Deer hunt protesters Chris and Linda hold signs outside Short Hills Provincial Park last week as the annual Indigenous deer hunt got underway. DON RICKERS

Perhaps some activists in the animal protection community are searching for common ground in their dispute with Indigenous hunters invoking treaty rights. But that ground won’t be found in Short Hills Provincial Park.

Ontario has recognized the rights of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Six Nations) to conduct an annual white-tailed deer harvest in the park since 2013. The province’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks attempts to balance the interests of the different users of the park and local community with the treaty rights of the Haudenosaunee, but animal rights activists are adamantly opposed to the activity, and muster a couple of dozen protesters most hunt days to picket at the Pelham Road entry point.

Robin Zavitz and her husband, Craig, who have lived on Roland Road in Pelham for 18 years, have a rural property that abuts Short Hills. As founding members of the Short Hills Wildlife Alliance, they were at the Pelham Road gate of the park shortly after 4 AM last Wednesday on the opening day of the hunt. Zavitz counted 29 vehicles ushered in by the OPP and Niagara Regional Police officers stationed at the park entrance, and estimated that about 70 Indigenous hunters were on site.

“The Ministry doesn’t do a hunter count, nor do the police staffing the entrance gate,” said Zavitz. “Apparently, it is now up to the Aboriginal hunters to keep track of that, along with the number of deer taken. The Ministry has just a skeleton crew of officers on duty during the hunt to enforce the Short Hills Harvest Protocol of 2021.”

Zavitz says she has documented evidence of breaches of the hunt protocol, including hunters on private property adjacent the park without permission, hunters carrying uncased bows in residential areas and shooting randomly at deer as they flee, and the use of aerial drones during their hunt. She further asserts that the Ministry has spent about $450,000 over the past decade on supervising the annual Short Hills hunt, all at taxpayers’ expense.

The 1600-acre park, which was created in 1985, is closed to the public during the deer harvest. Police maintain a presence, as do Ministry officers. Short Hills is the smallest provincial park in Ontario, and its grounds take in part of the Niagara Escarpment, Carolinian forests, and the Fonthill Kame Moraine.

One picketer, Chris, said that she has been coming to the protests for many years.

“I’ve always felt very strongly that the deer in Short Hills should remain protected,” she said. “I’m opposed to hunting in general. The deer in the park are tame, and I don’t think the hunt is done ethically. Year after year, we are finding dead and wounded deer.”

She said the fact that the hunters are Indigenous is not the issue. “We respect the First Nations, but are opposed to all hunting in the park.”

The deer in the park are tame, and I don’t think the hunt is done ethically. Year after year, we are finding dead and wounded deer.

Liz White, a founding board member of the Animal Alliance of Canada, was also present on the picket line last Wednesday.

“I work on a lot of legislative stuff,” said the activist/politician. “Part of the rationale here is to collect information related to the hunt protocol negotiated between the Ministry and the First Nations, and to see if the hunters are complying with the agreement.”

White told the Voice that the Ministry is responsible for protecting Short Hills in perpetuity for the enjoyment of the people of Ontario.

“Animals, plants, people — everybody should be safe in a provincial park,” said White. “I’ve asked the Ministry for the science behind their statement that there should be only a certain number of deer per square kilometre anywhere in Ontario, and they really don’t have a scientific explanation.”

The Ministry conducts an annual aerial survey of the park in an effort to assess the deer population. In past years, numbers have been estimated to be about 500.

“Interestingly, this year’s survey indicated that the deer numbers were down significantly,” said White.

White-tailed deer are not an at-risk species in the province. The Canadian Wildlife Federation estimates the species population at 400,000, and notes on its website that a robust herd can almost double its numbers in a good year. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests online data showed that some 189,000 deer tags were issued in 2020, resulting in a province-wide harvest of just under 53,000 deer. In Niagara’s three Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) which allowed a three-month bow-hunting season in the fall, almost 4800 hunters harvested approximately 1600 white-tailed deer on Crown or private land outside of Short Hills Provincial Park.

