Are non-resident freelancers still welcome on the prairie?
One of the challenges of traveling to new areas in pursuit of waterfowl is staying current with hunting regulations and protocol in each state or province. With federal, state and provincial laws to consider, knowing the game regulations is critical.
Non-resident waterfowlers -- freelance or not -- pump money into many prairie Canada towns.
Prairie Canada is a popular waterfowling destination for non-resident hunters. Early seasons, liberal limits and incredible opportunities make Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba prime destinations for traveling duck and goose hunters. The biggest decision most waterfowlers face is whether to hunt with the services of a guide/outfitter or to freelance.
Currently, non-resident hunters visiting prairie Canada have a variety of options. However, that window has been shrinking in recent years, as concerns regarding access, outfitting and overharvest are being perceived as problems.
A Social Issue
Canada has a unique hunting heritage, with components that are instrumental to the way hunting has evolved. Visiting hunters are often seen as a threat to the way Canadians gain access and develop unique relationships with farmers and landowners. Local traditions and standards are usually revered and protected, whether you're from Texas, California or Saskatchewan. It's natural to protect what you know and have become accustom to.
In Canada, it is illegal to pay for or to charge for access. A hunter being able to knock on a landowner's door and ask for permission to hunt is the standard approach in Canada. It provides equal opportunity to everyone wanting to hunt and is cherished by most resident hunters. Undoubtedly, some people want to make the perceived problems a paid hunting debate. It is not.
The fact that it is illegal to pay for access or to lease hunting rights across the Canadian prairie provinces makes the issues clear. Resident hunters do not want their hunting heritage and rights altered by external influences. Visiting hunters should ensure they understand provincial hunting regulations regarding access, and not presume it is the same as at home.
The issue is really a social one, and not one of waterfowl management. There are ample hunting opportunities across western Canada, with plenty of resources to be shared by everyone. In fact, resident waterfowl hunter numbers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have decreased drastically over the past couple decades, leaving plenty of room for more hunters. Alberta waterfowl hunter numbers alone have dropped from more than 70,000 two decades ago to less than 20,000 in recent years. All provinces have liberal seasons and limits and have kept their borders open to all waterfowl hunters who would like to hunt on their own. To put it in perspective, there are more waterfowl hunters in Louisiana than in all of Canada. Enough opportunity isn't the issue.
The big issues are illegal guiding and outfitting, paid access and overharvest.
Waterfowl outfitters are organized in each of the three prairie provinces, and they simply want paying clients to flow through their membership. Accusations have been made that illegal guiding activities are occurring in all provinces, and steps have been taken to crack down on rogue outfitters by federal and provincial enforcement bodies. The responsibility falls on each hunter using the services of an outfitter to ensure the one they choose is a registered member of their provincial outfitters organization, which will ensure they are hunting legally.
You can hunt on your own or with the services of a licensed outfitter but you don't want to get caught paying for services through anyone that isn't a licensed outfitter. Illegal guiding operations are being watched for closely across western Canada and hunters booking a trip simply need to ensure they are with a licensed service. A quick check for membership protects everybody involved.
The issue regarding freelance, non-resident waterfowlers coming to prairie Canada started heating up about five years ago. The outfitter organizations from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba set up meetings to try and form a coalition to obtain mandatory bird outfitting for all non-residents. The plan was to have the same regulations pushed for in all provinces to keep a level playing field in terms of business and opportunity. It didn't go over well.
The Saskatchewan Outfitters Association requested that their province require non-residents to utilize a licensed guide or host while hunting in that province. The request proposed that non-residents would be required to hunt with either a paid outfitter/guide or be accompanied by an unpaid hunter host. There would be a requirement that hunter hosts not charge for the hunt and they could not carry a gun.
The request got footing, but soon lost ground. Darrell Crabbe, executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, a membership driving organization representing resident hunters and anglers says, "We were adamantly opposed to the proposal and lobbied our government successfully to not bow to the pressures on a subject that we see as a $10 cure for a $5 problem and would have had significant economic implications for small town Saskatchewan. There was also heavy lobbying from non-residents."
A similar proposal by the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association was forwarded to their government but was quickly rejected. A spokesman for Manitoba's Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection Branch made it clear that the proposal didn't get off the ground.
"There certainly was pressure from the lodge and outfitters associations to make it compulsory for foreign residents to use the services of a guide while hunting waterfowl, but that went nowhere with us," he said.
It became apparent that even though there were concerns about non-resident hunters, they were unquestionably welcome. Alberta was the only jurisdiction that dealt with the issues differently.
The Alberta recommendation to have mandatory outfitting for non-residents came from the organized hunting community, including the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society and provincial sportsmen groups. Mandatory outfitting has not been implemented and isn't likely to become a reality in the near future. However, the debate has tightened up opportunity for non-resident hunters.
Alberta removed the full season and three-day licenses for non-residents hunting game birds and put in place a six-day non-resident alien waterfowl hunting license. The change was brought forward because of recommendations from the entire hunting communit
Alberta has issues with access and illegal outfitting. The real question is whether the problems can be controlled through enforcement or if all non-resident hunters need to feel the impact because of the actions of a small minority.
There has been banter in Alberta about removing the ability of non-residents to purchase multiple six-day licenses in a season. This might not impact many hunters, but reducing the entire Alberta opportunity to a six-day window will surely impact some.
Enforcement operations have targeted hunters taking more birds than they should, resulting in many charges of overpossession and other regulation infractions. Random screening operations at international airports target hunters to check birds being transported home.
The social issues surrounding freelance waterfowl hunting are the root concern of resident hunters in all provinces. However, the prospect of freelance waterfowl hunters not returning is even a bigger concern for rural economies. Freelance hunting opportunities fill motels and restaurants in many small communities that have come to depend on the influx of outside commerce. Saskatchewan, for instance, has less than one million residents living inside of its vast borders. Economic studies in that province clearly show that visiting hunters play a key role in helping maintain rural business that might simply disappear without the annual influx of hunter dollars.
Balanced opportunity might be the key to this issue as long as it does not impact the hunting heritage of Canadian residents. It is interesting that various surveys, in both Manitoba and Alberta, through license sales, show that more than 70 percent of foreign non-resident waterfowl hunters already use the services of a guide and outfitter. Freelance waterfowlers are small in number, but they appear to be critical to hunting in prairie Canada -- from licensing to regulations to rural economics.
Brad Fenson is a wildlife habitat specialist and freelance writer from Edmonton, Alberta.