POST-PANDEMIC HUNT PLANNING

No different than most of us, I might have made some great hunting memories in spring 2020, except for an ugly little virus! Yep, I had some great plans that crumbled into dust. At this writing, in mid-May, we appear to be opening up a bit. I hope that continues, but so far, I’m luckier than many. I haven’t lost anyone close to COVID-19, our family is all fine and I still have (most of) my business. Hunting is forever and will continue. In due time I’ll be packing my bags, zeroing a rifle and getting ready to head out.

Realistically, however, I have no idea exactly when that might be. At this writing, domestic air travel is sketchy and most international travel is impossible. Like countless millions of folks around the world, we’ve been staying home, following the guidelines and trying not to gain too much weight. I’m not a germophobe, but one of the last places I want to be right now is in the Petrie dish of an airplane. I haven’t been home for this long a stretch since I had my heart attack…but right now it’s not such a bad place to be.

In due time normalcy will resume and there will be travel. We’ll need to start making plans and outfitters around the world will need our support. No one in the civilized world is unaffected by COVID-19. But for some folks, not so much, and many have been devastated. In the latter group falls anyone involved in the restaurant, travel and hospitality industries. Which, by the way, includes every outfitter in the world and all of their staffs.

GRIM REALITY

I am not a gloom and doom guy — quite the opposite. My glass is always at least half-full. However, as we lament the hunt plans that went awry, let’s think for just a little bit about the now-empty camps we were headed to and the great outfitters, guides, trackers, skinners, packers, cooks and all the rest who would have been there taking such good care of us.

As we socially distance and pace the confines of our homes, it’s easy to become absorbed with our own losses. You bet, I’m sorry I didn’t make it to New Zealand to hear the red stags roar in April. I regret I couldn’t go with my son-in-law to Zambia and help him hang leopard baits. I wish I was in Alberta hunting black bears and I was really looking forward to a walrus hunt in July. Hunting-wise, nothing happened in the spring of 2020 and not much is gonna happen in the summer. There’s no sense crying over spilled milk. We have to regroup and think ahead.

Despite the current uncertainty, there are new plans to be made, but it’s gonna take some patience. Many people have much time on their hands; email traffic has been brisk and some messages were interesting. One guy wrote, “I have three hunts booked. What am I gonna do?”

Uh, join the club? Here in the U.S., spring turkey hunting is a big deal. Some seasons open early in March. Friends in Georgia had an awesome opening week before the lockdown. Osceola turkey outfitters in Florida had at least a partial season, but most outfitters who rely on spring gobblers for part of their income lost the entire season.

That’s just the beginning. In Argentina and New Zealand, the April red stag roar is the outfitters’ bread and butter. That critical season was altogether lost. In North America, spring bear season didn’t happen. In Africa the peak safari season should be kicking off, but obviously has not.

Although an invisible virus was responsible, the effects actually came from multiple directions. Actual closures or suspensions and physical inability to travel. The first official notification I received was from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission who, early on, suspended sales of nonresident turkey permits and, in an amazingly fair gesture, offered refunds for permits already sold.

Other popular turkey states, including Kansas, followed suit. On April 6, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that all spring bear hunting was suspended until May 31, then quickly revised the suspension to nonresidents only.

So far, such formalized suspensions have been rare, in part because spring seasons impact few species and it’s too early to predict what autumn (prime hunting season in the Northern Hemisphere) might look like. Among our international hunting community, inability to travel is having far greater impact than actual closures.

In early May a Canadian black bear outfitter told me he’d just gotten a call from a guy who asked if he still had openings and wanted to drive up. “Yes, lots of openings, but sir, the border is closed!”

Yes, at this writing both the Canadian and Mexican borders are closed for tourism, along with a lot of borders around the world. Both domestic and international flights have slowed to a trickle, and Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo airport, gateway to southern Africa, is completely shut down. It will reopen and worldwide, flights will resume. But it’s impossible to say on exactly what timeline. Right now, even for folks willing to brave the virus, they simply can’t get there…wherever “there” happens to be!

Then we have yet another dual impact: Good old FOF: “Fear of Flying.” Right now, in early May, I’d just as soon not get on any commercial transport (plane, train or bus) unless I have to. However, risks of infection are already diminishing and in time will be minimal. But how many of us will retain lingering concerns and for how long?

I’d like to think that our hunting community is more adventurous than most, but recent history makes me wonder. When West Africa was ravaged by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, outfitters all over the continent suffered cancellations. As bad as COVID-19 can be, I hope we can agree that Ebola is a far worse disease. But really, cancelling a hunt in South Africa because of Ebola in Liberia was akin to cancelling an elk hunt in New Mexico because of a flu outbreak in Toronto.

So, although impact depends on where they are and what their “peak seasons” might be, we have the reality that most hunting operators worldwide have lost the first half of 2020. We also have uncertainty. The crisis will abate. Travel and hunting will resume but it’s impossible to say exactly when and this will depend on where.

Third quarter 2020 hunting may be practical in some areas and fourth quarter hunting may return to almost normal. However, hunting is controlled by climate and weather as well as formal seasons so late 2020 hunts, even if possible, won’t help everybody.

