Controversy over annual Short Hills harvest dampened but far from extinguished by this year’s pandemic protocols
Animal rights activists continue to take aim at an annual Aboriginal ritual and treaty right in Niagara, a white-tailed deer hunt, that has stirred emotions on both sides of the debate since the first harvest took place in Short Hills Provincial Park in 2013. The final hunt day under the 2020 treaty protocol took place last Thursday.
The park, which was created in 1985, was closed to the public during the deer harvest on November 3 and 26, December 10 and 17, 2020 and January 7 and 27, 2021.
Robin Zavitz has lived on Roland Road with her family for close to 18 years, attracted by the glorious natural setting. Their property abuts Short Hills.
“We moved out here because we love the peace and tranquility, the wildlife and the park,” said Zavitz. “The annual hunt has really made it a very unhappy place, and I just I don’t see any end in sight. The Ministry has done its ‘soft shoe’ dance here for years, and the community falsely thinks that this is under control. What blows my mind is that there are still people that don’t know anything about it.”
Last week’s edition of The Voice carried not only a letter to the editor from Zavitz, in which her concerns were shared, but also a full-page advertisement detailing the perceived breaches of the harvest protocol between the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, and the Indigenous hunters.
The ad was placed by the Short Hills Wildlife Alliance, a group which includes Zavitz as a founding member, and provided the link www.SaveShorthills.ca, which connects to an information page on the hunt prepared by the Animal Alliance of Canada, a well-established organization advocating for animal rights.
To be clear, white-tailed deer are not an at-risk species in the province. Outdoors Canada magazine estimates that there are some 400,000 white-tailed deer in Ontario, with 75 percent roaming in the southern region of the province. The Canadian Wildlife Federation says that of all North America’s large animals, the white-tailed deer is the most widely distributed and the most numerous. The Federation’s website notes that healthy deer populations reproduce quickly, and are capable of almost doubling their numbers in a good year.
Greg Wilson, the Southwest Ontario manager for Ontario Parks, said that an aerial survey is done every year in Short Hills, usually after a snowfall, when the contrast makes it more effective to record the deer population. He said that in 2020, approximately 500 deer were counted in the park. The Ministry has estimated that 50 to 60 deer is the carrying capacity for the 1600 acres of Short Hills.
Zavitz disagrees with Wilson’s calculations.
“White-tailed deer are transient animals that move through a wide range of territory. When it’s cold, the deer are ‘yarding’ in the park—they come in from the farmer’s fields because the park provides shelter from the elements, and a food source. The deer herd together to preserve body warmth—so you get an inflated number of how many deer are actually calling the park home,” she asserted.
Contrary to speculation, Wilson said the Indigenous harvest is not part of a Ministry plan to reduce the deer population in Short Hills.
“It’s purely a treaty deal. If we were going to do a formal deer herd reduction, there’s an environmental assessment process that would need to be conducted first,” he said.
Zavitz has several objections to the Short Hills hunt. Her primary issue is the fact that it is conducted in a provincial park, intended for public hiking and communing with nature. She also loathes the perceived cruelty of the harvest which leaves dead, and occasionally injured and suffering animals, in its wake. Zavitz questions the safety measures in place as well, and resents the alleged trespassing that occurs when First Nations hunters, by accident or design, venture onto private property outside the park boundaries.
If we were going to do a formal deer herd reduction, there’s an environmental assessment process that would need to be conducted first
The Haudenosaunee Wildlife and Habitat Authority, through its website sixnationsrighttohunt.com, asserts that it has negotiated a series of treaty-based reciprocal agreements to provide safe hunting areas, with one being Short Hills Provincial Park. “There are places where large deer populations are threatening the balance of natural ecosystems, and the managers of those places welcome working with us to restore balance,” according to the website. “We will maintain high standards of safety, discipline, and conservation. On the side of our partners, it means ensuring that the hunting environment will be safe and protected. This is not just about deer hunting. We are building solid, respectful partnerships and working relationships with agencies and officials of other governments.”
It is noteworthy that the agreements were made between the Ministry and the ancestral chiefs of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in Oshweken, and not the elected council of the Six Nations reserve. Neither Karl Dockstader, an Aboriginal activist and Executive Director of the Niagara Native Centre, nor Mark Hill, elected chief of the Six Nations on the Grand River reserve (home to all the Indigenous hunters) responded to a Voice request for comment.
