Leaders of the B.C. Wildlife Federation were stunned last week when they got a letter from the provincial government detailing the new harvest allocations for big-game species.
They knew changes were coming, having been engaged in talks with the province for years over hunting policies. But they never expected anything like the numbers that Forest, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson set out in his letter.
In region after region, they saw the share allocated to resident hunters fall, while the share allocated to professional hunting guides and outfitters go up.
"I was shocked," said BCWF director Jesse Zemann.
The percentage of permits allocated to resident hunters versus guide outfitters is known as the split. And it has long been an issue of contention between the BCWF, which represents more than 45,000 B.C. hunters and anglers, and the 245 licensed guide outfitters in the province, who operate in designated territories and cater largely to foreign hunters.
The figures announced by Mr. Thomson range from an 80-20-per-cent split favouring resident hunters to a 60-40 split, also in favour of residents. While the numbers largely favour the group, who have always had priority, they are not the figures the BCWF anticipated.
A draft of the harvest-allocation policy shows that the B.C. government had been planning a split that even more greatly favoured residents. In region one, for example, the proposed split would have been 90 per cent of bull elk to residents, and 10 per cent to guide outfitters. In Mr. Thomson's letter that split became 80-20. Bull moose in region four, according to the early draft, were to be split 88 per cent to residents, 12 per cent to guide outfitters. In Mr. Thomson's letter that became 80-20. In region 7A, bull moose were to be shared 82 per cent by residents, 18 per cent by guide outfitters. That, in the final plan, became 75 to 25.
Mr. Zeman said "there were dozens of quote-unquote 'promises' made by ministers, deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and directors of wildlife that the policy would be implemented [as outlined in the early draft]."
But the numbers were changed for the final draft, and without consultation.
"I can't tell you why they are different. I can tell you there's no socioeconomic rationale to it. Long story short, we were told it was being implemented [as drafted]. Everybody agreed at the table; the next day the back-door deals started," Mr. Zeman said.
"This is without a doubt the worst deal in North America," he said, pointing out that in most provinces and U.S. states, the allocation of game typically favours resident hunters over non-residents by a 95-5 split.
Mr. Thomson said the BCWF and the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia couldn't agree on what the final split should be, so the government made that determination, trying to be fair to both parties.
"The approach was to provide what I felt was a balanced decision," he said. "This was a very difficult decision and one that has been the subject of a long, long process of consultation,"
Mr. Thomson pointed out that in some regions, guide outfitters will get less game and that over all, the shift from residents to guides is relatively small.
For resident hunters, however, the numbers loom large. They already have to apply for big-game permits in limited-entry hunts, and often fail for years to get a permit to hunt animals such as moose, sheep or elk. They feel the government has turned its back on them in favour of high-paying foreign hunters, who are guaranteed access as long as they hire a guide.
The BCWF is an organization that seldom clashes with government, preferring dialogue and consensus over conflict. But they are as mad as a wounded bear now and the government may come to regret the policy that riled them.