Every year for nearly three decades, a group of friends drive for hours to the northern expanses of Alberta to get out and enjoy nature. They have been friends since high school, but now live all over the province. Every year, no matter the circumstances, they gather to go hunting. This group has been doing this for years and they will continue for many more. These men do not fit the stereotypical description of hunters. They do not go around in public wearing camouflage, spit tobacco on the ground or hang numerous animal heads in their basements or offices. In fact, most hunters are ordinary people, who lead ordinary lives.
This group is not alone. When the leaves change colour and the crisp, cold winds come, thousands of people across Alberta head out to go hunting. They travel to the woods to bond with friends, connect to nature, gather meat for their families and do something they enjoy. These are people who go out for recreation much like people play squash, run, hike and ski or even watch television.
There is no single reason that people grab their guns, don their coveralls and go hunting. The sport connects people to their environment and the animals that dwell there more than hiking or biking can. To be successful, a person must be immersed in the environment, taking stock of the surroundings. Hunters need to know the characteristics of the animals, how they will act and what their movements will be.
"I think when you boil it down, you get a much closer attachment to the land and the animals you are hunting," says Don Meredith, an avid hunter, nature writer and former wildlife biologist. "When I am out there things really drop away, like home and the job. In the process, I learn a lot about the animals that I am hunting. I see a lot of things in the bush I would not see otherwise. My senses are heightened when I am hunting."
Many hunters begin hunting when they are young as they go along with their father or grandfather. Hunting brings families together in a common activity. Parents spend days on end teaching their children about the techniques and regulations behind hunting. Fathers and sons take courses together to learn more about the skills needed.
Local hunter Duncan Daniels learned how to hunt from his father, who learned from his father.
"I grew up with hunting," says Daniels. "I went hunting with my grandfather and my father when I was young."
Along with the family ties to hunting, there is a large tradition of hunting throughout Alberta. The First Nations hunted for food to survive in the wild. When the fur traders came, they hunted for furs and profit and then the first settlers hunted for sustenance. This tradition continues in Albertans other activities.
"It is how we got a lot of our food and has definitely been built into our culture," says Meredith. "Today, not everybody can or wants to hunt, but I believe they use the techniques in a lot of other things, like business, by being aggressive. We channelled the things we learned from hunting into other activities."
While hunting is undertaken for many reasons by Albertans, it can be a misunderstood recreational activity. Many people believe that hunters are similar to poachers and group them together in the same category: people who hunt illegally. This is a misconception, as hunters constantly work against poachers, ensuring that hunting can continue in Alberta. Hunters are some of the main promoters of conservation in the province, working with many conservation organizations to ensure wildlife populations continue to grow and that the environment is not harmed when people hunt.
"People that hunt legally and ethically are part of 110,000 people that annually participate in hunting activity while the one to two per cent that disobey the law [are] poachers and these distinctions must be recognized," says Hunting for Tomorrow executive director Kelly Semple.
Meredith agrees the general public does not understand the distinction between hunters and poachers and stresses that hunting plays a large part in many peoples' lives every time they go to the grocery store and buy meat. Hunters are just skipping the middle man.
Recreational hunters are the main contact for the government when dealing with poachers. They are out there in the wilderness and have the best access to report poachers and save protected animals. In Alberta, people can call Report a Poacher when they see a poacher in the act. According to Hunting for Tomorrow, an Albertan website, 80 per cent of all calls come from concerned hunters and anglers who are interested in protecting the natural resources of Wild Rose country. Hunters' licence fees also contribute to wildlife management programs in the province.
"Licences that are purchased and funds from those licence fees and levies support a number of programs, not only to the provincial treasury, but to the Alberta Conservation Association, which funds management programs," said Semple.
The direct evidence that hunters are not eradicating the wild and endangering all the animals is seen in hunting itself, says Meredith. Hunting would not be so popular in Alberta if there was not an abundance of animals every year.
"Hunters in the bush are concerned about the game, if they are not seeing enough game, government agencies hear about it," says Meredith. "These are people in the field making sure there are viable populations."
Along with reporting poachers and working to sustain animal populations, hunters also enjoy sustaining themselves with the meat. As well as being delicious, moose and venison-- deer meat-- is healthier than beef and pork. Venison has only 1.4 per cent fat versus two per cent fat in beef and 4.9 per cent fat in pork. Moose meat is even healthier as it has only 0.5 per cent fat. Game meats have less saturated fat in them, as well as more lean body tissue, making them a healthy alternative to store-bought meat.
"Some people don't like hunting, but that seems to be changing as people realize the meat is healthier," said Daniels. "I like wild meat. Tonight we had duck stew and last night we had venison. When I bring home a T-bone steak and put it on the barbecue, my kids say 'ewwwwww,' then say they prefer the wild meat."
In Alberta, there are regulations set by the government in accordance to where and what people can hunt. Hunters must obtain tags for every animal they hunt and are only allowed to hunt during certain times of the year. They're also concerned that animals are killed humanely, aiming for a clean, one-shot kill so as not to cause the animals pain.
"It's all part of a managed harvest," says Daniels. "I really value making sure the animal is not hurt. I don't like to see an animal in pain. If it is not a kill shot, a shot which brings the animals down instantly, I will not take it and let the animal go without shooting it."
The government ensures sustainable hunting practices through a licensing process. Hunters are restricted in the number of animals they can kill through a draw system. The government draws names and that decides what hunters get tags-- an allocation of what animals you can hunt that year. This ensures that animals are not unjustly slaughtered.
"To ensure these populations rebound year-to-year, recreational hunters are only hunting surplus animals," says Meredith. "When I say a surplus I mean that each of these animals goes through a process of reproduction and they produce more young than can survive in the habitat. The young die by predators, starvation or disease. So hunters are only taking from this surplus."
Another important role hunters undertake is protecting agricultural regions of Alberta. Animals such as elk and deer will move into farmers' fields and destroy the crops. When commercial crops get destroyed, the price of food goes up for all Albertans. Instead of spending money to control populations, the government will license more hunters.
"In our agricultural areas, one of the budgets the Fish and Wildlife [Ministry] have to deal with is crop damage," says Meredith. "Elk and deer are huge culprits as they will eat stored hay and crops. A lot of money is spent helping farmers protect their stored hay. To reduce the cost, they will increase the number of people hunting in an area. If there is not enough food going into the circuit, prices will go up."
Many Albertans choose to hunt because they enjoy the sport and want future generations to enjoy it equally. Reporting poachers is an important way hunters are able to continue the tradition. Along with being a major proponent of this work, hunters enjoy spending time in nature, spending time with family and gaining knowledge about the wildlife. The health benefits of wild game meat is also driving more people towards the sport and the connection between hunter and food is one that can't be replicated at the supermarket.
When the weekend of hunting is over, the group goes back to their normal lives, working ordinary jobs. But for the days between the hunt each person has a freezer packed tight with moose and deer meat.