outhern Ontario hunt clubs have made significant contributions to the conservation of the critical Great Lakes coastal wetlands that are so important to migrating waterfowl. But as more of these hunt clubs are sold to other interests, can this long and storied tradition of conservation continue?
Rob Lozon’s nickname is “Grizz.” He’s worked around Ontario’s Lake St. Clair marshes all his life, including 52 years as a guide at local hunt clubs. Lozon has seen firsthand the benefits hunt clubs provide in conserving important wetland habitat for waterfowl.
“My God, it’s beautiful,” says Lozon. “Water, a real variety of vegetation, areas of food for the birds. We see just about every species of duck: mallard, green-winged teal, Gadwall, bluebills, and pintails by the thousands.”
“I CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE IF THESE ALL DISAPPEAR. ONCE THEY’RE GONE, ALL THE ACRES OF MARSH THEY PROTECTED WILL BE LOST.”
Hunt clubs started to appear in Canada in the nineteenth century. Like-minded waterfowl hunters, with the resources and commitment to do so, bought prime wetland areas where they could pursue their passion. As the nation grew, hunt clubs eventually became pockets of wetland conservation in a sea of agricultural and urban development. Today, many of these clubs are increasingly challenged by difficult economic and social realities. That has Lozon worried.
“I can’t imagine what it’d be like if these all disappear. Once they’re gone, all the acres of marshlands they protected will be lost.”
One of the hunt clubs in Lozon’s neck of the woods is the St. Luke’s Club, located on the east shore of Lake St. Clair and adjacent to the St. Clair National Wildlife Area (NWA). The 553-acre (224-hectare) property has both managed and unmanaged coastal wetland habitat important to mallard, teal and scaup.
St. Luke’s is also part of an extensive system of waterfowl habitats around the lower Great Lakes. Lying beneath the confluence of the Mississippi and Atlantic waterfowl flyways, Great Lakes coastal wetlands rank among the most significant migratory stopover areas on the continent.
For more than a century, St Luke’s has played an important role in conserving these migratory habitats for waterfowl in southern Ontario.
It’s now offered for sale to the highest bidder.
HISTORY OF CONSERVATION
The first hunt clubs in Ontario began in the early 1880s. Waterfowl hunters from both sides of the border, and from all walks of life, started purchasing highly productive wetlands. Local residents shared the vision with the political and business elite. Auto magnate Henry Ford II owned the Mud Creek Club on Lake St. Clair, not surprising given that the Detroit skyline can be seen on a clear day.
By the late 1880s, hunt clubs had evolved into the leading conservation organizations of the day. The Long Point Company, established in 1866 on the north shore of Lake Erie, was among the first to implement habitat improvements. It put an end to illegal logging on Long Point, and introduced what are arguably the first hunting regulations and daily bag limits in Canada.
In addition to protecting wetland habitat, in the early 1960s, the Company transferred land to the Province of Ontario for a provincial park and public waterfowl hunting area. In the 1970s, the Company again transferred land, this time to the federal government for the creation of the Long Point National Wildlife Area (NWA). These moves established long-term protection of the fragile wetland and upland habitats associated with Long Point.
Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) chairman of the board Tom Worden says a hunt club can instill an appreciation for wetlands and the role waterfowlers historically played in wetland conservation. He honed his waterfowling skills as a member of the Turkey Point Company, a hunt club across Long Point Bay from the Long Point Company.
“If not for hunt clubs, I’d be afraid some of those wetlands would be dyked, drained and growing carrots,” says Worden. “Obviously with the hunt clubs there, they weren’t going to let that happen.”
DUC past president, Dr. Duncan Sinclair, agrees. “If it weren’t for the Long Point Company, the whole of Long Point would be cottages from the park right to the lighthouse, a distance of over 25 kilometres.”
