Hunters remain wary of national park reserve

As the former provincial government moved forward earlier this year with discussions over establishing a national park reserve in the South Okanagan, some hunters and off-road vehicle (ORV) users were expressing concerns.

That divisive issue is likely to face the new NDP government, which along with their Green partners, has expressed support for a national park.

The province announced in January that it was returning to talks with Parks Canada, saying it wanted existing uses of the land to continue.

Parks Canada has already signaled it is willing to incorporate the present system of cattle grazing tenures into a national park reserve, addressing concerns expressed by ranchers.

And it has also suggested that a Penticton-based helicopter training school would not be adversely affected by the park proposal.

But satisfying the wishes of hunters and ORV users could prove more challenging.

Representatives of both the Osoyoos Wildlife Federation and B.C. Wildlife Federation distrust Parks Canada’s record of environmental protection and say that local land users will be excluded.

“Our concern has been first of all the inability of Parks Canada to adequately manage biodiversity,” said Jesse Zeman, resident priority program manager with the B.C. Wildlife Federation, a group that speaks for hunters and anglers.

Zeman points out that at a time when Jasper National Park in Alberta is seeing plummeting caribou populations, Parks Canada is talking about spending $85 million on a bicycle trail.

“That’s not consistent with the intent of national parks,” said Zeman. “We’d like to see some form of local input or local control, so that existing uses are included, so that we have an inclusive approach that people can buy into and feel like they own.”

Norm Eady, a former president of the Osoyoos Wildlife Federation, is concerned about restrictions on hunters, but he’s especially concerned that a prohibition on ORVs would make it harder for seniors to enjoy the outdoors.

Seniors are no longer content to disappear into seniors’ homes, he said.

Now they want to lead a healthier lifestyle and enjoy the outdoors. But many no longer have the physical ability of younger people to hike into the backcountry.

“They’re invited to the South Okanagan as a destination to retire in,” said Eady. “It doesn’t just stop at the bowling alleys. It goes right out into the mountains, the back roads, the lakes, the fishing and the hiking. You put a national park in and all of a sudden you just drop this big gate down.”

Although the areas currently protected by the provincial government don’t allow ORVs off roads, these laws are almost never enforced.

Aubrey White, another former president of the Osoyoos Wildlife Federation, shares Zeman’s concerns about Parks Canada’s overdevelopment of national parks and about the loss of local control.

“My concern is that the feds will have full control when the province turns it over to them,” said White. “Unless their business model changes, we’ll lose control of what happens in our own backyard. It could be pressure from Toronto that changes what happens here in Osoyoos.”

White says Parks Canada pays too much attention to commercial interests that want to build resorts, allowing excessive development in national parks.

“It infringes on the land that we’re trying to protect when they build parking lots and that kind of thing,” he said.

But White and Eady are especially riled that local First Nations might get hunting rights in a national park that would be denied to non-natives.

“I don’t have any problem with the First Nations managing the park,” said White. “And they should have all the rights that we do.”

But he draws the line at allowing hunting rights to Aboriginals only.

“I firmly believe that splitting the country up on racial lines is a bad idea that will eventually hurt all of us,” said White. “Special rights for any group of people is always a bad idea.”

In a submission to the provincial government’s consultation on its Intentions Paper in September 2015, White, then vice president of the Osoyoos Wildlife Federation, called for continued provincial control.

He said provincial parks are well managed and stakeholders are satisfied.

“We are on a very slippery slope which may allow Parks Canada, First Nations and other special interest groups to control our public lands,” White wrote. “To abandon control to federal agencies and local special interests is a very bad idea.”

Eady points out that the point of creating a national park reserve rather than just a national park is that it gives First Nations greater control over who can access the land.

He points to Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories, Kluane National Park Reserve in the Yukon and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in B.C.

“They actually have spiritual areas that nobody is allowed into unless you’re native,” said Eady. “You go to a national park and you don’t see that. In a national park reserve, you do.”

A national park reserve, he said, brings down “a second gate.”

He objects to the idea of only allowing First Nations to hunt in the area.

“There’s a word for that,” said Eady. “It’s called apartheid.”

The restrictions against hunting in a national park reserve are a concern to all three men.

Game in the two areas proposed for a national park reserve includes mainly mule deer, some white-tailed deer and Bighorn sheep, as well as grouse.

Park supporters point out that the large Snowy Protected Area that was originally proposed for inclusion in a national park was excluded to accommodate hunters.

The area set aside for a national park reserve was further reduced in the provincial government’s Intentions Paper.

Zeman admits there are probably other places that people can hunt, but they aren’t necessarily close by.

“They aren’t in people’s backyards necessarily,” he said. “Certainly with hunters, we find quite a fidelity, so if your parents or your mentor showed you an area, that’s typically an area that you’re going to hunt for the rest of your hunting career. “In a lot of cases it will be second and third generation that have been passing down these hunting areas. So it would definitely have an impact on participation.”

Eady questions why hunters need to be excluded.

“What’s wrong with sharing?” he asks. “That’s a question I’d like to answer. What’s wrong with sharing the land? When somebody says, ‘I don’t want to share, all I see is a selfish person.”

He said hikers have no reason for concern when he’s out hunting.

“When I go into the bush with my rifle, the first thing I do is look around,” said Eady. “The last thing I want to do is kill somebody up there. As I’m going, I’m watching for traffic.”

Eady acknowledges some non-hunters have rudely confronted him when he’s out hunting birds, but other times the exchanges are polite.

While hunting is prohibited in most national parks, an exception was made for traditional land users in the Mealy Mountain National Park Reserve in Labrador in July 2015.

“Hunting is restricted to ducks, geese, ptarmigan, porcupine and grouse for eligible traditional land users,” said a Parks Canada spokesperson in an email.

“Such users are defined as individuals who reside in communities close to the park and have been residents for a specified period of time. This approach was worked out and negotiated over a number of years.”

She added that it would be premature to speculate on whether this approach could be applicable to a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen.

Zeman disagrees with the idea of restricting hunting or fishing to locals.

“We see wildlife as a common property resource,” he said. “When it comes to things like salmon, we don’t say just because you don’t live on the coast, you can’t go fish for salmon. So the same would apply for wildlife. We certainly see it as a provincial resource that people should be able to share in and access.”

Eady points out that even if shooting of ungulates such as deer and sheep is allowed, without the ability to use motorized vehicles, only a limited number of people would be able to hunt them.

“You’re going to close the door to all the seniors to be allowed to hunt in there,” he said. “There’s only a very small group of people that are going to be able to hike in there, dispatch their animal and then pack it out.”

Zeman said there’s also a larger issue involved in the evolution of national parks.

“In the last two years there’s been a huge switch, but history has been more towards tourist attractions and moving away from allowing people from the local area and the province to use these areas,” he said.

The price of admission becomes a barrier, he said.

“The question is, are we building national parks to maintain nature in an unimpaired state for the enjoyment of British Columbians and Canadians? Or are we creating a semi-privatized area that is good for bringing in foreign people, but not great for local enjoyment.”