First it was empty store shelves and profiteers selling hand sanitizer online. Now it’s guns and ammo on backorder as many British Columbians hope to fill the freezer with wild fish and game.
As a hunter and angler, I can’t fault people for wanting to spend time outside — and reduce trips to the grocery store. But I’m starting to wonder how the B.C. government will protect health, public safety and wildlife populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hunting season for black bears opened province-wide April 1. Kaslo resident Cathy Campbell says that’s when she started noticing pick-up trucks topped with campers heading up Kootenay Lake. “All it takes is one hunter purchasing supplies at the local hunting store or getting gas and food to spread this virus here,” Campbell says. In Kaslo, three in 10 residents are over 65. The closest hospital is in Nelson, an hour’s drive away.
So far the province has sold at least 4,803 species licences for black bears, compared to 1,886 in 2019. Campbell says she hopes first-time bear hunters “learn the difference between a male and a lactating mother with young cubs before they shoot.” And she’s not just concerned about licenced hunters. With the Chinese government officially promoting bear bile as a coronavirus treatment, Campbell fears an uptick in poachers killing bears for their gallbladders.
B.C. conservation officers are tasked with regulating hunting and fishing in the province. But there are only 150 conservation officers patrolling a province of nearly a million square kilometres, with 662,000 kilometres of unpaved roads.
A village with one ventilator
Remote Indigenous communities have already seen outsiders show up trying to escape the pandemic. The arrival of yachts in Bella Bella has members of the Heiltsuk Nation deeply frustrated. “It’s appalling that B.C. has not taken measures to implement travel restrictions aligned with the protective emergency measures our Nations are undertaking,” says Jess Housty, executive director of the Qqs Projects Society in Bella Bella.
“Commercial fishermen, trophy fishermen, resident hunters, researchers, anyone coming from outside our territory to draw down on the finite resources here should reconsider their choices,” says Housty. “We don’t need the risk of COVID exposure in a village with one ventilator.”
The B.C. government is encouraging hunters and anglers to practice physical distancing, wash their hands, and “adhere to all municipal, First Nation community, provincial and federal closures.” But orders from municipalities and First Nations are essentially toothless, after the province overrode local states of emergency March 26.
“Many of us feel like our remote communities are collateral damage in provincial emergency decision-making models that favour urban areas,” says Housty. If the province and Ottawa are going to centralize emergency powers during the pandemic, she says they need to go further to protect Indigenous food security and vulnerable populations.
“Close the sport fishing season. Scale back travel associated with the resident hunt. Call it a gesture that they care about the survival of the Indigenous peoples who are inseparable from these lands and waters.”
Conflict on the water
“Even before COVID, there were significant tensions between user groups,” says Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society. With commercial boats, Indigenous communities and recreational anglers all targeting the same dwindling numbers of fish, “there could be increased risk of conflict on the water.”
Like Cathy Campbell in Kaslo, Hill is worried about enforcement. “With some people feeling more desperate to put meat in the freezer, we’re probably going to see more people fishing in closed areas or closed times, exceeding their catch limits, and killing prohibited species.”
Hill has some recommendations for fisheries managers: “DFO and B.C. Fish and Wildlife need to increase their enforcement presence in all high-risk fisheries. They will need to monitor popular fishing spots for overcrowding. And they should consider temporarily closing fishing to non-resident anglers. If our borders are closed for non-essential travel, why would we still sell fishing licences to non-residents?”
The sudden drop in vehicle traffic, pollution and human activity has wildlife populations seemingly bouncing back. Herds of deer are marching around the suburbs. Wild turkeys were spotted in Montreal. Indigenous fishermen on the West Coast report one of the most abundant herring spawns in recent memory.
At the same time, grain mills are struggling to keep up with demand for flour. Many garden centres are sold out of vegetable seeds. With the economic ripple effects of COVID-19 likely to stretch on for years, British Columbians are seeking more control over their food supply. For some of us that includes foraging, fishing and hunting.
But gathering food outdoors can’t come at the expense of local health and safety. Suspending out-of-province fishing and hunting licences should be a no-brainer. Commercial harvests should also be reduced or cancelled where they threaten Indigenous food security. And we need to balance opportunities for B.C. residents against long-term conservation.
As a hunter and angler, I don’t like to see access taken away. But this is a year where shorter rifle seasons, some motor vehicle closures, fewer open seasons and more limited entry (lottery) hunts could discourage people from travelling long distances, visiting unfamiliar areas or taking risks a long way from help.
Beyond regulation, I would like to see governments invest in existing conservation and monitoring programs like the Indigenous Guardians. More boots on the ground is a good thing for compliance, data gathering and backcountry safety. And these are jobs that could be performed outdoors in a way consistent with COVID-19 guidelines.
Above all, the province should take its cues from local communities that know their own backyard. If First Nations, municipalities and regional districts say they don’t want out-of-towners clogging up their grocery stores and gas stations, the Horgan government needs to ensure the rest of us respect that.