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2021 hunting season in the East Kootenay

FJ Hurtak looks back on the issues and events that marked the 2021 hunting season.
Elk photo by Larry Tooze

By F.J. Hurtak

The books have officially closed on the 2021 hunting season except for predators such as cougars.

For the most part, from all reports, the season this year was pretty much a repeat of the previous two, but with some apparent increases in harvest levels in some categories.

The fall weather was pretty decent this past season, keeping hunters out in the backcountry for longer periods of time, and despite the lack of snow in November, and unusually warm weather in the latter part of the month, more mule deer bucks appear to have been harvested than in past years and the same for the mountain goats.

I checked with my usual taxidermy contact, Phil Giesbrecht from Apex Taxidermy in Cranbrook. He did verify that more mule deer bucks and mountain goats came in this year to his shop than in previous years.

As I stated in last year’s summary, taxidermists are a great source of information because of the excellent cross-section of people frequenting their shops. Everyone from Guide Outfitters, hunters, and trappers, to visitors that simply like to see wildlife art.

Giesbrecht said the taxidermy business in our region is flourishing, and in his opinion from talking to so many people, that there is a trend that things are slowly improving. He attributed that to three mild winters in a row and terrific ground conditions in the spring which fostered good growth and provided abundant food sources for ungulates.

He slightly tempered those comments by saying that just one bad winter could change the direction very quickly, but this year with little or no snow, access was available for hunters into mountain goat territory, that in a lot of years was impossible to hunt due to heavy snow.

He also said that both Stone and Dall sheep harvest numbers increased, for his shop anyway, and he said that it was a reasonably good year for bigger whitetail bucks. He reiterated his philosophy from last year on whitetail buck harvests — because there are so few does around now, due to the long, general open seasons on the female component of the herd, the bucks have to wander much more than normal, looking for does to breed. That makes them much more susceptible to hunters.

The butcher shops and the sporting goods stores I recently surveyed all had very robust seasons again this year, and hunter days out in the field appears to have carried over from last year and were quite high again in the 2021 season. COVID may have been a determining factor, creating more free time to be out in the woods, and as our human population continues to grow in the East Kootenay every year as well, perhaps more people who hunt are out in the field. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in future seasons.

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One of the real negatives from 2021 came from the increase of illegal kills, especially on bull elk early in the season.The Elk Valley seemed to be the hardest hit area in this regard for reasons unknown.

Bear kills by Conservation Officers were also high in the Valley as more human/bear encounters occurred. That’s usually never good news for the bears. Continuing education of the general public and of hunters is absolutely necessary to decrease these numbers moving forward.

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Two Wildlife Management Giants Pass Away This Fall

A veritable atmospheric river of sadness flooded the hearts and minds of thousands of people this Fall, when not one, but two prominent wildlife advocates passed away. Carmen Purdy and Ray Demarchi, shared much in common. They were both avid hunters and fishermen, devoted family men, and both had an unbelievable passion for wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Carmen Purdy

Carmen passed away in late November. In my view, he did more for wildlife in general here in the Kootenays than anyone I know, either personally, or through the media. He was a lifelong Kootenay resident, and was declared a Conservation Champion by the Nature Trust of BC, where he was a Director for many years. He was also a past President of the BC Wildlife Federation, the President of the Kootenay Wildlife Heritage Fund and founding member, and was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for Conservation in BC in 2013.

When ungulate numbers in the Kootenays started to plummet a few years ago, Purdy spearheaded a wildlife management symposium sponsored by the Heritage Fund, held at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook in 2019. He recruited prominent wildlife biologists from all over Western North America to share their views on addressing the issue. Hundreds of concerned people attended the event.

In the 1990s, he and people like Ray Demarchi, Dave Melenka, and others were instrumental in convincing the government to establish a surtax on all hunting and fishing licences, so the money collected could go directly to the wildlife resource. The Habitat Conservation Fund (now Foundation) is still in existence today.