We need to understand that most people in the hunting industry are dealing with near-zero revenue through at least July 2020 and unknown prospects for the rest of the year. It’s often easier to shut things down than it is to restart and the pandemic isn’t over. The grim reality is that many areas and outfitters may not be able to reopen until 2021, with our current year a total loss.

POSTPONE

Our outfitter friends and all their staffs and support personnel are in trouble. Without question, some of us, their potential clients, are in equal trouble. On both sides, every situation is different. Many of us derive our incomes from multiple sources: jobs, or industries, others ride just one horse. Outfitters are the same and for sure it’s worse when that one horse goes lame.

Outfitters who were well-booked for 2020 and forward will weather the storm more easily than those who started the overnight shutdown with gaps. However, expenses continue. Landowners will want their lease payments and governments will want their concession fees. Staff needs to be paid and the concept of “unemployment insurance” is not universal.

Regardless of the pandemic’s impact on you and your family, if you have deposits riding on hunts, the watchword needs to be “postpone” and please don’t cancel. Asking for refunds right now is rubbing salt in the wounds and despite the very best intentions, may not be possible.

So, postpone your hunts but be realistic, reasonable and patient. It is not automatically a matter of simply rolling over to next year. Resources, quotas and camp capacity issues immediately come into play.

Let’s say that a Stone sheep outfitter has an annual harvest quota of 10 rams. It’s too early to make such a prediction, but let’s take a worst-case scenario and say that, because of the actual pandemic plus travel limitations and border restrictions, none of those hunts can be conducted in 2020. Some of this year’s hunters can probably be rolled over to 2021.

But suppose next year’s quota of 10 rams is also booked? From conservation, logistics and legal perspectives it would be impossible to take 20 rams in 2021. Neither hunters nor outfitters necessitated the postponement, but booked 2020 hunters don’t necessarily have priority over booked 2021 hunters. “Postpone” is a good word, but in situations where harvests and “boat spaces” are limited, it may take two or three years for this to sort out and in some cases the costs may need to increase. As the situation develops, we need to communicate and work with our outfitters.

Again, every situation is different. On the Alaskan Peninsula, brown bears are hunted in odd-numbered falls and even-number springs. So, my outfitter friends on the Peninsula did bear hunts in fall 2019, expected to hunt spring 2020, and then not again until fall ’21. That every-other-year spring bear hunt is of huge economic importance, so Alaska’s closure of nonresident bear hunting was a crushing blow. In an amazing display of government working with the hunting community, it appears that, in lieu of the lost spring 2020 season, there will be a one-time “odd year” spring season in 2021.

Not all game departments worldwide will be so accommodating. However, Alaska is a different situation. Many of her remote communities have limited medical facilities and are primarily reached only by air, places where nobody wants an infectious disease to get loose. Northern Canada has identical issues.

Remember that July 2020 walrus hunt that I’m not going on? Nunavut is characterized by remote communities with limited access and sparse medical facilities. Government officials, medical personnel and residents up there are justifiably worried about admitting outsiders who just might be carrying a virus.

In spring 2020 most booked polar bear hunts were not conducted and the summer walrus hunts cannot happen. Let’s carry that thought forward: At this writing, autumn caribou and muskox hunts in Arctic Canada seem unlikely and it’s not impossible that there will be no nonresident hunting in Nunavut until there’s a vaccine. So, my walrus hunt is “postponed.” It will probably happen eventually, but I won’t need to pack up my Arctic gear for a while.

NO FIRE SALES!

The good news. There will be an effective COVID-19 vaccine. There will be a time and not too distant, when the “2020 Lockdown” will be a dim memory. In the meantime and in the immediate aftermath, our hunting world is going to be a little bit different. Among the many recent emails I’ve gotten, the ones that infuriate me the most go along the lines of, “There are going to be some great bargains when this is over!”

Uh, no, there probably won’t be and this is not the time for bargain shopping. Unfortunately, throughout the world, many small businesses will not survive. Our little town of Paso Robles relies heavily on tourist trade. Every time I drive around the near-empty streets, I wonder how many restaurants and vineyards will be able to reopen. Almost by definition, outfitters are “small businesses.” Regrettably, not all will make it through the recovery. As with all small businesses, survival will depend upon sound management, debt ratios and new business.

When this is all over, not all of us will be booking outfitted hunts for a while, but the outfitters of the world need our business. They don’t need to be cutting deals and most cannot. Nobody wants to hear this, but the only way some outfitters will be able to recover and continue to offer the hunting experiences we dream of will be to raise their prices. Rather than shopping for bargains, this is a great time to book a hunt you’ve always wanted to do and, considering possible backlogs and uncertainty, it’s a good time to book a couple seasons out. Accept that “the price is the price,” but start planning now. When we’re able to travel and hunt again, this is also a time to tip as generously as you can afford. The outfitting industry is suffering, but their camp and support staffs are probably suffering more than their employers.

With a cessation in hunting, however temporary, the world’s wildlife is also in trouble. Especially in Africa, and perhaps in Asia, an increase in poaching is almost inevitable. Continuing to fund antipoaching is a major expense many outfitters must still bear—without hunting revenues. However, if it becomes a matter of business survival, antipoaching budgets may be reduced out of necessity. So, with new business essential, this is a great time to book a hunt—and an especially good time to contribute to antipoaching efforts!–Craig Boddington

Leave a Reply