Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have hit tourism industries hard around the world, and in Alberta have created a particularly difficult year for hunting outfitters.
In an effort to help the industry, the Alberta government passed two temporary amendments earlier this month to boost business, alongside a number of permanent changes the province has been working toward for more than half a decade.
The temporary amendments allow Alberta residents to participate in guided hunts that are normally designated for non-residents.
Albertans would usually have to rely on the luck of winning a draw to be able to participate in certain hunts. The province said the change was necessary to help an industry that can't rely on its usual clients travelling north from the United States to hunt in Alberta.
"What we wanted to do is make sure we did our best to support that society," said Travis Ripley, executive director of Fish and Wildlife Stewardship with the Alberta government.
"Because they're not getting international clients coming up, we're going to allow residents of Alberta to purchase the services of the guide and not have to go into the lottery."
Ripley said the government will also allow outfitters to take refunds on fees they pay annually to secure allocations for guided hunts that will go unused this year.
The amendments take effect on Aug. 25 and will last for up to two years. Ripley said the government will monitor the response and watch for unintended consequences before deciding whether to make the changes permanent.
According to the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society's website, the industry contributes $105 million annually to the provincial economy. But the society said that 95 per cent of that value comes from hunters visiting Alberta from outside the province.
Hunting has grown more popular in Alberta steadily throughout the past two decades. Almost 120,000 hunting licences were bought in 2019, nearly 35,000 more than were purchased in 2005. In fact, Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North America where hunting participation has seen a long-term upwards trend.
Many of the changes were long awaited, said Jeana Schuurman, managing director of the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society. Her organization was consulted about the changes, and she said she thinks they will help create a strong base for the industry.
"It's been a lot of anxiety for my members this year," Schuurman said. "We're grateful to see these wildlife regulation changes come in. It's a nice, positive message to hear in a time when it's been really challenging for a lot of my members."
Allowing residents to participate in guided tours will help outfitters, Schuurman said, but won't be a silver bullet for the industry's woes.
"There will need to be some consultation done with both the resident hunting community and (outfitters)," Schuurman said. "But what it does is it makes a pilot where we can see how it works and what the challenges are with that process."
The changes come as a relief to Steve Overguard, one of the owners of Alberta Adventures.
Overguard's business offers hunting and fishing tours, and he said they lost more than $150,000 this spring after the Canada-U.S. border closed. With the border to remain closed until at least Sept. 21, outfitters will continue to go without their usual American clients.
"It's truly devastating," Overguard said. "After 40 years of operations, if it didn't open by September, we were done. It was going to totally wipe us out."
Overguard said allowing Albertans to take guided tours and refunds from the province will help Alberta Adventures continue to operate.
The business has always relied on American dollars, Overguard said, but the pandemic has created problems unlike anything he has dealt with before.
"Our industry really goes up an down with the world economy. This is undoubtedly the very lowest we have ever got, by far."
New permanent hunting amendments in Alberta
The temporary changes were part of a 43-amendment package the government sought widespread consultation on as far back as 2014.
"There is more emphasis now on hunting, fishing and wildlife regulations today, which is why we were able to move this through at a quicker pace," Ripley said.
He said they've added new penalties to help conservation efforts and give more flexibility for wildlife sanctuaries for vulnerable species.
The government also removed hunting prohibitions on water bodies listed as restricted rivers and lakes because of a growing migratory bird population. But restrictions remain on game bird sanctuaries.
The government will now allow hunters to transport weapons on off-highway vehicles during the time period from one hour before sunrise until noon, which had previously been banned. Ripley said the change was made to help Alberta's aging hunting population use the vehicles to get locations that aren't easily accessible on foot.
Under the changes, hunters will now be able to sell all parts of fur-bearing animals that were taken lawfully.