The History of Alberta's Outfitting Industry
One of the first Alberta outfitters to stand out in history is Tom Wilson who, in 1881, joined the survey of what is now the Stoney Indian Reserve near Banff, Alberta. He quickly learned how to pack a horse and followed old Indian trails up the Bow Valley. He is the first individual known to have outfitted for hunting clients in Alberta.
1922: In May of 1922 several guides and outfitters formed the Rocky Mountain Outfitters Association. Their objective was to have one official body to negotiate opportunities and rights with the Dominion and with provincial governments.
During the 1920s and 1930s, outfitted hunting evolved into big business. More and more journalists, including the famous American outdoor writer, Jack O’Connor, took advantage of outfits like Roy Hargreaves, who was based out of Mt. Robson Ranch and hunted along the Alberta/B.C. border.
Hargreaves had previously made a name for himself when he personally guided Bill Chadwick on a 1935 bighorn sheep hunt from Mt. Robson Ranch to Sheep Creek Valley in what is now Willmore Wilderness Park. Chadwick was pleased with this hunt and invited Roy Hargreaves to accompany him on a Stone sheep hunt in B.C.; this expedition became one of the most memorable in history when in 1936 they took the world-record “Chadwick Ram” in the Muskwa Valley, arguably one of the world’s greatest big game trophies.
Hargreaves guided O’Connor on a lengthy hunting trip in 1943. Jack and other journalists wrote articles in numerous outdoor magazines about the wonderful opportunities in Alberta, making hunting our province an increasingly popular hunting destination.
1932: The Alberta Outfitters Association (AOA) was formed to represent the interests of trailmen and set standards for their industry. Members were required to have a certain number of horses and specified equipment. The organization sought to collectively market their product and lobby the government on common issues.
1970: The Alberta government decided there was a need to limit bighorn sheep allocations for non-residents in order to best manage the resource. Most of the active outfitters of that day were allotted six non-resident permits each; these were later reduced to four. Some of these outfitters included Tom Vinson Sr., Roy Trimble, Jim Colosimo, Dave Simpson, Jim Simpson, Charlie Stricker, Bazil Leonard, Chester Sands, Myrtle Ravio, Ed McKenzie, Sammy Sands, Randy Babala and George Kelley. Up to this point in time, no outfitting restrictions had been placed on any other big game species.
By the late 1980s, several outfitting organizations were in existance to represent the interests of outfitters who were not in the AOA. The Professional Outfitters Association of Alberta (POAA) was created under the direction of Leroy Fjordbotten, Minister of the Department of Forestry, Lands and Wildlife to encourage unity and concensus within the industry.
1989: An Outfitter-Guide Policy was developed by government which limited outfitter harvest opportunity. A previously unlimited harvest was replaced with a fixed number of licenses available to outfitters for each species in each Wildlife Management Unit. The distribution of these licenses was to be determined through an auction.
Outfitters, many with generations of history in the business behind them, found themselves competing for the right to ply their trade. No one knew who might be bidding against them, or what the fair market bid price might actually be in a bidding war. However, everyone understood that losing the bid meant an end to their career. The outfitting stakes had never been higher.
On that day when successful bidders were awarded their allocations, the dreams of many outfitters were shattered. The outfitting industry was effectively cut in half. Bitterness, disillusion and resentment were shared by veteran and aspiring outfitters alike, many of whom now found themselves on the outside looking in.
1997: On March 31, five outfitters signed an application to create the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society (APOS). The POAA was absorbed by APOS; the new body was charged with the responsibility of managing the outfitting industry on behalf of the Government of Alberta.
With the purchase of an outfitters license, all outfitters would now become members of APOS and APOS would now collect the annual user fees all outfitters paid for allocations. A percentage of this sum would be retained to fund the daily operations of managing the industry; the remainder is remitted to the provincial government.
A Legacy Fund was created to support initiatives that benefited outfitting, hunting, habitat and wildlife. Its main source of income was derived from the proceeds of the APOS annual convention. Between 2001 and 2010, APOS distributed nearly a million dollars through the Legacy Fund to many worthwhile projects.
A Wildlife Management Fund, was created through negotiations during the 10-year renewal of allocations process. This money is earmarked annually to supplement aerial big game surveys and inventories, and to provide funding for studies of specific wildlife species or issues.
APOS has now emerged as an international leader in the outfitting industry. Within the province, outfitting now contributes in excess of $100 million annually to the Alberta economy.
It’s been more than one hundred years since Tom Wilson provided the first guided hunting excursion on Alberta soil. So much has changed, and yet so much remains the same. Tom would still appreciate the aromas of wood smoke, freshly-baked bread and pure mountain air. He’d be mesmerised by the whistle of an elk, the smell of gunpowder on a frosty morning, and the warmth of the sun in a quiet meadow. Tom would recognize a well-mannered horse, a hunter with scruples, and a guide with a sense of humour. He would be charmed by the satellite phone, awed by GPS, and seduced by a helicopter. One can only guess at his response to gun control, passports, and export permits! A credit card would foul his banking program, and the GST would irritate his western spirit. Tom would, however, be humbled by the sophistication of an industry that can trace its roots to his first Alberta hunt.
The passion of the early pioneers continues to motivate Alberta’s modern outfitters. This passion has been seasoned with the development of APOS’s professional leadership. When matched with spectacular scenery, abundant and diverse wildlife, it’s no wonder that Alberta continues to remain atop the world’s destinations of choice for professionally guided hunting experiences.
Although 100 years is relatively short compared to the history of North America, the commitment of those who lived and outfitted through that time form the foundation upon which today's APOS exists.
Alberta’s booming economy poses many challenges for the hunting community today. Industrial development, sprawling urbanization, and the imposition of competing land uses all impact our wildlife and the outfitting industry. Thankfully, the professionalism of Alberta’s outfitters and their willingness to work collaboratively with government to help ensure a sustainable future for wildlife and outfitted hunting offers great promise that Tom Wilson’s vision will remain a reality for another 100 years.