What does it take to catch a night hunter?
'It's a serious safety issue,' says veteran officer
The animals freeze as an intense ray of light hits them, and in return two glowing eyes shoot back through the dark. The glare of the spotlight is mesmerizing for the deer sprinkled through the fields of southwestern Manitoba.
Conservation officer Shaun Bobier lights up a few of the deer as his truck passes down a dirt road beside a farm field.
A blast of light in the night significantly improves the odds of shooting an elk, deer or moose, Bobier says.
"It is definitely that much easier to hunt if you can drive down roads and shine a light into the eyes of an animal that doesn't run away. You have all kinds of opportunity to shoot it. I think that's the biggest draw," Bobier says.
"The other part is if you want to access somebody's private land to hunt, what better time to do it than the middle of the night when there is no one around?"
On a Wednesday evening, with the temperature hovering around –18, Bobier and several other conservation officers have set up a trap to lure poachers and night hunters into taking a shot in the dark.
You can't see the life-size battery-powered deer decoy stationed perhaps 20 metres off the gravel road — unless you light it up with a spotlight.
A blast of million-plus candle power illumination brings the bogus Bambi into view and its eyes glow like the real thing.
"It is hard on the decoys. They take a lot for the team, that's for sure," Bobier says with a wry smile.
He see them as a critical tool for catching night hunters.
"It's hard for anyone to talk their way out that they weren't hunting when they've shot the decoy," Bobier says with a grin.
Despite being able to joke about the decoys, the veteran officer is blunt about the dangers of night hunting.
"It's a serious safety issue to me," Bobier says.
In 2016, 44 people were charged with night hunting and another seven with dangerous hunting. The numbers are lower so far in 2017 — as of Nov. 6, 23 people had been charged with night hunting.
Suspect speeds off
In addition to requiring some late-night hours, the job of a CO can also be downright unsafe at times.
Though the officers had aerial support, the suspect slipped away.
Despite the close call, working in the dark and chasing people who are always armed, Bobier says he doesn't get scared.
"Just cautious," he says.
Manitobans who live in cities and towns may pay little attention to the issue of night hunting, but in rural areas it is a significant concern that has resulted in fatalities.
A 24-year-old Sioux Valley First Nation man was shot while hunting in the woods northwest of Brandon in 2016 and a 35-year-old man from Fort Alexander was killed in a nighttime hunting incident on Crown land north of Powerview in 2010.
Just last month, a 16-year-old was badly wounded after a hunter allegedly took a shot after sunset.
In addition to the people shot, there are also lots of reported close calls.
The Manitoba Wildlife Federation has shared the story of ranchers Victor and Doreen Sliworsky, who were sleeping in their home near Winnipegosis, Man., one night in September 2015 when a rifle bullet tore through their bedroom, missing Doreen's head by half a metre.
Landowners have reported rounds fired through their residences and equipment, their fields torn up by vehicles and piles of animal guts on their land.
The wildlife federation has led a campaign to ban night hunting entirely and the Manitoba Metis Federation has voted to ban the practice of using spotlights to hunt at night.
Wildlife federation demands action
Wildlife federation executive director Brian Kotak was hunting in the rural municipality of Piney this past weekend and heard rifle fire into the evening, before the season for that class of weapon had opened.
Kotak says night hunting is "rampant" in parts of southern Manitoba and he was "hopeful" when former minister of sustainable development Cathy Cox announced at the federation's annual meeting in April 2017 that the province would ban night hunting by this fall.
"That pledge never materialized and our wildlife and population continue to be at risk," Kotak says.
"The premier needs to show some leadership on this public safety issue. Other provinces have."
Kotak also says the government needs to increase the number of conservation officers to enforce the current rules.
'It's becoming a race war'
Night hunting came into focus for more Manitobans when Premier Brian Pallister set his sights on the problem earlier this year at a Progressive Conservative party lunch in Virden.
"What is fair about going out and shooting at a pair of eyes in the night with a high-powered rifle? What's sustainable about that?" Pallister asked the group at St. Mary's Anglican Church hall. "This is a poor practice, a dumb practice and an unfair practice. How's that? Am I mincing my words? It's just not right. It should stop.
"We're organizing to bring Indigenous people together who say the same thing I just said, because it's becoming a race war and I don't want that," Pallister said.
CBC News asked for a comment on a night hunting ban from Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, but were told by a spokesperson Dumas was unavailable and "the AMC does not have a position on the ban of night hunting."
A written statement from Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says "all Manitobans have a right to safety" and the government is consulting with various stakeholders.
"We have met with elders and band leadership of First Nations communities, the Manitoba Metis Federation and municipal councils on finding a sustainable balance between preserving harvesting rights and ensuring public safety and healthy wildlife populations," wrote Squires.
- Manitoba Metis Federation bans spotlighting
- Night hunting practice of spotlighting has 'got to end,' says Manitoba Wildlife Federation
Back on the cold, dark road, Shaun Bobier hesitates for a moment when asked if Pallister's comments have impacted the work of conservation officers, then says it hasn't.
"I think I know what you are getting at there, and it didn't really interfere with our work and the relationships that we have," Bobier says.
As for who is night hunting, whether Indigenous or otherwise, Bobier dispels the myth that the typical offender is a habitual criminal for whom poaching and firing weapons in the dark is simply another offence among many.
"That's not the way it works. It's everybody, all different segments. Whether you have a record, don't have a record, go to church on Sunday — doesn't matter," Bobier says.
As for a complete ban on night hunting, Bobier says it would have a positive impact on his work.
"I definitely think it would have a bearing on night hunting and the amount of night hunting that goes on," Bobier says.
Bobier said he and his fellow officers have the right gear and use proper tactics to go after night hunters, but could always use a few more staff to pursue offenders.
"The more manpower or people power you have, obviously it doesn't matter what you are doing, the better you will be — the more effective you will be. Other than that, we are supplied with what we need," he says.
Around 3:30 in the morning, the officers call it a night and converge on the decoy to pull it out of its perch overlooking the road. In the dark, the team is still in good spirits and they laugh despite not nabbing a night hunter on this patrol.
The officers swap stories about past patrols and the crazy things that men and wildlife do.
Whatever governments decide, the COs will be out again with their decoy deer, hidden in the bush off Manitoba roads, looking for unsafe hunters.