🕔Sep 27, 2010

We hike in silence. Moving through the cold wet bush as quietly as possible, every step calculated for its impact on the stillness that surrounds us, neither of us speaks. I find my stride, rhythmically picking my way over blowdown, and my thoughts wander.

If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know what I’ll do when the moment comes. And I’m not even the one taking the animal’s life—I’m just along for the ride. But I push any self-doubt from my mind and enjoy the satisfaction of being outdoors.

Shunning trails, we pick a rough route from the landscape and follow it over the rolling terrain of the Skeena Valley’s sub-alpine. It’s raining, of course, but for now the gaiters and my old battered jacket are holding out against the persistent precipitation. Every now and then we stop and scan the surroundings, peering further down into the valley or up to where the trees thin out and the bands of bedrock start. It’s hard to spot movement when the sky is falling, but eventually I focus my eyes on the land surrounding a little alpine lake. There are deer somewhere in this landscape, but right now we seem to be the only two creatures foolish enough to be out in the rain.

Sport or subsistence
Hunting is a contentious subject. But why do hunters get such a bad rap? Hunting is nearly as human as breathing itself; until relatively recently, it has simply been an integral part of survival and in many cases our interactions with the environment have been shaped by the hunt itself—following migratory caribou herds, for example. But the image has changed from a basic human act to something very different. These days, it’s hard not to think of a beer-swilling, quad-riding, camouflage-clad guy who’s trigger-happy, possessed by a blood lust born from watching too many “Die Hard” movies. And sure, those guys do exist. But the hunters I know share the same outdoors ethics and passion for untouched landscapes as the most ardent environmentalists.

“Hunting is a way of life up here,” says Blair Thin, a Terrace-based conservation officer. “I don’t want to over-generalize, but I think most of the negative attitude to hunting probably comes from an urban area.”

In the Northwest, most hunters sling a rifle and head out into the bush so they can put food in the freezer, but that’s not the whole story. “In our modern society, hunting gives one an excuse to pursue outdoor activities and explore and remain active in the wilderness that so many of us love,” says the Advocate, a Prince Rupert hunter who prefers to remain anonymous. “It also provides a primal outlet for this very basic instinctual need of mankind as hunter-gatherer and the need to at least feel like we are providing for our families in this manner.”

“I love the outdoors,” agrees Keith Morris, another Rupert hunting advocate. “But adding the incentive of having a lake or river to fish or the possibility of finding a deer along the way absolutely enhances the experience for me.” To hear it from these guys, hunting is both subsistence and sport.

“From a strictly health perspective, the meat taken and consumed from wild game is far better than supermarket beef,” says the Advocate. “It’s entirely free from chemical additives like pesticide residues from commercial feeds, growth hormones, antibiotics given to animals to keep them ‘healthy’ in the feed-lot environment, and dyes added to the meat during commercial processing to make meat look more appetizing.”

He makes a good point: if you’re going to eat meat, you might as well eat wild meat. “You’re harvesting an animal that’s eating natural foods,” agrees Thin. “My kids were raised on venison.” Thin says that given a choice between buying questionable meat from a store and killing a deer responsibly, he’d choose the deer every time.

Ethics and enforcement
“I was always taught that there are only two reasons to kill an animal: because you are going to eat it, or it is going to eat you,” continues the Advocate. “In my hunting activities I was taught to always have and maintain the utmost respect for all wildlife, and when harvesting game and taking the life of any animals I do so with a very high degree of ethics.” He goes on to tell stories of leaving the bush empty-handed because he couldn’t get a ‘clean’ shot and didn’t want to risk only wounding the animal.

But not every hunter is as responsible. And not every hunter adheres to the philosophy of only killing an animal to eat its meat. Trophy hunting—killing an animal strictly for ‘glory’—is where a lot of hunting controversy is focussed. Bear hunting in the Northwest has been fiercely debated for years. The debate shows no signs of slowing down, nor does the legislation look like it’s going to change anytime soon. It’s a bizarre tourist market, largely appealing to Europeans out for the ‘authentic’ Canadian experience.

Even food hunters sometimes disregard the regulations. “There are some opportunistic hunters and fishermen who like to bend the rules,” admits Thin. “People play the probability game.” Given that our northwest region is geographically vast, the few conservation officers actually out in the field have their work cut out for them. They rely largely on reports from the public, through a program called RAPP (Report All Poachers and Polluters), to target irresponsible hunters. But even then, time is tight. “Public safety is our number one mandate,” he says. “We’re torn between chasing bears around our communities and going out and doing proactive patrols.”

Hunter responsibility isn’t limited to the manner in which wildlife is killed; preservation of the surrounding ecosystem is as important to hunters as it is to outdoorsy folk out just for recreation. “We all know that our freedom to hunt and fish depends on healthy habitat,” reads the mandate of a pro-hunting organization, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We share a concern that the peace, quiet and freedom that make hunting and fishing special may be lost to the pressures of human population, industry and technology.”

Hunter-based nature conservation makes sense. Animals need natural environs to survive, and hunters need animals; it only stands to reason that hunters should preserve animal habitat. The Conservation Office, for its part, enforces regulations to ensure that hunting traditions can continue. “The hunting seasons themselves are based on that ethic of wildlife management and sustainable use,” says Thin, and adds that he has met many hunters who play a significant role in environmental stewardship.

Empty freezer
My moment of truth never comes—the deer are sensibly hiding from the truly god-awful weather—but I consider it a fulfilling experience anyway. We didn’t just come out to shoot a deer, we came out to connect with the landscape in a more intimate way. And kneeling in the flattened grass where a family of deer spent the night is a truly intimate experience. My freezer may stay empty, but the potential to bring home a healthy addition to our family diet is enough to make me try again. “I think it’s the anticipation of it all that has me addicted,” admits Morris. “And as we all know, anticipation is probably better than the event itself.”

Report poachers and polluters:
1-877-952-RAPP (7277)