Carmen and I were friends for close to 40 years. He recruited me for the Board of the Heritage Fund right from its inception. It was there that I learned what his passion for wildlife was all about. Carmen believed very strongly in wildlife feeding programs during the winter months to sustain elk and deer populations in harsh winters. He acted as the Field General for such programs, co-ordinating everything from feeding sites, getting volunteers to assist, transportation, purchasing the hay, and delivering it, and was usually right there throwing hay bales himself. Carmen would never ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

One of my fondest memories was when Carmen and I approached our NDP MLA at the time, Erda Walsh, to see if we could get government funding for a massive feeding program for one of the harshest winters ever seen in the Kootenays in 96/97. Carmen had contacted her prior to our upcoming personal consultation, and she said she would explore the idea and run it by the powers that be in Victoria. At our meeting a couple of weeks later, she delivered the bad news that she was told there was no funding currently available in the government coffers for the program we had outlined.

Carmen’s final words that day were: “Starvation is not an option.” He put together a plan to raise money strictly from business, and public donations. People from all over the Kootenays responded and over $150,000 was raised, and thousands of ungulates survived the winter as a result of it.

To date the Heritage Fund has participated in 30,000 acres of habitat acquisition, and 33,000 acres of habitat enhancement, and the 2022 Land for Wildlife Calendar, also the brainchild of Carmen Purdy and some others, is celebrating its 40th Anniversary with its second “Babes in the Woods” issue. It again features the world class photography of Brian Hay, Larry Tooze, and Brian Varty. Your donation this year for your calendar would be a tribute to a man who did so much for our precious wildlife resource here in the Kootenays.

Ray Demarchi

Demarchi passed away in late September. Like Purdy, he was controversial at times, but no one could ever argue his passion for wildlife or his intimate knowledge of every species we had here.

Demarchi came to the Kootenays when he took over from Glen Smith in the mid-1960s as our Wildlife Section Head. He continued at that position for 28 years, developing a program with 11 professional and technical staff, while forging many close and lasting relationships with his colleagues in the Fish and Wildlife branch in the province. He was instrumental in securing land parcels that contained critical winter range and in protecting special places like the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, Mount Broadwood and Height of the Rockies.

I was not a personal friend of Ray Demarchi, but my role in the media had us cross paths many many times. I would see him at fund raisers for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, BC Wildlife Federation functions, Ducks Unlimited, and Kootenay Wildlife Heritage fund events to name a few, plus of course in his office “on the hill,”or at the radio station. Anytime I or my colleagues were looking for a quote, we knew we could always get one from Ray.

Over the years I developed a great respect for the man, because he told the truth as he believed it was. He would rarely tell anyone just what he thought they wanted to hear. He would give you the gospel according to Ray whether you wanted to hear it or not. I can’t tell you how many times we received calls from Victoria at our EK Radio newsroom asking for a transcript of what he said. “Demarchi said Whaaat”?, was a fairly common conversation starter when we received the calls. Sometimes, even today, I still chuckle about that from time to time.

Demarchi was about as far from being politically correct as one could possibly be. That got him into hot water with his superiors on numerous occasions I’m certain.

After his tenure here though, it was no accident that Ray became the Provincial Protected Areas Specialist for the Habitat Protection Branch of the Ministry of Environment. His credentials and subsequent success for managing wildlife spoke for themselves. He participated in the development of the Provincial Protected Areas Strategy, tasked with doubling the province’s parks and protected areas. Then In 1994, he became BC’s Chief of Wildlife Conservation, where he managed a team of ten wildlife specialists tasked with bringing conservation science to the forefront of wildlife management in BC. He retired in 1997.

Someone once said, “A man will only be remembered by the legacy he leaves behind”. If that be true, and I believe it is, both Ray Demarchi and Carmen Purdy will be remembered in the Kootenay region for countless generations to come.

Why can’t we Just manage wildlife the Demarchi Way?

A few people have recently asked me the above question, as it was common knowledge, that under his watch, when he was our Wildlife Section Head for the Kootenays, wildlife populations were flourishing. So much so, that Ray coined the phrase “The Kootenays: the Serengetti of North America.”

The question itself is perfectly legitimate and deserves an answer. People are going to have varying opinions when formulating an answer, but I’m going to give you my take on things.

