Travel restrictions

COVID-19 travel restrictions lead to increase in ecotourism

Hunting guides, hit hard by COVID-19 travel restrictions that prevent foreign clients from entering the country, turn to ecotourism, including wildlife viewing, snowmobiling and guided hikes , to keep their business alive during the pandemic.

The organization representing Canada’s outfitters says many more of their members have opened their chalets and lodges in the Canadian backcountry – as well as small plane and horseback transportation – to people who want to enjoy the outdoors and see wild animals but not hunt them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen an increase in the number of permits reserved for hunters from outside Canada made available to Canadians, some of whom have entered hunting for the first time.

Some outfitters say they have had no customers from outside Canada since March 2020 until recently, after the border reopened to Americans vaccinated in August.

With thousands of American hunters who usually come to Canada to hunt big game forced to stay away during COVID-19, some outfitters say there are hundreds of other bears in their areas as well.

COVID-19 has led some provinces, including Saskatchewan, to attempt to bolster the struggling outfitting industry by offering bear hunting licenses usually reserved for non-residents to Canadians in the region.

Dominic Dugre, president of the Canadian Federation of Outfitting Associations, said COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the guided hunting industry in Canada, but less so in Quebec where hunting is predominantly local.

He said some outfitters, which cater to hunters from overseas, “have lost 99% of their customers.”

The benefits of COVID-19, including wage subsidies, have helped hunt guides at bay. But many have embarked on ecotourism to survive, responding to the growing number of Canadians enjoying outdoor activities such as snowmobiling during the pandemic.

“It’s a trend to diversify right now because of COVID. Several outfitters have opened their cabins to people. There are more and more outfitters offering (guided) wildlife viewing. Hunters have also changed. We have seen more and more women and families go hunting and fishing, ”said Dugre.

Gudie Hutchings, Federal Minister of Rural Economic Development, who helped form the Canadian Federation of Outfitting Associations, said the guided hunting industry for Americans and Europeans has been “totally wiped out” Last year.

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

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

Mike McIntosh, founder of Bear With Us, an Ontario center that rescues orphaned cubs and injured bears, said he was concerned that Canadians who have embarked on bear hunting will kill more bears than bears. Americans who hire professional guides to lead and assist in hunts.

Most permits only allow a hunter to kill one bear, and this should be reported.

“The fact that we have had a COVID situation and that we have fewer non-resident hunters has not affected the number of bears in Ontario. There are still as many bears killed, if not more, by resident hunters who started bear hunting during COVID, ”Macintosh said.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources said it has postponed its usual surveys of black bear populations for 2020 and 2021 until 2022 due to COVID-19.

Most outfitters guide hunters from outside of Canada, with many purchase packages including lodge accommodation and small plane transportation valued in the thousands of dollars. Canadian hunters tend to do this alone, with friends or with family.

Scott Ellis, chief executive of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC and vice president of CFOA, said each province was a little different when it came to the number of non-resident hunters, but overall outfitters had saw a 75 percent increase to 85. percent drop in the number of hunters outside of Canada since the start of the pandemic, with a drop of 100 percent in some cases.

He said the bear population of British Columbia, 180,000 strong, had not seen a noticeable increase without American hunters, but said that “in localized places if you have 2,200 less guided customers, there will be 2,200 more bears ”.

Ellis said outfitters have responded to the growing number of Canadians seeking safe outdoor recreation during the pandemic.

“Where they don’t have clients, some rent cabins so people can go fishing or nature watching, or fat-biking, which you can do in the snow”, a- he declared.

Darrell Crabbe, executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, which manages lands used for hunting, said during COVID-19 he has seen outdoor activities increase exponentially on lands managed by the federation, including wildlife viewing and a geocaching explosion where people use a GPS system to hide and search for containers with treasures, trinkets or notes in remote locations.

Crabbe added that without the American hunters there were now “more bears around”.

“Most Saskatchewan residents don’t hunt bears. We know the population is increasing from the numbers, but we haven’t had a problem, ”he said.

In Saskatchewan, there has been a huge drop in the number of Americans purchasing guided hunting licenses. But many of the non-resident bear hunting licenses are now occupied by people who live in Saskatchewan.

Val Nicholson of the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment said that in a typical year about 1,800 guided bear licenses are sold, mostly to American hunters.

“Even if all were successful, this harvest would not significantly affect overall populations,” Nicholson said.

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

“Resident hunters of Alberta make up the majority of hunters in the province and have increased during COVID,” he added.

In Nova Scotia, where most people hunt deer, more locals have also started hunting as a hobby during the pandemic, the provincial government’s wildlife division said.

Ellis said COVID-19 would be a catalyst for the outfitting industry to pivot and offer more guided outdoor activities as well as hunting in the future. Many had already started offering snowshoe rides, wildlife viewing and Northern Lights tours, he said.

The experience wouldn’t appeal to everyone, as the chalets and lodges are located deep in the hinterland in remote areas, accessible only by horse, plane or helicopter, he said.

“They may have a few cabins that can accommodate four people, but it could be a three-day hike to get there,” he said. “Some people want to watch animals. In the spring, you can see the bears coming out in the grass and clover in some places.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 19, 2021.

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