but we haven’t had a problem.”

In Saskatchewan, there has been a significant decrease in the number of Americans purchasing licenses for guided fishing. But many of the bear hunting licenses reserved for non-residents have now been obtained by people living in Saskatchewan.

In a typical year, about 1,800 guided bear licenses are sold, Val Nicholson of the Saskatchewan Department of the Environment said, mainly to American hunters.

“Even if they all worked out, this harvest wouldn’t have significantly impacted the general population,” Nicholson said.

Alberta Environment and Parks said in a statement that it does not expect changes in hunting pressure to affect overall wildlife populations.

“Alberta-based fishermen make up the majority of the province’s fishermen and their numbers have increased during COVID,” she added.

The provincial government’s wildlife department in Nova Scotia, where most people hunt deer, said more locals are taking up hunting as a pastime during the pandemic.

Ellis said COVID-19 will be a catalyst for the processing industry to hub and offer more directed outdoor activities in addition to fishing in the future. He said many of them have already begun offering snowshoeing, wildlife viewing and Northern Lights trips.

Not everyone will like the experience, he said, because the cabins and lodges are located deep in the hinterland, and can only be accessed by horse, plane or helicopter.

“They might have a few cabins for four people, but it could take three days to get there,” he said. “Some want to watch the animals. In the spring, you can see bears coming out into the grass and alfalfa in some places.”

“Some people go there to ski or snowboard or do nothing and say if they’re from Toronto and just want to see the Northern Lights or listen to the sounds of nature.”

Marie Wolfe, The Canadian Press

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