Zavitz suspects that some non-Indigenous individuals have been invited to join the hunt as guest of the Haudenosaunee, but Greg Wilson, the Southwest Zone Manager of Ontario Parks, told the Voice that, “the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is responsible for organizing harvest participants and ensuring all individuals are exercising their Aboriginal and treaty rights within their traditional territory. The Ministry does not have any documented incidents where harvest participants were not exercising Aboriginal and treaty rights within their traditional territory during Indigenous deer harvests at Short Hills Provincial Park.”

Although no injuries or deaths have been reported in the history of the hunt, Zavitz questions the safety measures in place. She is also sceptical about reports of no injured or missing deer.

“The Ministry just says, ‘none were reported.’ But I suspect the hunters are not going to say, ‘I shot a deer, but can’t find it,’ so they just don’t report any wounded or lost animals.”

Haudenosaunee representatives have cited a “wound rate” of only ten percent during previous Short Hills hunts, much lower than that of non-indigenous hunters, who record provincial deer wound rates of over 30 percent while bowhunting.

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,” he said.

Anti-hunt activists complain that the hunters do damage in the park with their ATVs and other vehicles, but other groups have indicated that the high volume of deer in Short Hills creates an unsustainable situation, given that the deer are voracious eaters of shrubs and plant life, and themselves cause erosion damage in the park.

Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley has confirmed that Regional Council fully supports all relevant treaty rights related to the deer harvest.

Paul Williams, an Indigenous lawyer, negotiator, and historian, who has been involved in First Nations environmental, land, fishing and hunting, and cultural rights for some 40 years, spoke to the Voice from an Indigenous perspective. He sits on a number of Haudenosaunee councils, including the Wildlife and Habitat Authority, and the Environmental Task Force.

“The Wildlife and Habitat Authority has taken on the responsibility of coordinating a number of bow hunts, Short Hills among them,” said Williams. “We’ve got an arrangement with the Hamilton Conservation Authority about the Dundas Valley, and also with Parks Canada regarding Navy Island in the Niagara River. And in each case, what we’re dealing with is an area that has a hyper-population of deer. It’s a nice convergence in which we have an area under provincial and federal jurisdiction, or Conservation Authority jurisdiction, that’s got more deer than it can handle. And if Ontario wanted to engage in what they officially call a deer herd reduction, there’s a good chance they’d have to do an environmental assessment, which could become political and cost a quarter million dollars. So it’s convenient to have people with treaty rights doing the deer herd population reduction.”

We are under scrutiny, and do not need to have people running around saying ‘look at all the wounded deer.’ That keeps us in the park late at night, tracking wounded deer. We don’t give up.

Williams maintains that the Indigenous hunters are skilled, safe, and ethical.

“If you wound a deer, you track that deer. It’s your responsibility,” said Williams. “One of the things we say in the briefings before any of these hunts is ‘every shot is a kill shot.’ We are under scrutiny, and do not need to have people running around saying ‘look at all the wounded deer.’ That keeps us in the park late at night, tracking wounded deer. We don’t give up.”

Williams’ candid view is that many of the protesters “have said stuff about us that are just plain racist lies, doing their very best to sabotage the hunt in various ways.”

He said that when the hunts in the park first started, protesters would spit at and vandalize Indigenous vehicles on site.

“Today, the really stupid stuff is mostly gone,” he said.

No persons who are not members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy can take part in the hunts, insisted Williams. And the deer never go to waste.

“The venison is distributed among the five longhouses at the Six Nations reserve during midwinter ceremonies,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to give thanks to the deer, acknowledging their sacrifice for the hunt and for the for the nutrition of the people. The ceremony involves showing gratitude for the waters, plants and trees, animals and birds. We give thanks for the air, the winds and thunders, the sun and moon, the stars and beyond.”

The ceremony includes guests from the Ministries of Natural Resources and Environment and Parks, plus the police who worked the hunt, said Williams, who stressed that this is not simply about deer hunting, but building respectful partnerships and working relationships with government agencies and officials.

Hunt dates in 2021 include October 13 and the morning of October 14, October 27 and the morning of October 28, November 9 and the morning of November 10, November 20 and the morning of November 21, December 1 and the morning of December 2, and December 11 and the morning of December 12.