Many say hunting regulations and evolving ethics have made those who hunt legally much more aware of how game should be killed in a sustainable, principled manner. Unfortunately for wildlife, the province is a prime target for poachers.
Erik Butters is a cattle rancher and municipal councillor in the MD of Bighorn who gives permission to about two dozen licensed hunters to use his land every year. He says the perception of hunting has undergone a remarkable change in recent decades.
“The whole ethic has changed. There used to be a group of people out there that, they wouldn’t kill it if they couldn’t poach it. It was what made it fun,” he says. “I bought a rifle 30 years ago at a sports shop in Calgary, and the owner of the shop bragged about how he and his uncles and brothers and his dad were the best poachers in the whole province of Manitoba, and regaled me and the fellow that was with me for half an hour on all their poaching exploits. That was common practice 30 years ago, but it’s not anymore.”
Butters says the community no longer tolerates poachers, and are quick to report suspicious activity.
“We deal with them pretty promptly if we run across them.”
Tips from the public are crucial to keeping poachers at bay, particularly since the provincial government reduced the number of game wardens in Alberta, altered their responsibilities and renamed them Fish and Wildlife Officers.
Ken Kranrod, vice-president of the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA), says that although the law applies to everybody, he sees two kinds of poachers.
On one end of the spectrum, he says, a hunter mistakenly kills an animal he honestly believed was the correct size, or in the location allowed by his hunting licence, only to realize his error after the fact.
“Ethically, you should only be pulling that trigger when you are 100 per cent sure of your target.... But I can see how things like that can happen,” says Kranrod.
“There’s the other side of the spectrum and that is almost what you might want to call the professional poacher. And these are people that, they know the laws and therefore they know what’s right and wrong, they know how to break them. They are going out specifically to poach.... When you’re talking about individuals like this, they’re often part of a larger ring. Poaching groups, it’s known that in some cases it’s tied to organized crime; illegal trafficking in animal parts.”
The ACA operates the Report A Poacher (RAP) program in collaboration with the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development. RAP receives roughly 4,000 tips from the public regarding suspected acts of poaching each year. After receiving a tip, Fish and Wildlife officers begin an investigation. Some are simple matters such as catching up to a truck spotted driving away from a shot deer; other cases involve advanced forensics, undercover officers and dozens of criminal charges.
Brandon Cox is a public affairs officer with Alberta’s solicitor general. He lists some of the more prominent recent investigations into poaching.
“There’s Operation Kool Aid in 2003, in the Cold Lake-St. Paul area. So 34 individuals and one business were convicted.... All the penalties added up would have been $273,000,” he says. “The most recent was in the Pigeon Lake area, 27 individuals were charged with 72 counts under the Fisheries Act for the unlawful sale of walleye and whitefish.” That case is still before the court, but Cox says each individual charged may face a fine of $1,000 and a year in jail.
Kranrod says “professional poaching” can be lucrative.
“You’ve got hunters, out-of-country hunters, that will pay tens of thousands of dollars to come up and shoot a trophy whitetail. So you got a guy coming up, he’s paying a lot of money, and he’s only here for five days.... It’s a lot of pressure on people to perform,” he says.
“And you get the illegal trade in species too. We’ve all heard about bear gall bladders. People still do it, it’s still ongoing, and that is entirely feeding the Asian market, both domestically and overseas. And that’s simply shoot the bear, take the gall bladder, leave it; pretty gross, really.”
The massive increase in remote access roads built to serve the energy and logging industries is blamed for making such practices easier.
A report issued by the ACA and provincial government in 2010 notes that grizzly bears have benefitted from an increase in poaching fines to a possible $100,000, and adoption of strategies to reduce bear attractants in communities like Canmore that border grizzly habitat. However, the report points out, “58 per cent of bear habitat is within 500 metres of a road or other open access, leading to high mortality risk.”
It also found that with increased access, outright poaching as well as the killing of grizzlies allegedly in self-defence has jumped in the past 40 years. Between 1972 and 1996, 13 per cent of grizzly deaths could be attributed to illegal and defensive acts. Between 2000 and 2008 that number had risen to 42 per cent. The report concluded that Alberta’s grizzly population could only sustain itself if human access to bear habitat is curtailed, specifically by addressing the network of access roads.
Little has been done in response to that recommendation, and in the meantime, easy access and limited Fish and Wildlife resources continue to allow poaching activity that is often difficult to resolve.