Hunters and Gatherers is series looking at hunting and fishing in northern Ontario, how Indigenous rights can divide people, how some northerners find ways to share the resources and what sharing the land means for reconciliation.

Northern Ontario farmers frustrated with elk eating their crops have turned to Indigenous hunters for help. They are within their traditional rights to shoot the protected animals, while the non-Indigenous farmers like David Berry are not.

The horse farmer in Parkinson Township north of Iron Bridge is constantly trying to protect his hay fields from the huge herds of hungry elk that have popped up since the animals were reintroduced to Ontario by the government in 2001.

He says it's hard to find a sympathetic ear at the Ministry of Natural Resources

"That is a lost cause. You get nowhere with that," says Berry.

He and several other frustrated farmers along the North Shore of Lake Huron reached out to area First Nations and welcomed hunters onto their properties.

`They find it very strange that I can`t protect my own property`` Berry says of the Indigenous hunters who help him out with the elk.

`That helps. It`s not the solution, but it helps.``

Discrepancies between Ministry numbers and visible elk

Berry says that ministry surveys put the elk population in Parkinson at 46, but his neighbour has counted 120 on his farm alone.

"The MNR has to put more effort in understanding what's going on with the elk. They brought them in here, they turned them loose," Berry sayd.

"'Well, we can't help it if they come on your property' well maybe they can't, but they should have had a whole lot of foresight before they did what they did."

Burwash elk

Elk were reintroduced to several parts of northern Ontario, including in the Burwash area south of Sudbury where this herd is. (Andy Tryon)

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters is worried that with unchecked hunting elk could vanish just a few years after being reintroduced to the north shore and other parts of Ontario.

"It's a major concern because it jeopardizes the restoration efforts in that area. There are thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars spent to restore elk to Ontario and now potentially that population could be in jeopardy," says senior biologist Mark Ryckman.

He sees this situation as a good fit for a rarely used power of governments to infringe on Indigenous hunting and fishing rights guaranteed in the 1990 Sparrow decision in the name of conservation.

"The Sparrow decision says that the government can impose a moratorium once a conservation threshold is reached, but we don`t know what that conservation threshold is," Ryckman says.

"We have people within the ministry itself that are saying they can probably go out and harvest every one of those animals, eliminate it from the landscape and there would be no penalty."

No one from the ministry was made available for an interview, but it did send CBC a statement:

"In April 2001, 47 elk were released by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and the Lake Huron North Shore (LHNS) Elk Restoration Committee in Sault Ste. Marie District as part of Ontario's Provincial Elk Restoration Plan. 

In 2013, MNRF became aware that Indigenous hunters were harvesting elk in Sault Ste. Marie District.

We continue to work collaboratively with Indigenous groups in the Sault Ste. Marie area and the local Elk Advisory Committee regarding the reintroduced elk population."