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No man’s land

Hunting season is upon us again. For some of you, it’s a great time of year because you finally have the chance to get some nuisance animals away from your haystacks. For others, it can be an aggravating time if you’re being constantly pestered for land access. Of course, hunting season is also a time to reunite and share a cold one with our friends who are forced to live and work in the city. Whenever I get frustrated with life, I find that chatting with an urbanite about our lifestyle differences improves my disposition pretty quickly.

I live on a quarter section of land in the Porcupine Hills, and for the third year in a row, I put in for antlerless mule deer. When you put in for a draw, you can enter three wildlife management units (WMU) where you’d like to hunt. I put in for mine, and the WMU just to the south of me, which makes sense because I literally have mule deer come through my yard almost daily.

Now, for reasons I cannot explain, I selected my third hunting choice roughly four hours from home – WMU 150. I do know the area because that’s where I log a lot of time looking for rattlesnakes. I’m also fixing to do a story about the damage the Suffield elk are doing to the neighbouring land throughout the area, so I think that was part my reasoning too.

The good news is that I was drawn… the bad news is that it’s for WMU 150 and I have no idea how to find anything there except for snakes. I realized that last month when I went down to try and scout out the area for deer (and to go see the fresh, very cute crop of baby rattlesnakes that are born in early September).

I‘ve enjoyed a great relationship with the landowners where I do my den visits, and I’ve been going there for nearly 10 years, way back even when I was still living in Winnipeg. The original owner of the land passed on, and his closest neighbours called me to let me know, which I greatly appreciated. Before he died, I would go and camp in his yard, and when I was done with the snakes for the day, I’d come up from the river hills, and good ole Floyd would have a cold Pepsi waiting for me. He’d ask me how many snakes I saw, and then I would cook us both some supper. I loved that man like a grandfather, and was heartbroken to learn that he had passed.

He left his land to the neighbours down the road – the ones that called to let me know about his death. They were like family to Floyd, and they took great care of him in his later years. They’ve been gracious enough to continue to allow me access, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. Now only would losing access mean a devastating interruption to the years of data I’ve been collecting, but it would be very upsetting for sentimental reasons too. In exchange, I always pick up any loose barbwire I come across, and any other blown-in debris that cattle shouldn’t have around their feet or in their mouths.

During my scouting trip, a friend of mine from Edmonton (he’s just studying herpetology there, he’s actually from North Carolina) joined me. He had some GPS co-ordinates for a den site that is reportedly one of the most populous ones in Alberta. It’s on Crown land that’s leased by a ranching and farming family. He had called and asked for permission for foot access for a few hours for the two of us to hike out to the site, which is very near the Red Deer River, and he was denied. He was told the land was inaccessible because it was being combined – it is after all, that time of year. But since we were in the area anyway, and decided just to drive by so that we’d know where it was for next year, and we were surprised to see it wasn’t being combined – it grazing land only. That leased land ran directly between the public access road and the river, and there weren’t any cattle on it either.

At first, we were super excited! We figured the person leasing the land had probably been mistaken about the precise area we’d asked to access, so my friend stopped by there the next day to introduce himself, and better explain where it was we wanted to go, and what exactly we wanted to do. Access was still denied, much to our mutual disappointment.

That really got me thinking about whether I’ll even be able to use my deer tags this year. I mean, if people won’t allow foot access to Crown land that doesn’t have any livestock or crop on it just to take a few photos, what hope do I have to bring a rifle and my 11-year-old son to hunt deer? I’d never dream of pushing the issue as I really try to avoid as many conflicts with people as I can – life’s too short to spend it angry – but I do wonder what the right thing is to do.

I understand that deeded land is just off limits if someone doesn’t want you there, and I get that. I once had hunters show up on the quarter where I live and start shooting gophers from their truck without even asking first. I was furious – my son was dressed in camouflage and stalking gophers with his bow and arrow in that very same field. I don’t get upset very often, but I’m pretty sure those gopher hunters won’t be back anytime soon. So I can relate to landowners who are tired of being asked for access, and I can fully empathize at any frustration from dealing with disrespectful people who leave gates open, or don’t clean up their garbage.

But can foot access to Crown land be denied if there’s no cattle or crops on the land in question? Maybe a better question is whether it should be denied in those circumstances? Or did I do something wrong? How could I approach people in the future to try and achieve a better outcome? I’d never want to burn any bridges – especially as a livestock and agriculture journalist. I found the whole experience to be somewhat unsettling, in part because I realized I’m only ever one “no” away from being unable to enjoy what I love most – studying and photographing the rattlesnakes.

If any of you happen to have rattlesnake dens on your deeded or leased property, and you wouldn’t mind granting foot access, you’d make me about the happiest girl in Alberta if you’d drop me a line. And if any of you in WMU 150 have any extra mule deer or white-tailed that need thinning out, you’d definitely be making my 11 year old the happiest kid in Alberta this fall. (WMU 150 begins east of Jenner at the intersection of roads 884 and 555, goes up around Empress to the Saskatchewan border, south to Hilda and is bordered on the east by Suffield.) Which reminds me – anyone affected by the Suffield elk, please get in touch with me. I’m going to be doing research on this issue this fall, so I would love to hear from as many of you as possible.

As sad as I am to say goodbye to summer, this really is a great time of year. There’s something special about harvest season, and there’s something really exciting seeing the fall run gear up – especially with the prices we’re seeing this year! When I first started covering the business, 550-pound steers were selling for $550. Today that same steer is selling for $1,600… and it looks like everyone in the chain is able to make some money at it. It’s sure been a long time coming. I haven’t been in this business long enough to hazard a guess as to how high we’ll go, or when we’ll start to decline, so I’m just going to enjoy it while it lasts.

Happy harvest, happy Thanksgiving, and have a fabulous fall run!

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