Biologist Keith Munro, who completed his doctoral thesis at Trent University on white-tailed deer, and who serves as a wildlife biologist for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), in Peterborough, told The Voice that deer hunting is “an incredibly valuable tool for ensuring that provincial deer populations are maintained at levels that are ecologically sustainable, in addition to all the social, cultural, and economic benefits.”
Deer hunting in Ontario is a thriving business. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests invests some $71 million dollars each year in fish and wildlife management, with a big chunk of the revenue coming directly from recreational hunting and fishing licence fees. The Ministry’s 2019 online data showed that 186,384 deer tags were issued in 2019, resulting in a province-wide harvest of 53,508 deer.
In Niagara’s three Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) which allowed a three-month bow-hunting season in the fall of 2018, almost 6000 hunters harvested just under 1700 white-tailed deer on Crown or private land outside of Short Hills Provincial Park.
By comparison, the annual Short Hills harvest, conducted over a series of days by Indigenous hunters, takes from 50 to 120 deer.
Members of the Short Hills Wildlife Alliance have detailed damage done to the park during the treaty harvest, with trucks, SUVs, and all-terrain vehicles tearing up paths and crushing vegetation.
“It’s all been documented…the Ministry was actually doing a lot of the damage, loading up dead deer on their ATVs and driving them back to the hunters’ trucks in the staging area. The Ministry has actually placed crushed stoned on what was wetland, and created a virtual parking lot for these hunters,” said Zavitz.
But other groups have indicated that the high volume of deer in Short Hills has created its own set of problems.
Brian Green is secretary of the Niagara chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada, an environmental group committed to the restoration and preservation of cold water habitat, with a primary regional focus on Twelve Mile Creek, which runs through Short Hills Park.
The Ministry has actually placed crushed stoned on what was wetland, and created a virtual parking lot for these hunters
“The deer population in Short Hills is so large as to be unsustainable,” said Green. “They eat everything, including shrubs and ground cover we have planted to anchor the soil to prevent riverbank erosion. It’s a challenge planting anything along the stream that they won’t devour. In addition, the hooves of so many deer have caused significant erosion damage in the park.”
From Zavitz’s perspective, the hunt is woefully understaffed by the Ministry.
“Back in the day, the Ministry probably had 30 to 35 staff members right in the park during the hunt, trying to keep things under control,” said Zavitz. “The hunters agreed that they would not leave the hunt zone without a Ministry officer accompanying them.”
Zavitz asserted that although Ministry officers are present at the three park entrances on the days of the hunt, they are fewer in number than in past years, and claimed, “There are zero Ministry staff in the park itself during the hunt…there’s nobody to enforce this.”
Wilson said that eight staff were assigned to the hunt this year, with numbers reduced due to COVID restrictions.
“It’s a reflection of the current situation,” said Wilson. “In past years, the Ministry had a biologist on site to assess deer health, and check animals for ticks and Lyme disease. That has not been done by our staff during the 2020 hunts, but by the harvesters…it’s been a collaboration.”
Pandemic lockdown directives from the province do not apply to the Indigenous hunt, said Wilson.
Zavitz said that, in past years, she has spoken to Regional Council and various municipal councils in Niagara, conveying the message that a provincial park is not the proper venue for an activity of this sort, and suggesting that other lands in the peninsula would be more appropriate. She said that while there was support for her argument, the Region acknowledged that the treaty rights decision was a provincial ministry matter outside its purview.
When asked for comment, Regional Chair Jim Bradley referred The Voice to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks, noting that, “Niagara Region has no jurisdiction or standing over the deer harvest, provincial parks, or the protocols that are followed during the hunt. That said, Regional Council fully respects all relevant treaty rights related to the harvest.”
A protocol was written and signed in 2014 by the Ministry and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, said Zavitz, the priority being to establish safety practises regarding the hunt.
She asserts that the protocol has been revised annually, but is currently unsigned.
“[Southwest Ontario Parks manager Greg Wilson] told me, ‘It’s a gentleman’s agreement. It’s not legally enforceable,’ but that’s not what they’re telling the people of the community.”
According to Zavitz, the number of hunters participating in the harvest has increased dramatically.
