OTTAWA – Hunting guides hard hit by COVID-19 travel restrictions that are keeping overseas customers out of the country are turning to ecotourism, including wildlife viewing, snowmobiling and guided walking tours to keep their business alive during the pandemic.

The Canadian Outfitters Representative says that far more of their members have opened their cottages and lodges in the Canadian hinterland – as well as transport by light aircraft and horses – to people who enjoy the outdoors and see wild animals but don’t want to hunt them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in an increasing number of licenses reserved for non-Canadian hunters being made available to Canadians, some of whom have started hunting for the first time.

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

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

COVID-19 has led some provinces, including Saskatchewan, to seek to bolster the hard-pressed equipment industry by offering native Canadians bear hunting licenses that are usually reserved for non-residents.

Dominic Dugre, president of the Canadian Federation of Outfitter Associations, said COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Canada’s run hunting industry, but less so in Quebec, where most of the huntings take place locally.

He said some outfitters supplying hunters from abroad have “lost 99 percent of their customers”.

COVID-19 perks, including wage subsidies, have helped die-hard hunting guides. But many have devoted themselves to ecotourism to survive to meet the growing number of Canadians enjoying outdoor activities like snowmobiling during the pandemic.

“It is currently a trend to diversify due to COVID. Many outfitters have opened their cabins to people. There are more and more outfitters who offer (guided) animal viewing. Hunters have changed too. We saw more and more women and families taking away hunting and fishing, “said Dugre.

Gudie Hutchings, the federal minister for rural economic development who helped found the Canadian Federation of Outfitting Associations, said the run hunting industry for Americans and Europeans was “completely decimated” last year.

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

“Some provinces have rotated to allow Canadians to apply for licenses,” she said, adding that Newfoundland and Labrador, where she lives, had “a reasonably decent hunting season this year.”

Mike McIntosh, founder of Bear With Us, an Ontario center that rescues orphaned bear cubs and injured bears, said he feared Canadians who started bear hunting might kill more bears than Americans who hire professional guides to hunt them guide and become witnesses.

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

“The fact that we have had a COVID situation and have fewer non-resident hunters did not affect the bear numbers in Ontario. As many bears are still being killed, if not more, by resident hunters who started during the bear hunt for COVID, “Macintosh said.

The Ontario Department of Natural Resources said it had postponed its usual black bear population surveys for 2020 and 2021 to 2022 due to COVID-19.

Most outfitters run hunters from outside Canada, with many purchasing packages that include lodge accommodation and transportation by small plane valued at thousands of dollars. Canadian hunters tend to go alone or with friends or family.

Scott Ellis, chairman of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC’s board of directors and vice president of the CFOA, said each province was a little different when it came to the number of non-resident hunters, but overall, outfitters had a 75- to 85-percent The number the hunter from outside Canada has declined by percent since the beginning of the pandemic, in some cases by as much as 100 percent.

He said that without American hunters, BC’s 180,000 bear population hadn’t seen a noticeable increase, but said that “in localized places, if you have 2,200 less managed customers, there will be 2,200 more bears.”

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

“When they don’t have customers, they rent out some cabins so people can fish or watch nature or ride fat bikes, which can be done in the snow,” he said.

Darrell Crabbe, executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, which manages the land used for hunting, said he saw an exponential increase in outdoor activities on the federation-administered land during COVID-19, including wildlife viewing and an explosion in geocaching , where people use a GPS system to hide and search for bins containing treasures, trinkets, or notes in remote locations.

Crabbe added that without the American hunters, there are now “more bears”.

“Most Saskatchewan residents don’t hunt bears. We know the population is increasing because of the numbers, but we didn’t have a problem, ”he said.

In Saskatchewan, the number of Americans buying licenses for guided hunts has plummeted. But many of the bear hunting licenses reserved for non-residents have now been used by people living in Saskatchewan.

Val Nicholson of the Saskatchewan Department of the Environment said about 1,800 run bear licenses would be sold in a normal year, mostly to American hunters.

“Even if all were successful, this crop would not significantly affect the overall population,” said Nicholson.

Alberta Environment and Parks said in a statement that it does not expect changes in hunting pressures to affect the entire wildlife population.

“Alberta-based hunters make up the majority of the hunters in the province and have increased during COVID,” she added.

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

Ellis said COVID-19 would be a catalyst for the equipment industry to turn around and offer more guided outdoor activities as well as hunting in the future. Many have already started offering snowshoeing, wildlife viewing and trips to the northern lights, he said.

Not everyone would enjoy the experience, however, as cabins and lodges are deep in the backcountry in remote areas and can only be reached by horse, plane, or helicopter, he said.

“They might have a couple of cabins for four, but it could be a three day hike to get there,” he said. “Some want to watch animals. In the spring you can see the bears coming into the grass and in some places clover.”

“Some people go there to ski, snowmobiles, or just do nothing, say whether they’re from Toronto and just want to see the northern lights or hear the sounds of nature.”

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