EDMONTON - Wildlife and fish are at risk because of a deal that lets Alberta Metis hunt and fish year-round without limits on what they can kill, conservationists say.
The province signed the Metis Interim Harvesting Agreement last fall in response to a Supreme Court ruling on Metis hunting rights.
While the ruling affects Metis in all provinces, some groups fear Alberta's approach could lead to a conservation nightmare.
"We are concerned that this agreement opens the doors to the unregulated harvesting of Alberta's wildlife," said Randy Collins, president of the Alberta Fish and Game Association.
"We have concerns when anyone is given the right to take unlimited quantities of fish or game, or to disregard seasonal restrictions which are in place to ensure their long-term survival."
Stories of abuse are already ricocheting around the province.
Alberta fish and wildlife officers say Metis hunters have shot Big Horn Sheep just for their horns.
"There has been a large number of trophy Big Horn Sheep that have been killed by Metis since the agreement was put in place under the guise of subsistence rights," said one officer who declined to be named for fear of disciplinary action.
"We've had people advise us they intend to go out and shoot goats. We've had people advise us of their intention to shoot caribou, which of course are threatened in Alberta."
There have also been unconfirmed reports of Metis shooting pregnant game.
Audrey Poitras, president of the Metis Nation of Alberta, said concerns about the deal are overstated and based on misinformation.
Under the agreement, Metis are not allowed to hunt in wildlife sanctuaries, national parks or other protected areas.
"The information being provided out there has created a lot of fear. We don't believe there is any reason for that fear," said Poitras.
"We as Metis people certainly believe in conservation. We are creating our own system of harvesting practices. But there is not a legal requirement for us to do this."
In its 2003 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Metis have the right to fish, hunt and trap under the Constitution.
While Alberta chose to negotiate a broad agreement with Metis, other provinces are more restrictive and Metis have been charged with illegal hunting and fishing.
Ontario reached an agreement last summer with the Metis Nation of Ontario that allows 1,200 Metis to hunt in their traditional territory near Sudbury.
Similar negotiations are underway with other Metis groups. But that hasn't stopped the province from laying 180 illegal hunting and fishing charges against people who claim to be Metis.
Saskatchewan, which has allowed some Metis to hunt and fish in parts of the province since 1997, recently charged a Metis man with fishing out of season. That case is before the courts.
In Manitoba, a case involving a Brandon-area Metis man is to be heard in January.
David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, said he wishes other provinces would follow Alberta's lead instead of dragging the issue out in the courts.
"Premier Ralph Klein did the right thing by showing leadership," he said. "Other premiers have not followed suit."
Alberta's agreement applies to about 31,000 members of the Metis Nation of Alberta and that number is expected to grow.
Since the deal was signed, hundreds of people have applied for a Metis card.
Metis leaders say only a small percentage of their members hunt and fish, but conservationists are still worried.
"This is going to lead to a substantially increased harvest of the wildlife and fish of this province," said a fish and wildlife officer.
Alberta Aboriginal Affairs Minister Pearl Calahasen declined interview requests.
Donna Babchishin, spokeswoman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said the province is aware people are concerned about the Metis agreement.
She said the government plans to increase spending by $7.3 million this year to bolster wildlife and fish monitoring, including hiring more staff.
"This will go a long way to give people the confidence that we've got the resources to monitor the impacts on the species from all different pressures, including harvest pressures," she said.
Details on the funding are expected to be released later this week.
© Canadian Press 2005