The theme of the Alberta Fish and Game Association’s 83rd annual conference held Feb. 23 -25 in Calgary was Hunting, Fishing and Conservation — A Family Affair, but there were at least as many discouraging words and dire mutterings to be heard as at many family affairs.
President Conrad Fennema brought the bagpiper back from the brink of the extinction to which he had condemned him, giving in to widespread member outrage, thus Fennema and guests were once again piped to the head table at the President’s Dinner on Saturday evening, in accordance with AFGA tradition.
But Fennema was not backing down from his comments reported in The Edmonton Journal the day before the conference started, regarding the 145 black bears baited by oil sands region garbage dumps and slaughtered by Fish and Wildlife Conservation officers.
The AFGA president told The Journal that the shootings were necessary to protect humans from hungry bears that are not either threatened or endangered in Alberta. All well and good, but Fennema really stepped into the doo that bears do in the buckwheat when he added: “can we stand in the way of progress? No.”
Well! The president outraged many delegates all over again by apparently forgetting a tradition far older and more important than bagpipes: that for more than 100 years the AFGA has a proud record of standing in the way of alleged “progress” that needlessly threatens and endangers our fish, wildlife and other renewable resources.
New minister of Sustainable Resource Development, Hon. Frank Oberle, delivered one of the better ministerial speeches to the delegates I have heard in 46 straight years of attending these conferences. His only bad news was that there’d be no new money for his department this year; the good that he’d managed to stem the tide of regular funding cuts.
Delegates applauded Mr. Oberle several times for saying the right things, such as, on the subject of money, “we’ve been under-resourced for a long time, and I intend to do something about that — we need more enforcement and more biologists.”
The minister pledged there’d be no paid hunting, and particularly no paid, penned hunting in Alberta on his watch.
But the loudest applause came when the minister declared that there should be no restriction to public access to public land under agricultural disposition . . . “You are the owner; we are the manager, and the lands will be open to public use.”
“Nice speech,” several delegates grumbled, “but you can say anything when you’re a lame duck and know it, because ‘your watch’ is short.” These delegates were sad that we’d probably lose a promising SRD minister immediately after the cabinet shuffle that is sure to follow the impending provincial election.
All over the main convention hall and at the social functions there were annoyed mutterings about the continuing systematic dismantling of fish and wildlife management and enforcement as a government responsibility. There is widespread dissatisfaction with fisheries non-management, particularly for walleye, bull trout and pike. On the wildlife side, deer and pronghorn numbers, down 50 to 70 per cent in most of the province, had delegates in ugly moods, especially when predator numbers are higher everywhere.
Again this year, delegates passed a resolution asking SRD to increase the fee for non-resident Canadian to fish in Alberta to bring it in line with neighbouring provinces.
But the government does not listen, any more than it will likely heed yet another perennial resolution asking that a walleye harvest be allowed on Sylvan Lake.
Who knows what will happen to a Red Deer and District Fish and Game Association resolution passed by the delegates asking for the mandatory licensing of ice fishing shelters?
In the absence of sufficient numbers of biologists and their inventory and population survey work, sooner or later Alberta’s fish and wildlife “managers” are going to have to start listening to people who are actually out there “on the ground,” hunting and fishing, and know what is going on.
Numbers were good at this conference, and brought applause and cheers. Executive vice president, Martin Sharren, reported the AFGA had 21,000 members last year, the eighth straight increase since the low of 13,000 in 2003.
But many past presidents and life members believe the membership should be twice what it is and that the AFGA must get heavily into direct memberships to supplement the members of its affiliated clubs.
The AFGA’s flagship Wildlife Trust increased its holdings to 37,000 acres in 2011 and looks like it will do well again this year.
In the annual Parade of Donations, most earmarked for the Trust, individuals and club representatives lined up and took 10 minutes to donate $149,500, substantially more than twice the total I can recall in any other year.
All mutterings and grumblings stopped at the announcement of the total, and the cheers, even hooting and hollering started. Trust lands are for fish, wildlife and the protection of their habitats, and most are open to lawful use and enjoyment by all Albertans.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.