May/June 2020 (Written April 2020)
By Brian Strickland
It’s been a whirlwind of events the last few months with the global pandemic. I’ve tried not to pay too much attention to the latest headlines, but I can’t seem to turn away and for many of you I’m sure you’d say the same. Needless to say, fear and uncertainty have swept across much of North America with many questioning when this will all end.
Many people have died from the coronavirus across the world, and that number is climbing significantly. Whether you’re in the camp that feels the government’s reaction is too draconian, or they are not doing enough, or maybe somewhere in the middle, we are all feeling its effects. Most of us are living in a quasi-shelter-in-place advisory, while scores of others are facing economic hardship unimagined. Most large corporations will wade through this pandemic “shut-down” a little worse for the wear, but they will ultimately survive. However, as the struggle deepens and stretches longer, it will be the small business owner that will take the brunt of this crisis.
The good news is, “this too shall pass;” and it may come sooner than most predicted—let us all bend a knee and pray that it does. However, the question still on the horizon is just how deep of an economic impact this will have, and more importantly for bear hunting outfitters and their clients, how will this affect their upcoming spring season? This may seem like a trivial question, especially as the body count continues to grow, but it’s an honest one. Life will go on, and for many bear hunting outfitters, this will be an enormous hit to the pocketbook. At Bear Hunting Magazine, we pride ourselves in our partnership with our outfitters and we believe that we represent some of the best in the world.
Take for example Canada, which offers more bear hunting opportunities than any place on earth. Overall, tourism is its second-largest industry, second only to healthcare. Its revenues top 6 billion dollars per month, and the hunting, fishing and ecotourism sectors are a huge percentage of that. Needless to say, the Lower 48 provides the bulk of those dollars, and with the Canadian border closed to non-essential crossings deep into the coming bear season, and possibly longer, this will be devastating to may bear hunting outfitters, especially those relatively new in the industry.
I’ll admit, I’m disappointed that my planned Manitoba bear hunt was on the chopping block this spring, as well as my annual DIY Idaho excursion, as the Gem State also suspended bear hunting opportunities for non-residents. But to be honest, my disappointment is insignificant compared to the countless outfitters that will struggle and perhaps fail because of this. As a staunch member of the hunting community, I feel for them and you should as well.
So with bear hunters largely living in the Lower 48, what can we expect this spring and how can we help our outfitters that we have booked hunts with?
According to outfitter Gil Paradis, owner of Riverside Lodge (www.huntriverside.com) in Manitoba, this will “cripple” many outfitters in Manitoba. Although Paradis offers hunts for whitetails, waterfowl and upland game in the fall, the 51 bear hunters he was hosting this spring was his bread and butter for the season. At $3,600 a hunt, you can do the math to figure out how big of an impact this will have.
Jeff Lander, owner of Primitive Outfitting (www.primitive-outfitting.com) agreed. This British Columbia and Alberta based outfitter has been guiding hunters for 25 years, and he says, “The trickle-down effect this will have on all outfitters will be extensive, and it will especially hit outfitters who guide bear hunters exclusively the hardest.” He added, "the younger outfitters with substantial debt may never recover.”
As a member of Manitoba Lodges & Outfitters Association, Paradis has his fingers on the pulse of Travel Manitoba, which oversees Manitoba tourism, and he estimates this pandemic shutdown will last into the summer months as well. Needless to say, his spring bear season has been canceled and he’s in the process of moving some of the hunts in the fall, but most will be lost, says Paradis.
Because Manitoba operates on a quota type system, outfitters are only allowed so many bear tags a year, and there is no carryover into subsequent years. That being said, unless the outfitter has spots available you can’t re-book the following spring if those spots are already taken, as many are. Even if an outfitter has the tags, they may not have room in their camp for additional hunters.
For the other Canadian provinces and states in the Lower 48 that are not limited by tag numbers, they will be able to recover some of their hunts, but at additional costs. Adding more spots to future hunts means hiring additional guides, as well as other incurred expenses. Because of the additional hunters in camp, there’s also the risk of tarnishing the overall hunter experience. This may sound insignificant but most outfitters live by their reputation. If an experience is subpar, chances are social media will hear about it.
The next question most hunters have is when will I get my deposit back? Unfortunately, those are non-refundable with most outfitters. Although reputable outfitters will try to re-book a hunt when possible, if you’re not flexible and willing to wait, you’re pretty much out of luck.
Bear-baiting outfitters have very tight margins compared to others because of baiting costs, as well as the expense of getting into the bush. Before the border was closed in early March, most were already baiting and had been for a few weeks, and most will also continue to bait with hopes the border will open. That being said, the bulk of your deposit has already been used. The reality is, not only will this shutdown cripple many outfitters, it will likely put some completely out of business.
Some might argue that outfitters should have business interruption insurance, and if they don’t then they should have. Maybe so, but even if they did, claims relating to pandemics are generally excluded. Besides, that’s an expense most outfitters can’t afford because of the thin margins.
Whether fair or not, both sides of this coin will be affected negatively. Outfitters are being hurt, as well as the clients who booked with them. Your best option as a client is having patience and being flexible. Work with your outfitter to achieve a positive result. It’s not going to be perfect, nothing is right now. But your anticipated experience will not be completely lost. As Paradis stated, “If you booked with a reputable outfitter, trust that they are going to take care of you; they will honor those hunts if at all possible.”
When the dust settles and we have a sense of normalcy again, we’ll tell stories about the "2020 Pandemic" and hope it never happens again. But we’ll also breathe a sigh of relief when we get back into the woods and make bear hunting great again! In conclusion, communicate with your outfitter, but give them space to navigate these difficult times and please be flexible. We’ll all get through this together.