I truly believe that it’s almost impossible to achieve these days, because things are so very, very different now than they were when Demarchi was at the helm. Back then, Victoria basically let Demarchi do what he wanted to do for most of his time here.

He was perfectly fine in taking complete responsibility for wildlife numbers and was willing to be held accountable for his annual hunting and trapping regulations. These days, much of what we see for regulations comes directly from faceless bureaucrats in Victoria.

Why? A number of years ago, the government of the day (the BC Liberals) morphed the Fish and Wildlife branch into what they called a super Ministry. (Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations). By doing so, it took much of the land-based authority away from the local wildlife managers in each region of the province, and basically left them no other management levers to pull to manage wildlife populations, other than to adjust hunting regulations. It is still that way today.

Scott Ellis Executive Director of the Guide Outfitters Association for B.C. summed it up so aptly with his comments from 2020.

“Each region currently has two statutory decision makers, fundamentally disconnected, with competing interests. Regional wildlife managers are tasked with animal-based decisions, while the district Managers’ focus is on resource extractions. Regional decision making needs to be led by ONE Land Manager per region.”

Today, we also have thousands and thousands of kilometres of new roads in the region that we didn’t have in Demarchi’s 28 years here (estimated figures approximately 9,000 kms) The majority of those roads are open to your ATV or 4X4, mine, and everyone else’s.

So now, we can penetrate deep into the wilderness, into places it would take us hours or even days to walk into, prior to the roads being constructed. Like it or not, the East Kootenay has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest road densities in the entire province, and it has had a profound impact on wildlife populations. Obviously, this type of management for wildlife cannot continue without dire consequences down the road. That leads me to our next segment.

Cougar photo by Larry Tooze

Moving Forward with the Together for Wildlife Strategy

Recently, the Minister’s Wildlife Advisory Council sent a letter to Katrine Conroy, the Minister for Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, which outlined some recommendations, objectives, and timelines which they are advocating. There are 2 Kootenay locals on the council, those being John Bergenske from Wildsight and Kari Stuart from Canfor. However, there are dozens of groups and organizations involved in the T4W Plan, one of which is the BC Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. They are also members of of the Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Coalition where they have been actively involved, and at the table for the Kootenay Wildlife Harvest Advisory Committee. I, reached out to the BC Chair for the BCBHA, Allan Duffy, to get their take on the MWAC letter to the Minister. This was his responce.

“As part of the T4 Wildlife Strategy, a council was formed to advise the minister on wildlife in our province. The Ministers Wildlife Advisory Council is a diverse group of people representing many different interests, all with experience and a passion for wildlife. The letter to the Minister outlines recommendations and asks the government to act on these. A timeline was also presented. We at the BCHA are encouraged by the content and recommendations in the letter, because it addresses many of the concerns, and echoes the actions we have been advocating for, such as, legislation to prioritize wildlife and put it on the same level as other values, adequate funding, comprehensive land use planning etc. Here are a few highlights from the letter.

• Develop policy and objectives at a regional level.

• Enact legislation that legally establishes objectives for wildlife and habitat stewardship and key ecosystems.

• Establish diverse and collaborative Regional Wildlife Advisory Committees to support the development of local wildlife stewardship plans.

• Establish new long term, stable and dedicated funding for wildlife and habitat.

• Explore new and creative funding sources. (dedicated funding will come from all residents and visitors, as well as direct users)

Additional recommendations were also made regarding logging, including post — fire salvage operations and improving the current stumpage system to encourage habitat restoration.

For more information, the MWAC now has a website where you can view this letter and other resources. Everyone is encouraged to read the entire summary and learn more about the committee and the recommendations. It will take pressure from all BC residents to make certain that government acts on these important recommendations and does so in a timely manner so that we CAN change the course of wildlife management in B.C.”

The website is

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Local MLAs speak on Wildlife Issues

Both our MLAs have publicly said that they continue to recognize how important healthy wildlife populations are to many of their constituents. Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to survey them and see what related issues they have worked on this past year, and what they might expect or have on the docket for 2022. Here are their responses.

Tom Shypitka:Kootenay East

“ As another year has come to a close, so did the hope of the prospect of a legitimate fully operational wildlife plan for the province.

