Proposed bird hunting restrictions in Manitoba have rendered American waterfowlers quite unhappy and very confused. A proposal to cap foreign migratory game bird hunting licenses and transition to a draw-only licensing system for unguided hunters is currently working through the provincial government. This could hamstring hunters here in the United States, who would either have to hire a guide or draw to hunt waterfowl in the province.
Freelance waterfowl hunters living in the Midwest have long looked to the Canadian prairie as the “Last Frontier” of migratory bird hunting. But in June of last year, Manitoba’s Department of Natural Resources and Northern Development drafted a regulatory change that would cap “foreign resident” migratory game bird licenses at 2,900 and limit license-holders to a seven-day hunt. The new system would allocate 1,200 of those licenses to Manitoba’s roughly 60 outfitters, put 1,300 of those licenses in a draw for DIY hunters, and give the final 400 to waterfowl conservation non-profits and foreigners who own hunting properties in Manitoba to ease the transition.
The proposal is slated to go into effect on April 1. But critics of the changes still don’t understand why they’re necessary, who they’re supposed to benefit, and what really motivated them in the first place.
Concerns About Pressure
The 2,900 available licenses would represent a 20 percent decrease from the five-year-average number of licenses purchased by foreign (namely American) waterfowl hunters, which is around 3,600, according to the DNR’s Regulatory Accountability Impact Analysis on the project. The provincial government cites concerns about “mounting pressure from increasing competition for access to provincial Crown lands and privately owned agricultural lands” as a motivator for the change.
“Visitors from outside Manitoba are passionate waterfowlers who bring a positive economic influence on the Province, but are one of the main contributors of increased pressure on local hunting access,” the RAIA reads. “Conflict and pressure on accessing limited suitable hunting sites has been steadily increasing over the past two decades. Stakeholder groups like the Manitoba Wildlife Federation (MWF) and the Manitoba Lodge and Outfitter’s Association (MLOA) have indicated that increased competition for hunting areas is eroding the quality of the hunting experience for residents, and negatively affecting outfitting businesses and the hunting experience of their clients.”
If the demand for access is increasing, it’s not because more Manitoba hunters are chomping at the bit to get in the field. In fact, the number of resident game bird licenses sold annually in Manitoba has shrunk from over 50,000 in 1978 to less than 10,000 in 2018.
The provincial government cites the shriveling resident license sales as a problem that a cap on foreign licenses would solve. It claims that limiting the number of non-resident hunters would reverse the plunge and free up more accessible land for residents. But according to American waterfowl hunting experts and organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, there’s a huge gap in that logic—especially since the number of foreign game bird licenses sold over the same 40-year period of time has stayed well below 10,000 and has even steadily decreased since 2008 to its latest five-year-average of 3,600. In other words, migratory game bird hunters of all residential statuses are declining in Manitoba.
“You’re putting 14,000 people across a third of the province and they’re saying that’s too much pressure? And they want to reduce [foreign] pressure to increase opportunity for resident waterfowlers? Well, keep doing the math,” waterfowler and Sportsman Channel host Shawn Stahl tells Outdoor Life. “Us 3,500 Americans aren’t allowed to go there until the American opener, which is Sept. 24 every year. Canadians get to start hunting come Sept. 1. They get a 23-day head start.”
So if the number of licensed hunters is shrinking, and Canadian hunters don’t rub elbows with Americans for the first 23 days of the season, then what’s the problem? According to Stahl and Lee Kjos, a renowned duck hunter and outdoor photographer who lives in Minnesota, a different type of waterfowler is gumming up the works: the rogue outfitter.
The Rogues of Manitoba
Not all outfitters are created equal in the Canadian waterfowling world, Kjos and Stahl say. Some are licensed, pay their taxes and fees, keep track of their land leases, and generally follow the rules. Others are unlicensed, deal in cash, do business off the books, and skirt their fiscal duties to the government.
You can probably guess which type of outfitter is pissing everyone off. It’s those who either pay landowners under the table to hunt their property (thereby taking away free permission opportunities from DIY hunters and/or licensed outfitters) or buy up real estate to run exclusive, slipshod operations.
“Manitobans are not highly competitive in their hunting culture; they tend to be willing to share hunting areas, and find leasing and controlled access of prime hunting land that is common in other regions of the continent, highly discouraging,” the RAIA reads. “Manitoba’s resident waterfowl hunters cannot compete with the commercialization and aggressive tactics for land access to prime hunting areas that has become normal in other continental jurisdictions.”
But if rogue outfitters are the problem, then why is the solution punishing everyone else?
“People blame this on Americans who go up there, buy houses, stay for a month at a time, and do rogue outfitting on their property,” Stahl explains. “Well, if that’s happening, let’s address the one percent that are the problem, not the 99 percent that are doing everything fine and not getting in the way.”
For a hunting outfitter to operate legally in Manitoba, they must carry a Resource Tourism Operators License and additional permits for any facilities they use, such as lodges or campgrounds. They must follow a certain process to acquire their license and pay all associated fees. According to the Resource Tourism Operators Act, the consequences for operating an unlicensed outfitting service can include a $10,000 (Canadian) fine and six months in jail per count, with an additional $20,000 (Canadian) fine per count if the illegal outfitter was registered as a corporation.
“I still have never understood why it’s not enforced. It’s easy to see. I’ve turned them in before,” Kjos tells Outdoor Life. “You used to just knock on doors and go get permission, and it was no problem. Then a bunch of rogue guys came in and started paying [for access]. Well, once you start paying, that changes the landscape for DIY guys.”
Following the Money
Ultimately, American waterfowl conservation organizations are frustrated because Manitoba’s proposal neglects the overwhelming financial support that Canadian conservation efforts receive from south of the border. According to Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam’s formal comment on the proposal, state wildlife agencies have committed $85.5 million (Canadian) to Canadian waterfowl habitat since 1991.
“It is this passion for waterfowling that drives individuals, states, and the U.S. federal government to invest in continental conservation projects in Canada and the U.S,” Putnam writes. “We fear changes to Manitoba’s resident waterfowl hunting regulations that make Manitoba much less accessible to U.S. hunters will severely undercut this passion and jeopardize this longstanding and highly successful model for funding conservation in Manitoba and across Canada.”
The Fall Flights program, established by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, combines funds from 45 state wildlife agencies, Ducks Unlimited, and the Canadian government to support migratory waterfowl habitat. On the American side of the border, part of the support for this program comes from the unguided hunter.
“The U.S. and Canada have endured a great conservation partnership for years through the Fall Flights program,” DU communications coordinator Joe Genzel tells Outdoor Life. “It would be unfortunate if Manitoba restricted access to freelance non-resident hunters that are only looking to cross the border for a few days and hunt the Canadian prairie with family and friends.”
In other words, restricting access to freelance hunting opportunities isn’t likely to inspire American waterfowlers to keep funding wetland conservation in Manitoba, which could be to the detriment of bird habitat. So, if the proposed changes don’t help birds, and won’t seriously increase resident hunting opportunities, there’s only one possible beneficiary left: the licensed outfitters. (The Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.) Even though Kjos has lots of close friends in the outfitting industry, he’s somewhat suspicious about the real motivations behind the changes.
“All these problems could be solved with greater habitat. All of them. You wouldn’t have to worry about space to hunt, you wouldn’t have to worry about people coming into the sport, and you sure as hell wouldn’t have to worry about more birds. Habitat solves all these problems,” Kjos says. “Except for the larger issue between outfitters and freelancers in between international borders. What if there’s a larger plan here? What about the idea of ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts?’ This whole thing just doesn’t smell right to me.”