With the US-Canada border closed, wildlife tourism is hurting
Four Canadian outfitters share their stories of grappling with the pandemic.
This story originally featured on Outdoor Life.
For many of us here in the US, an annual hunting or fishing trip to Canada is a longstanding tradition. And Canadians, particularly those in the more remote western provinces, depend on American tourism dollars to bolster local economies. But the US-Canada border has been closed since March and will remain so until at least July 21. There is also a 14-day quarantine rule in place that will stay in effect until Aug. 31. That means anyone who does come into the country must self-isolate for two weeks. In most cases, Canadian citizens are also not permitted to drive or fly from province-to-province without quarantine.
A recent poll showed 81 percent of Canadians don’t want the border to open to Americans, mainly due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 surges in the US. That’s bad news for outfitters in Canada. Of course, the safety of both countries takes precedence over the financial hit the hunting and fishing industry will endure. But an unfortunate outcome of the pandemic is that some guiding businesses won’t make it through.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but when the US is seeing spikes in positive COVID-19 tests, it’s difficult for Canada to open its border and safely allow Americans into the country, though it is possible once the US makes it through this second surge. Iceland has broken through as a shining example, hosting international travelers since June by using a rigorous testing program, saving its tourism industry from financial peril. There have been pleas made by Canadian Travel and Tourism, which generates $74 billion and employs 1.8 million people, to allow healthy Americans into Canada, as US citizens make up two-thirds of international tourists in Canada. But so far Prime Minster Justin Trudeau hasn’t budged.
There is no public plan or procedure in place for opening the border, only a projected date that keeps getting moved back, which has been a serious frustration for outfitters. It has left them in limbo, unsure if their outfits will continue to tread water with pre-COIVID profits, or ultimately drown. Alberta’s Professional Outfitters Society reported guides in the province have lost $68 million in revenue since the pandemic began in March. Two thousand people are also jobless due to the lack of clients.
To find out how outfitters across Canada are coping with the border closure, I talked to four Canadian guides. We wanted to know how they are navigating these strange and difficult times, and if they expect their businesses to survive the pandemic.
Sheep hunting on hold
In British Columbia, 32-year-old Rachel Ahtila waits anxiously for the border to open. She guides sheep and other big game with Dustin Roe at Backcountry BC and Beyond in B.C. as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories. There is considerable cost in operating outfits in such places. The overhead is massive. You have to cut trails and ready camps, feed and maintain 60 head of horses, purchase food to sustain an entire roster of clients and staff for up to four months, and charter planes to get everyone there. Plus there is the cost of fuel, trucks and trailers, and the biggest expense—paying back the note on the hunting area/lease you’re in.
“Yes, we need a season,” Ahtila says. “There is so much infrastructure beyond just a hunt that we are supporting, and we are all suffering in the unknown. We want to be in the mountains doing what we love, giving our clients the best experience we can, but we also need to be able to cover a business’ year-round costs. There are thousands of people in Canada that rely on the hunting industry as a source of income.”
A major hurdle in B.C. for guides is the phased re-opening plan. Right now, the province is in Phase 3 of 4. The US-Canada border would re-open in Phase 4 but for that to occur, one of three things has to happen: a vaccine, community immunity, or broad and/or successful treatments. The first two aren’t likely to happen until 2021 at the earliest, and the third has a long way to go on the US side of the border. It will certainly help business if Ahtila can get more Canadian hunters in the mountains, but that’s also up in the air at this point because of last-minute rescheduling and logistics. Some Canadian airlines are either shut down or flying at limited capacities, and travel between many of the provinces is limited.
“Some of it just doesn’t make sense with the allowed protests but mitigated gatherings [in the US],” Ahtila says. “I actually flew from Canada to Arkansas to show that this can be done safely amid COVID-19. I wore a mask, brought hand sanitizer … I think it can be done if we take precautions. Otherwise, our industry is going to take a major hit … More than it already has.”
Once the border is open, that will present another set of obstacles for outfitters. There will likely be testing procedures and other restrictions placed on international travelers. It’s near impossible to prepare for because the Canadian government hasn’t been forthcoming with a structured agenda to re-open the border. They continue to extend the closure month-by-month with little or no notice before announcing the potential re-opening dates. And the recent climb in US COVID-19 cases—and Trudeau’s refusal to visit the White House in early July—doesn’t bode well for open travel in the immediate future.
“It’s going to be hard to get our clients to hunting camps because there are so many unknowns with the continuing border closure,” Ahtila says. “We also have a considerable amount of gear ready to go if we get a green light, but we are planning to work with a reduced staff for the time being. It’s not going to be easy for anyone in the tourism industry.”
Spring guiding in Alberta a bust
Steve and Debbie Overguard have been operating Alberta Adventures for nearly four decades, guiding clients for moose, bear, wolves, deer, cougar, and fishing. Ninety percent of their business comes from US patrons, and Steve Overguard estimates that since the border closure, their business has taken a $140,000 hit. They hosted a few Canada residents for fishing trips at their cabin in the northern part of the province, near the Northwest Territories border, but had no spring bear hunting clients. If the border doesn’t open by September, keeping the guide service going will be tough.
“I suppose if it doesn’t open by then, I’ll just have to eat fish,” Overguard says. “All our supplies and fuel for our camp have to be trucked in on the ice roads in winter, so I pay for that all up front. Since no one knew this [pandemic] was coming it’s just sitting there waiting, not being used.”
