When we put out a call to the NOTO membership in July to forward their comments on experiences with MNR enforcement, we received numerous replies almost immediately. Although we heard more complaints then compliments, many of you did have very positive stories to tell of your guests' interactions with conservation officers. The complaints we received from you fell into several distinct areas and provided excellent background for a recent meeting we held at the NOTO office with senior MNR enforcement officials.
We highlighted a number of examples you sent to us to illustrate industry concerns and where things were working well in the field. We indicated that we were not looking for responses or comments to these specific examples, rather they were being provided with the intention of looking for opportunities to work together more effectively in the future.
Enforcement staff gave us a very thorough overview of the program and many of the things they do to help ensure professionalism and accountability - things ranging from how they conduct training to a new system being developed to investigate officer complaints.
One important area of industry concern that we identified was around Enforcement Branch involvement in matters involving the "services" provided by tourist operators, usually with regard to moose or bear hunts. As you know, the administration of these hunts is somewhat complex, and the rules around allocations and administration are vastly different for the two species. Moose hunts provide for the availability of tags to non-residents only through outfitters who have tags allocated to them, and there are requirements that guests must be accommodated in the outfitter's establishment.
Bear hunts, on the other hand, are administered through a system of Bear Management Areas, and an outfitter issued document is required to validate a non-resident license. The outfitter is responsible to make sure the hunter hunts within the authorized BMA.
A number of cases have arisen over the past several years where conservation officers either laid charges or told guests that they would be charged if they continued hunting. What these incidents had in common was that they were based on interpretations of whether the outfitter was following the administrative rules correctly.
For example, an operator who received written permission from the Ontario Moose Bear Allocation Advisory Committee to accommodate some hunters in accommodations leased from another business was told that OMBAAC did not have the authority to allow this practice.
Hunters who booked hunts in good faith were sent home and a business operator who believed he had obtained the correct permission for his activity had to issue a refund to some very unhappy guests.
In another case, bear outfitters were charged because they allowed a group of hunters to set their own baits. Although the charges were subsequently withdrawn, a number of hunters immediately returned home out of fear that they would be charged and the outfitters involved incurred many thousands of dollars in legal expenses.
NOTO's first concern in these cases is that we avoid impacting innocent guests. We also believe that these matters can be better resolved in an administrative way, allowing scarce enforcement resources to be used where they are really useful. Of course enforcement action is completely appropriate where there are concerns around safety or resource conservation, but we believe other approaches make more sense when the issue is an administrative one around industry privileges and responsibilities.
We also heard a large number of industry concerns around what a number of operators felt was aggressive enforcement and poor treatment of guests. This included things like an operator complaining of guests being stopped and inspected three times in one day to a complaint that a guest fishing from shore who experienced a snagged line was charged with having an unattended line when she went to the washroom while waiting for help with the line.
One immediate outcome of our recent meeting was that Enforcement Branch has provided us with contact information for key operations staff, which we have printed in this issue. Anyone with a concern around enforcement should start by contacting the Enforcement Supervisor in their MNR district office. The director of enforcement, Lois Deacon, indicated on three occasions during our meeting that the enforcement supervisor is the first point of contact for any outfitter having enforcement concerns in their area. Operators may be surprised by the suggestion to contact the enforcement supervisor rather than the district manager. A restructuring of enforcement branch a few years ago means that officers now report up a chain of command within their branch and reporting requirements to the district manager are not what they once were. If concerns cannot be resolved with the local enforcement supervisor, we'd suggest you contact the NOTO office so we can then advise on the appropriate course of action. This may mean involving enforcement staff at the regional or provincial level.
It was the view of the folks from enforcement that many of our concerns can be solved by better communications. I wholeheartedly agree with that view, and our experience in other areas of MNR bears this out. We will be continuing discussion with both Enforcement Branch and the folks in MNR who establish the rules and policies, particularly around the issues that were raised about rules for the moose and bear hunts.
We have also been asked to work with Enforcement Branch to help educate their officers about our industry, including participating in training activities. We also intend to work together to identify areas where guests may inadvertently break the rules such as how fish are wrapped, and develop better communications materials and strategies.
Pretty much everybody in the nature and outdoor tourism industry agrees that making sure people follow the rules is an important element of effective resource management. And we certainly all understand that natural resource quality is the backbone of our industry. Clearly, NOTO and Enforcement Branch have a common view of many elements of resource management, at least as far as the outcomes we both want. Finding the right mix of tools and methods will be the challenge moving forward, but I believe our shared passion for the resource and commitment to cooperation will move us down the right path very quickly.
This article was taken from pages 7 & 8 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Fall 2009 Issue