“Back in 2013, 15 hunters were in the park for four days, and took seven or eight deer. And then it expanded the next couple of years to 30 hunters, then 35, then 50. I think the record we’ve documented to date is 98 people in the park in one day.”
Zavitz said that a former Southwest Ontario Parks manager told her that 30 hunters maximum was the safe limit in the 1600 acres of Short Hills Provincial Park.
Zavitz cited, “at least three confrontations this season where trespassers, on private property, have come face-to-face with homeowners…and the hunters refused to leave.”
She said the Ministry did not mail notifications to homeowners adjacent to the park this year, as they have done every year since 2013.
“When the hunt is on, we don’t leave our property. My husband actually books days off, so that we can be here and keep our dogs safe and our property secure.”
Spokesperson Gary Wheeler said that the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks takes complaints raised about trespassing during the hunt seriously.
“Ministry officers have jurisdiction within the provincial park boundary, and staff rely on our community policing partners to assist with any concerns raised about potential incidents occurring outside of the park, including trespassing on private property. Due to privacy concerns, the ministry does not share details about complaints or any other enforcement matters.”
Reflecting back to the inaugural hunt in 2013, Zavitz said that when she first heard news of the event, she started a petition, and garnered 2800 signatures within the first three days.
Due to privacy concerns, the ministry does not share details about complaints or any other enforcement matters
“At that point, I didn’t even know who was hunting…I didn’t know anything about First Nations treaties,” she said. “I was pretty much oblivious to the whole thing. But I started that petition, because I believed that the park should be a sanctuary for the animals. With all the overdevelopment going on around Niagara, why can’t we give the deer a postage stamp that they can live on peacefully?”
She acknowledged that the politics of the hunt fosters trepidation on the part of many animal rights activists.
“Because they are Indigenous hunters, they scare off many people from speaking out, because they’re going to have the ‘race card’ thrown at them,” said Zavitz. “If you say something against the hunt, you’re called a racist.”
Zavitz said she did not encourage protesters to rally at the park entrance for the final hunt, adding, “I could get dozens of protesters out, but then we’d be in trouble for organizing an event during a pandemic lockdown.”
She did indicate that a small group was present to document a count of trucks and hunters in the park.
Ontario Parks manager Wilson disagreed with Zavitz’s assessment of many elements of the hunt.
“We do have protocols that are reviewed every year with the harvest coordinators and participants. The paramount concern is that it’s done in a safe manner, not just for the hunters, but the general public as well.”
Wilson does agree with Zavitz, however, that the Ministry-First Nations agreement is not legally binding.
“In terms of what is enforceable, we have the Wildlife Conservation Act that speaks to hunting, and the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, that are viewed in context with the Indigenous treaty rights. The protocols are designed to make sure that the treaty rights are supported.”
During the harvest, signage is placed at all authorized entry points to the park, with staff stationed at these points to deny public access, said Wilson. Ministry officers patrol around the park, and OPP and NRP have a presence there as well.
“Archery is the only means of harvesting, and there is by design a designated harvest area and buffer zone, essentially an area covering the distance that that an arrow would travel. But it’s not illegal to harvest in that buffer area,” said Wilson.
No injuries have been reported in the history of the hunt, said Wilson.
“I’ve been pleased with the understanding on the part of those with opposing viewpoints. The harvest can be pretty tense at times given the different complexities, but by and large, I think we’ve managed to support a safe deer harvest and also engage in productive dialogue. I’ve certainly seen a lot of behaviour from the harvesters that was very respectful and collaborative.”
I think we’ve managed to support a safe deer harvest and also engage in productive dialogue
As to COVID social-distancing concerns, Wilson said that while there may at times be about 70 hunters in the park, they arrive at different intervals, often as family units, and are not hunting in one large group.
“Harvesters communicate with Ontario Parks staff, to alert them if they see somebody hiking into the park during the hunt, or if an arrowed deer went outside of the park,” said Wilson.
Zavitz is unswayed by Ministry explanations, and unrelenting in her demands.
“Things need to change. I think Minister Yurek [Environment, Conservation, and Parks], the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Greg Wilson of Ontario Parks, and Niagara MPP Sam Oosterhoff need to sit down and find a way to relocate this hunt. It’s been going on for almost a decade, and it’s clearly out of control.”
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