Hunting for Habitat: The Rise and fall of an Alberta Proposal for the Private Production of Ecological Goods and Services

Environment, Frontier Centre, Natural Resources, Publications, Uncategorized

Executive Summary

Farms and ranches produce not only the familiar agricultural goods but also such ecological goods and services as healthy watersheds, wildlife habitat and wildlife. While farmers and ranchers are paid for their agricultural products, there has traditionally been no market for their ecological goods and services. This is a matter of concern when economic pressures, often rooted in urban centres, degrade the capacity of landscapes that are needed to produce ecological goods and services for those same urban centres. Several mechanisms have been devised to provide financial returns for the private production of ecological goods and services, thus ensuring that ecological costs are no longer an externality that can be ignored in market transactions. Hunting for Habitat, the name for one such mechanism recently considered in Alberta, sought to provide some market incentives to enhance the private production of wildlife habitat, with corollary benefits for other ecological goods and services, while simultaneously enhancing public access to wildlife resources on private lands. The competing interests were difficult to reconcile, especially given that it has hitherto been mostly illegal for landowners to receive any financial consideration for giving hunters access to the publicly owned wildlife upon their lands (in contradistinction to their ability to charge companies for access to publicly owned minerals beneath it). This paper analyzes the politics involved in the Hunting for Habitat proposal and compares the proposal with other ways of rewarding the private production of ecological goods and services.


We inhabit an increasingly urbanized world, with over half of the world’s people and about 80 per cent of Canadians living in urban centres (Gibbins 2007). The cities in which we live depend in myriad ways on a surrounding countryside that is increasingly foreign to most of us except for its recreational potential. We urbanites may travel to enjoy amenities such as lakes, streams, fields and mountains, but fewer and fewer of our rural excursions are visits to the family farm or ranch, because our families have been urban for generations. We are aware that our supermarket purchases originate on working agricultural lands—often from around the world (even for a single meal)—but many of us do not appreciate what those working landscapes contribute to the clean air and water we expect and take for granted in our cities. Indeed, we often erode and degrade the local and regional production of such ecological goods and services by exerting our economic muscle in ways that turn sensitive landscapes from agricultural to recreational or development purposes. Cottages, condos, golf courses, mineral development, forestry and the like fragment the landscape in ways that undermine its ecological capacity.

What to do? Where public lands are available in sufficient quantity, one answer is to rely on them for the provision of ecological goods and services, typically by setting some of them aside as parks or preserves of various kinds and regulating the type and quantity of development on the remaining public lands. This valuable response is obviously not possible in jurisdictions with little or no public land, and it often will not suffice even where public lands are substantial. In southern Alberta, for example, the system of parks (national and provincial) and other public land is, thankfully, significant, particularly in landscapes not amenable to tillage for crop production. Nevertheless, private agricultural lands, particularly privately owned native rangelands, provide critical habitat for many wildlife species and sustain the health of important watersheds. Such private land represents about 75 per cent of the agriculturally developed area of the province (known as the White Area1). The question thus becomes how to stabilize and improve the ecological contributions of privately owned rural lands in the face of mounting pressure to fragment and develop these landscapes.2

This paper examines Hunting for Habitat (HFH), a 2008 policy proposal designed to contribute to rural stabilization in southern Alberta. HFH, which sought to give rural landowners a modest commercial stake in the public wildlife resource, was one-half of the two-pronged Open Spaces Alberta (OSA) initiative.3 The other half of OSA—the Recreation Access Management Program (RAMP)—proposed to assist enrolled landowners in managing hunting access on their lands and provide them with modest financial compensation for the costs and inconveniences associated with such access. RAMP, which was tested in two areas in southern Alberta from 2009 to 2010,4 was an access management program, not a land stabilization program. Its financial compensation component was too small to represent a land stabilizing form of diversification for many landowners. HFH, by contrast, sought to give large landowners (or landowner co-operatives) an economic stake in the public wildlife resource. HFH pilot projects were to test the proposition that the opportunity to realize some return from hunting would not only diversify economic opportunities for rural landowners, thereby perhaps stabilizing otherwise marginal ranches, but would also give landowners incentives to maintain and enhance ecologically productive landscapes (Anderson and Huggins 2006).

The HFH component of the OSA initiative raised considerable controversy just before and during the 2008 Alberta election, and consequently the government shelved it. Even if HFH represented a substantively valuable policy initiative—and this is obviously a matter of considerable controversy—the development process was procedurally flawed, because it lacked the public engagement that might have generated trust. This dimension of the policy’s failure is critical and deserves full treatment in a separate paper. Here, we limit ourselves to examining some of the substantive policy conundrums and political positions generated by the HFH proposal. We do so, moreover, from a particular vantage point: we both served on the Land and Wildlife Stewardship Working Group (LWSWG) that produced the OSA proposal.5

This paper proceeds in several stages. First, we describe the land-use and ecological problems in southern Alberta, the part of the province to which HFH was primarily directed. Second, we briefly situate the Hunting for Habitat proposal within the broader range of policies aimed at stabilizing ecologically productive open spaces in the threatened landscape found in southern Alberta. The policy arsenal is large and has many valuable components. The market-based approach represented by HFH is, by itself, no magic bullet. While HFH cannot fully address the problems on its own, however, it has its comparative strengths and might thus make a useful contribution. Third, we describe HFH’s attempt to balance public and private interests. While the proposal gave landowners a commercial interest in wildlife and their habitat, it rejected a complete privatization of wildlife. The proposal strongly affirmed the continued public ownership of and interest in wildlife. Far from excluding or diminishing the tradition of unpaid public hunting, the proposal saw a limited commercial sector as a way of subsidizing and enhancing public access to some wildlife on private lands. That is not how critics received the proposal, however. In the paper’s fourth section, we describe the political opposition that resulted in shelving the HFH proposal. This opposition came primarily from hunters who saw HFH as a threat to Alberta’s hunting tradition and to a valuable hunting economy, the very values that the program’s backers thought they were promoting and protecting. The fifth section of the paper analyzes this quarrel among hunters.

In our concluding remarks, we suggest that, while HFH has failed for the foreseeable future, finding other ways to harness private interest to the public good has enduring value in the effort to preserve ecologically important open spaces.

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