But, first I would like to recognize the terrible loss of a friend in conservation, Mr. Carmen Purdy.Carmen was a key advocate for many wildlife issues we all hold so dear, and again on behalf of all of us, offer Carol and family the sincerest condolences. Carmen will be sorely missed.

Provincially, there has been some recognition by government, that the wildlife issue is dire, and the Together for Wildlife document identifies some great points in establishing some of the solutions necessary. However, without accountable and firm timelines and most importantly, legislation, this plan is still nothing more than a brochure with nice pictures.

I have had several meetings with Ministers in 2021, pleading the importance of putting forward 4 main points to get the ball rolling. Those points are as follows:

1. Dedicated funding model, directing licensing fees from hunting and fishing directly to wildlife and habitat management., as well as leveraging the contributions of federal, regional and private enterprise and philanthropy to more efficiently support conservation efforts.

2. Science based decision making, by investing and equipping our Ministries with the best, most up to date data, concerning wildlife population trends.

3.Local and regional input: hunters, trappers, guide outfitters, biologists, recreation and tourism operators, and local First Nations.

4. Proper and robust, but not prohibitive legislation that addresses conservation needs, while maintaining fair and reasonable public access to our great outdoors.

The lazy lever of “regulation” can not be used exclusively to manage our wildlife populations and habitat health. This default has proven to be reactionary, like a slow turning ship, and does nothing to identify the real issue of sustainable wildlife enhancement and habitat protection. The old adage that we are slowly regulating our wildlife populations to ground- zero is becoming more and more obvious.

The current Ministry proposal of putting our Bighorn sheep on LEH is an example. LEH on a species that already has full curl regulation, will only eliminate opportunity for the resident hunter. Perhaps a fairer system to start, would be limiting harvest to one ram every 5 years. The proposed regulations will only eliminate opportunity for some of the best conservationists we have-the local resident. These regulations if implemented will also create animosity between different user groups in a time when we all need to come together. I should mention that one of the candidates in the current BC Liberal Leadership race, Ellis Ross, IS prepared, if elected as leader, to make wildlife a priority. With support, I see this issue making it’s way onto the platform for the next provincial election. This would be monumental.

I’m also encouraged by the recently formed Fish, Wildlife, and Habitat Coalition, involving some 20 highly recognized organizations and associations. This is impressive, because some of these groups have traditionally been at polar opposites, but their common threads, and recognizing the crisis is real, has brought them all together. This is very positive progress, and I look to be part of some of these discussions going forward.”

Doug Clovechok: Columbia River-Revelstoke

While the pandemic has carried on into it’s second year, wildlife continues to remain an important focus for me and countless dedicated outdoor enthusiasts. There are many who have worked tirelessly, but like Tom, I want to honour one man in particular. This fall we lost a champion of all wild things-Carmen Purdy. There was little that Carmen did not know about wildlife. He was a fervent conservationist and a master hunter, not to mention his incredible talent as a storyteller. He will be missed.

The toll on our wildlife on highways is a perennial issue and is part of a wider discussion I am having on wildlife management.

I have had conversations this past month with members of the Fish, Wildlife, and Habitat Coalition, and the Together for Wildlife Coalition and certainly look forward to working with all the stakeholders involved towards the goal of dramatically improved practices.

Currently, large ungulate species are in the spotlight, and everyone from wildlife, water, forestry, mining, First Nations and recreation all need to be at the table to move forward.

I have also spoken directly with the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations, and Rural Development regarding the issues we face.

The fight for our wildlife is ongoing and I will continue to work on behalf of Columbia River- Revelstoke in 2022.”

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Well, you are up to date on what is happening on the wildlife front and let us all hope that 2022 is a better year than last year from many standpoints. In the meantime, hope to see you in the field. Have a safe, and healthy New Year everyone!!

F.J. Hurtak is the author of the best selling books, “Elk Hunting in the Kootenays”, and “Hunting the Antlered Big Game of the Kootenays”. All profits from the books have gone to land for wildlife and habitat enhancement projects in the Kootenays.