Alberta had already been hit hard by the sharp decline of the oil and gas industry in recent years, and tourism became one of the provinces main sources of revenue. Many laid-off oil field workers turned to guiding for income. But that has ground to a halt and the job market has shrunk considerably due to the pandemic. It’s become tough to find any kind of work throughout the province, and with no detailed plan to open the border, it has outfitters and guides worrying when (or if) they will be able to return to the woods. There are some governmental stimulus packages available to business owners, but Overguard said it’s essentially a loan he must pay back.
“We don’t want a second wave of COVID-19,” Overguard says, “but I think there are ways to control it. The federal government just doesn’t seem that interested in helping us right now. I could take $40,000 in stimulus, but with the border closed, I can’t host clients, so I’m not sure if I can pay it back.”
Overguard is willing to follow tight restrictions and leap over any hurdles to get clients in camp. He thinks there are ways to safely bring hunters into the country and has been working to find solutions, though most of those ideas have fallen on deaf ears.
“I’ll turn a 10-day trip into a two-week trip so hunters can adhere to the quarantine restrictions,” Oveguard says. “I’ll stand outside the plane with a thermometer and take their temperature. It might cost me more money, but at least we can exist.”
Waterfowl season looking bleak
Luke Scherders runs Wingfeather Outfitters, guiding clients for waterfowl and turkeys in Ontario. Years ago, when Scherders started the business, he recalled his dad half-joking about how he would make a living if all the ducks contracted bird flu one season and died.
“I told him that would never happen, and it didn’t,” says Scherders, “but COVID has done just as much damage to my business as that would have.”
His spring turkey clientele was down by more than 50 percent and he estimates losing between $30,000 and $50,000 in profits. It would have been more if not for so many Ontario hunters honoring their reservations. Scherders isn’t optimistic about the border opening for waterfowl season, which starts in September across much of Canada. He says most Canadians he talks to think the border will remain closed, maybe through the end of the year. There’s too much risk in allowing Americans to cross the border.
Scherders only runs six to ten hunters a day (two groups maximum), and has a few other businesses to keep him financially sound, so if there isn’t a duck season this year, presumably he can pick it back up in 2021 because he doesn’t have a huge operation. He does see potential problems for larger outfitters, particularly ones that rely heavily on summer clients, like fishing camps.
“There’s a major fishing outfitter I know that typically runs 15 guides every day all summer long,” Scherders says. “He’s had three clients total this summer. You go from running 15 trips a day to a total of three clients, it’s gonna hurt.”
Large Canadian waterfowl operations are in jeopardy of folding too if the border doesn’t open, especially in the western provinces where very few residents use a guide. Many Americans guide or freelance in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and with the window closing rapidly on Canadian seasons, Scherders, who routinely hunts the US, expects to see American outfitters benefit financially from the border closure.
“If you have private access or guide in the States, this could be a year to charge a premium, because so many hunters are likely not coming to Canada,” Schereders says. “I’ve already heard about American outfitters who typically come up here, setting up shop in North Dakota [and other states] to recoup some of the money they would have made in Canada. It could get interesting when the season opens in the States.”
Scherders has been taking deposits from clients (as many other outfitters have), but his guess is that he will be holding onto those checks and rolling them into next year. It’s nice to have some cash on hand now, but it also means that he will only make half of what he could have in 2021, because the deposit covers the first half of the total payment. He also breeds labs, and still has four pups he can’t get to US hunters due to the border closure.
“I can’t run 24 hunters through my camp a day,” says Scherders. “We just don’t have the bird numbers to do that. So, there’s no way I can make that money back quickly.”
Yukon under shutdown
Midnight Sun Outfitters has been operated by Jessie Young’s family for nearly four decades. Her father started the business in B.C. Young and her brother now run the guide service in the Yukon, hunting sheep, caribou, moose, bear, and wolves. They also host a fishing camp, which will open to Canadian residents this summer, and wilderness tours, which are on the schedule as well.
Young may also guide a few Canadian hunting clients, but she’s resigned to the fact that her American clientele is not going to be in camp this year. Since Midnight Sun is an established outfitter (and she has a full-time job in Alberta as a registered nurse) they will make it through the pandemic and be open for business when the border restrictions are lifted. But she said other outfitters were not so lucky, and went out of business.
“I have to say that the communication from TIA (Tourism Industry Association) Yukon has been phenomenal during this time,” Young says. “They were very open about what the plan was, and so we had a better idea than most on what our season was going to look like and were able to prepare better for it.”
The Yukon border opened to Canadians July 1, which will make it possible to guide a small amount of clients and make a bit of money (there are quarantine restrictions for residents from provinces other than B.C., the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut). Before July, the entire Yukon was shutdown. There was no outside travel allowed. You had to be a Yukon resident in order to enter, and agents were patrolling the border heavily to enforce that mandate. The Yukon is a hub for international travel and tourism—there are many direct flights from Europe into Whitehorse—and officials were concerned the robust tourism that existed before COVID shutdowns might have caused cases to spike even after restrictions were put into place.
Young is looking at the upsides of the phased reopening. Her outfit will be in the Yukon this summer hosting small groups only, but the entire season could have been lost. They will also take this season to focus on the management of the species in their concession (the territory they hunt).
“We are basically making nothing this year, and it’s a wash,” Young says. “But I am feeling pretty resilient. I know outfitters that are way worse off, and we are lucky to have the clientele that we do. We are making the best of it.”