Beyond protecting lands to support waterfowl, the hunt clubs’ influence extends beyond their immediate locales. The camaraderie and friendships developed in blinds and around dining room tables led Sinclair and past Ducks Unlimited, Inc. president and fellow Turkey Point Company member Hazard Campbell, to form DUC’s first volunteer chapter.
The Long Point Bay Chapter event held in the fall of 1974 in Tillsonburg became the model for the famous “DUC dinner.” These fundraisers are the cornerstone for other volunteer-led fundraising ventures, such as the Sealed Bid Auction, that have since become important revenue sources to further DUC’s conservation work. Today, DUC’s 6,200 volunteers host 450 events every year in communities across the country.
“When you think of the conservation legacy started by sportsmen through private hunt clubs along the lower Great Lakes, it’s extremely significant, in the thousands of acres,” says Mark Gloutney, DUC’s director of regional operations, Eastern Region. “We need to find solutions to ensure these critical wetlands remain in place for future generations.”
St. Luke’s Club was placed on the open market in 2013. Despite efforts by the membership to keep it going, the decision to sell became inevitable.
“There are competing interests all the time,” says John Sullivan, a retired law enforcement co-ordinator for the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS). Sullivan served much of his 28 years with CWS in these Great Lakes marshes, particularly at the height of fall hunting season. He’s seen wetland drainage occurring as early as the 1970s, to make way for sprawling vegetable farms. “Any time one of these sells, especially when it’s a property near the Lake St. Clair NWA, CWS has concerns,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan points to rising commodity and land prices as part of the reason. It’s expensive to maintain large tracts of quality marshland. To stay financially afloat, some clubs are looking to more lucrative ventures such as selling a portion of their property to turn into agriculture lands, or pulling up stakes and selling everything outright. When agriculture land sells for $20,000 per acre and wetlands sell for $1,500 per acre, it’s easy to see why.
“Our challenge is that if we buy land at farmland values, put a conservation easement on it, and then resell it, we are incurring a cost of up to 75 per cent of the farmland value,” says Gloutney. “The conservation community should not have to bear the burden for protecting coastal wetlands that are critical to the health of continental waterfowl and the Great Lakes ecosystem.”
“If we had effective wetland policies in place, these existing wetlands would be protected and the conservation community could focus conservation dollars on restoration efforts that result in additional wetland habitat.”
Concern over the fate of the St. Luke’s Club is heightened after the recent sale of two hunt clubs in the area. Both were drained and converted to agricultural uses. Not only that, but St. Luke’s is located in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, where in 2010 DUC’s Southern Ontario Wetland Conversion Analysis found that 98.5 per cent of historic wetlands had been lost within that municipality.
FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE
There is no simple answer to address the growing concern about the loss of vital hunt club land. Many current club owners continue to maintain their conservation ethic through partnerships with local stewardship agencies, DUC and others. The goal is to maintain or improve existing habitats, install duck nest boxes and control invasive plants such as phragmites. A number have signed conservation easements so lands are protected for future generations.
DUC is exploring opportunities for partnered securement and/or acquisition of hunt club wetlands. The organization is also working with municipal, provincial and federal governments, hoping to develop a comprehensive wetland policy that significantly strengthens wetland protection measures.
“The St. Luke’s case, and others like it, highlight major gaps in provincial policy intended to conserve Ontario’s most valued wetlands,” Gloutney says, adding that while he is encouraged by recent changes made to the Provincial Policy Statement, he’s concerned that exemptions for certain land uses could still apply. Gloutney points to the imminent sale of St. Luke’s Club as yet another example of the need to continue the conservation legacy that began with hunt club members nearly two centuries ago.
“The substantial growth in human population forecast for the Great Lakes region in the coming decades will also seriously affect remaining wetlands and the waterfowl that depend on them,” Gloutney notes. “That’s why protecting and enhancing our collective investments in these areas is a key component to ensure the landscapes of southern Ontario remain healthy to support waterfowl, wildlife and benefit society as a whole.”