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Backcountry closure potentially devastating to B.C. guide outfitters

<p>Guide outfitters stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars per week if the backcountry closure persists throughout the month of September. Photo taken from www.goabc.org/</p> -

Guide outfitters stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars per week if the backcountry closure persists throughout the month of September. Photo taken from www.goabc.org/

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By Paul Rodgers

For the first time since 2003, a backcountry closure has been issued in parts of the province, including the East Kootenay region, in order to protect citizens in the wake of constant wildfires and to minimize the potential for new human-caused fires.

However, the closures are potentially disastrous for BC's many guide-outfitters as the hunting season begins. As Scott Ellis, executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC), put it, their situation has gone from bad to worse.

"It's been a little crazy and we've been hit twice," said Ellis in a phone interview with the Townsman. "One is the regulation around the grizzly bear proposed regulation and now the September 2 backcountry ban really making it tough on outfitters the province specifically in the Kootenays."

In an August 15 interview with the CBC, Ellis said that the grizzly trophy hunt ban is "a blow to small businesses in rural British Columbia and there's going to be people that are really not viable anymore."

With bowhunting open now and the rifle hunt set to begin September 10, the closure of access to backcountry in the East Kootenay means outfitters will have to start cancelling their first round of clients, who come from all over the world and have booked months in advance.

With the backcountry closure, outfitters are forced to try and reshuffle their clients later into the season, which is highly problematic for them.

"That doesn't always work," explained Ellis. "You've got quota limitation, you've got infrastructure limitations, you've got guide limitations … these people have holidays and have schedules that they have to deal with right? We expect significant financial impact to outfitters. And it is the lion's share of the clients that come in September."

According to Ellis, just how severe the financial blow to guide outfitters will be is hard to determine just yet, as the length of the backcountry ban remains to be seen. However, he said that the approximately 50 outfitters in the Kootenays each stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars per week. The price for just one grizzly bear hunt as listed on Packhorse Creek Outfitters' website, for example, is listed at USD $15,000.

"It's enormous," said Ellis. "September 10th is a big week and then September the 18th is another huge week and we really need to have access to the backcountry, 'cause after, if we have to the end of October, well then it doesn't really matter. They've missed their opportunity there to derive an income from this year."

Ellis said that the GOABC has been working on solutions, discussing the situation with the government in Victoria and the fire centres, to determine whether there will be exemptions for certain criteria. For example, Ellis said that during the ban in 2003 they were able to get an exception and were allowed to operate, because they have property and livestock in the backcountry and fire insurance.

This has not been the case thus far for 2017's ban.

"It is a pretty comprehensive area ban but not exclusively," Ellis said. "There are fishing guides operating for example, if they can get access to the river via highway. So we just need to clearly know what those rules are for the exemption. If you need to have $1 million, or $5 million or $50 million worth of fire insurance, we just need to know what those criteria are."

Despite getting hit with two pieces of news that directly and significantly impact the guide outfitters in the past few weeks, the first being the trophy grizzly ban and now the backcountry closure, Ellis maintains that the need to manage risk is paramount.

"We really need to find a way to operate and we understand that the fire centres need to manage the risk managing mother nature is pretty difficult to do," he said.

All Ellis can do is hope for the weather pattern to change, and like many other British Columbians, he said that the GOABC is "doing a rain dance." He acknowledged that it isn't only guide outfitters impacted by the backcountry closure, but anyone who likes to recreate in the province's "supernatural" terrain.

"We really have a huge range of weather situations around the province and right now this is pretty dire. We want to make sure that everybody's safe and make sure that we're minimizing there risk and as soon as we're able to operate and operate safely we want that to happen and we just want to make sure those that are making the decisions around access to the backcountry know the importance of it and I think they do."

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