Buried amongst a series of hunting regulation changes proposed last November by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) was an amendment pertaining to two private islands off the coast of Georgian Bay, near Owen Sound. The amendment read: “Start the existing rifles, shotguns, muzzle-loading guns, and bows seasons in WMUs 83B and 83C on October 1.”
WMU stands for wildlife management unit. Ontario is divided into 95 of them. It’s how the MNRF monitors wildlife populations while doling out hunting licenses. A WMU’s hunting regulations can change based on the size of its wildlife population.
The designations 83B and 83C correspond with two private islands: Griffith Island and Hay Island, respectively. The amendment, pushed through by the provincial government, extended both islands’ rifle deer hunting seasons from 11 weeks to 13 weeks, the longest in the province. Far longer than the average two weeks designated to most WMUs in Ontario. In fact, on the mainland, only a quick boat ride away, the rifle deer hunting season lasts all of seven days.
So, why do two private islands need such a long rifle deer hunting season?
An astute reader of the Narwhal brought this fact to the attention of Emma McIntosh, the publication’s Ontario reporter. “[He] found out about it through his own networks and researched it for a couple of months before reaching out to me,” she says.
As McIntosh dug into the story, she discovered that Griffith Island is owned and operated by a private hunt club, one that has long-standing ties with elite North American clientele, including CEOs, sport executives, and politicians.
Former Ontario premier and Conservative Party member John Robarts served as the Griffith Island Club’s first president after its founding in 1973. In 2004, the Globe and Mail reported on a lavish hunting trip taken by Conservative Party members on Griffith Island, including a former minister of municipal affairs and a close advisor to the Ontario Premier at the time. The trip was paid for by Hydro One.
Today, the club has around 70 members, offering 22 rooms for overnight stays, a private chef, a sauna, a ferry service, and its own landing strip for small, chartered planes.
Ron McCulloch, a hunter who lives in the Georgian Bay area, worked as a guide on Griffith Island in 1996 and 1997. He remembers members travelling from all over Canada and the U.S. to hunt on the island. At that time, McCulloch says membership cost $50,000 to join, plus annual dues.
As a guide, McCulloch was responsible for leading two hunts a day. Staff at the club are responsible for managing the island’s wildlife population through breeding. Pheasant is the most popular hunting game on the island. The birds are kept in pens until it’s time to hunt, and then released into fields.
With no predators, few vehicles, and lots of space to graze, the island is also an ideal ecosystem for white-tailed deer. Some have been known to swim between the mainland and the island. Staff are responsible for tracking and managing the deer population, with strict rules around how many bucks can be harvested, requiring them for breeding.
“There’s a hell of a population of deer on that island,” McCulloch says. “There are a couple hundred deer.”
Considering the island measures a total of 2,300 acres, that is a dense deer population. According to the provincial government’s harvesting records, approximately 70 deer were killed on Griffith Island last year. A former club guide, who asked not to be named, says the island has so many deer that the club has difficulty meeting its WMU harvesting quota.
Hay Island, on the other hand, also privately owned, only harvested one deer last year.
In an email from the MNRF, a government spokesperson explained that this dense deer population is the reason for the longer hunting season. “The longer timeframe reflects the lower risk of an unsustainable harvest—these islands lack predators, and the longer rifle season supports a sustainable hunt and enables deer population management on the islands.”
The MNRF also pointed out that sections of northern Ontario have similar rifle deer hunting seasons due to their higher-than-average deer populations and lower human populations.
The Griffith Island Club echoed the MNRF in its own email response to the extension. “Griffith Island is a unique ecosystem by virtue of being an island with limited access. It was designated a separate wildlife management unit by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry many decades ago. As a result of this designation the ministry sets season lengths and harvest limits, as it does for all other WMUs in Ontario.
Experienced game and habitat managers monitor the health and viability of the deer population and provide the MNRF with relevant data so that the ministry can set the appropriate length of season to maintain a healthy population.
The island membership is comparatively small, there is little natural predation on the island, and left unchecked, the deer population would quickly grow to unsustainable levels, risking malnutrition, disease, and death,” the club said.
Mark Ryckman, the manager of policy for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), says this explanation checks out. The government’s goal is to balance wildlife populations with available habitat, he explains.
“Increasing harvest is open to debate, whether or not that’s the best option,” Ryckman says. “But it is the option that [the government] chose to go forward with. It’s also the cheapest, from the government’s perspective. All they do is allow every firearm type for the entire length of the season. That really doesn’t cost them anything. They just allow the hunters that do have that exclusive opportunity to harvest more deer.”
This doesn’t make the extended hunting season any less contentious, though. Ryckman says the OFAH has had concerns about both Griffith Island and Hay Island for the past 10 years. When the government opened the islands’ hunting extensions to public consultation, the OFAH made sure to comment.
“We don’t want to see hunting become a pastime or a recreational activity that is only available to the wealthy,” Ryckman says. “These are public resources managed by public servants using public tax dollars on behalf of all Ontarians, not just landowners, not just the rich. These are resources that should be available to all Ontarians.”
Optically, Ryckman acknowledges that an elite hunting club with ties to Canadian politicians getting an extended rifle hunting season doesn’t look good. But from a conservation standpoint, the OFAH has no concerns about the number of deer being harvested.
Hunters in the area don’t seem bothered by the club’s extended rifle season, either. “It makes no difference to me whatsoever,” says Craig Lalonde, a Georgian Bay hunter. “Ultimately, if it’s a private club, it’s kind of a closed environment. Nothing that happens there impacts me, or, in my opinion, what’s going on throughout Ontario.”
Greg Edwards, the president of the Georgian Bay Hunters and Anglers Association, says that from a conservation perspective, Griffith Island’s extended rifle season makes sense. “I don’t think it’s good to have that many deer all in one area, because they’re going to get interbred, and then you’re going to create some more problems,” he says. “So, it’s better to thin them out now, and then you’re going to have a better population of deer in the future.”
Whether one agrees with the club’s extended rifle season or not, it appears to be driven by a legitimate reason. What was troubling for McIntosh, though, who broke the story, was the lack of transparency from the government. The islands’ hunting extension was buried among a long list of amendments, and when McIntosh reached out to the government to ask about the extension, she was stonewalled.
“Private clubs are allowed to ask for things that they want or are allowed to enjoy things that are given to them by law,” McIntosh says. “But it really is a question of trust in people who manage our natural resources. And I think it is troubling when the people making those decisions are unable to explain what they’re doing, and even more so when they refuse to explain why they’re doing it.”