Friday, December 21, 2012

Khutzeymateen 2013 - Grizzlies and Wolves

As we wind down towards Christmas and the start of a new year, I thought I'd throw out a quick note about what's left for those of you interested in joining me on a wildlife photography tour or photo workshop next year in 2013.

I currently have one spot that's just come available (due to a cancellation) on one of my most popular photo tours, the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Photography Tour from May 8th-16th in the world famous Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary.

Now I would love to show you the thousands of amazing images I got on last May's inaugural trip to this magical valley of grizzlies and wolves, but the truth is that every time I look at the folder-upon-folder-upon-folder of images to edit, I get bogged down trying to sort through all the gems.  I have managed to edit one measly folder from the first two days of shooting, so here are a few that you may not have seen yet:

A grizzly digs for clams on the intertidal flats near the Khutzeymateen in the Great Bear Rainforest

A wild coastal grey wolf walks the shoreline at low tide in the Khutzeymateen in the Great Bear Rainforest

A cute grizzly cub eyes us warily near the Khutzeymateen in the Great Bear Rainforest

I think this is one of the most spectacular trips I offer, so if you're interested in scooping up that final spot for May 2013, please let me know right away.

I also have a few spots still available on my August 2013 landscape photography workshop in the stunning Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia with CMH Summer Adventures.  If flitting about in a helicopter with me taking photos of beautiful mountains, hiking in flower-filled meadows, and relaxing back in a 5-star luxury remote mountain lodge is your idea of a good time, then I'd highly recommend you grab a spot on this trip while they're still available.  Both 2011 and 2012 sold out.

Pretty terrible scenery to photograph on the Bugaboos landscape photography workshop

And finally, I've still got a few spots available on next October's Jasper wildlife photography workshop.  This year we had a ridiculous amount of snow (it snowed every single day), but in normal years we usually have a combination of snow and no-snow locations where we can go to try to photograph bighorn sheep in their rut, as well as elk, moose, deer, mountain goat, and even bears and wolves.

An October 2011 participant in the Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop photographs a calf moose

If any of these spots interests you for next year, please don't hesitate to contact me directly. 

Have a wonderful holiday season everyone!

John

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Canon 400mm f2.8 vs 600mm f4 - First Thoughts

Long lenses. Wildlife photographers waste their days dreaming of long glass like teenage sports stars waste theirs dreaming they'll one day be playing alongside Sid, Kobe, or even Lionel.

The sight of them (the lenses AND the stars) is enough to make grown men (and women) weep for joy.

And so it almost seemed unfair last week when I got to march out of The Camera Store (a special thank you to Dean Rumpel and Peter Jeune for trusting that I wouldn't have an ebay fire sale later that afternoon) in Calgary, Alberta with two brand new gigantic, sexy lenses in tow to test to my heart's content for a weekend in the mountain parks.  I felt like a rock star walking out of the store with $10K worth of gorgeous glass in each hand.

I spent the first day of 'testing' with both lenses sitting in my office in plain view. On one side, the long, lean beautiful Canon 600mm f4 IS II lens, the holy grail for most bird photographers.  And on the other, the shorter, stupendous Canon 400mm f2.8 IS II lens, the holy grail for most low-light wildlife photographers.

Door #1 or Door #2? The Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens and the Canon 600mm f4 II lens

That first day of testing consisted of me staring at said lenses and ooh-ing and aah-ing.  I stroked them, I caressed them, and I generally loved them as much as a man could in a few hours time.  Did I actually take any pictures with them?  Nope, that was for the days to come....

So before I get into any kind of review of these lenses, a few disclaimers and some background info:

1. I originally owned the Canon 500mm f4.5 back in the day.  Great lens, lovely and sharp, but fairly heavy. About eight years ago I graduated to the Canon 500mm f4 Version I, which was also a very sharp lens that got me lots of amazing photos over the years.  In the past six years, I mostly shot it on a crop camera, both the Canon 1D III and the 1D IV, effectively turning my 500mm lens into a 650mm lens because of the 1.3x crop factor.

The Canon 500mm f4 IS I was hardly terrible...it captured many of my top-selling shots from the past 8 years

2. I found 650mm to be about perfect for half the things I shot, and to be too much for the other half.  I did use the 1.4x teleconverter with it quite a bit, giving me 910mm at f6.3 (I never shot it at f5.6 because it wasn't sharp enough for my liking at 5.6).  I found the 650mm was often too much lens for photographing in the tight confines of roadways and parkways, which of course is often what you end up doing in the Canadian Rockies -- my backyard.  On the other hand, it was perfect for shooting out of blinds and for photographing on the tundra or the prairies where distance became an issue more often than not.

3. I despise doing regular 'reviews'.  All I care about is what the lens or camera feels like, how it works, and if it works for me.  So what you will not see in these initial thoughts about the Canon 400mm f2.8 II and the Canon 600mm f4 II is a bunch of linear tests showing this lens vs that one testing for sharpness and bokeh and all that crap (which of course is not really crap at all, but for the purposes of this dodgy review, they're crap except for when I talk about them.  Got it?).

4. If you're not a serious shooter or at least a wanna-be serious shooter and you've read this far, it's time to go grab a coffee and do something else.  My Bieber-meets-Sasquatch photos will NOT be in this post (or the next one).

So, first impressions with the Canon 400mm f2.8 II and the 600mm f4 II:

They're light!  Everyone knows that already, that a few years back Canon started spending time figuring out ways to make their big lenses less hefty (because both the original 400 and 600 were too heavy for me to own -- given that I carry my lenses with me a lot out in the field, I simply couldn't justify wrecking my back for those behemoths).

By contrast, when I first picked up the Canon 600mm f4 II, I was a bit shocked at how light it felt.  It felt lighter than my current 500mm f4 I, and that's because it is lighter than the old 500!  So not only did Canon make the new 400 and 600 lenses much lighter than their predecessors, they also made them both lighter than the go-to lens for most wildlife photographers in the past ten years, the Canon 500mm f4 version I.

As I already mentioned, I do carry my gear with me quite a bit, so every extra little bit of weight makes a difference to me.  It's one of the reasons I don't own a Canon 1DX and instead opted for 5D III bodies. So the newer, lighter 400 and 600 open up a world of possibilities for me, given that I'm already used to hauling the old 500 around with me.

In short, weight no longer becomes the issue it once was for these big lenses in terms of which one I will choose to shoot with.  This means that for the first time in my career, I can choose to own either a 400 2.8, a 500 4, or a 600 4...or all THREE.  Haha, don't I wish!

So the next step in testing these lenses was to see how the 400 and 600 held up in prolonged hand-holding.  I am 6'3" and about 190 lbs, so I had no problem at all hand-holding the 400 2.8 for extended periods of time, and this included using both the 1.4x and 2x teleconverters while I photographed a moose in a meadow in Banff.

Conclusion for the Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens in terms of weight and hand-holdability (yes, that's a word!): in terms of weight itself, this lens is a dream.  Because of it's shorter length than the 500mm f4 I, I found it much, much easier to hand-hold for long periods of time than my old 500.

As for the 600 f4, I found it a bit harder to handhold because of the additional length of the lens (it's 4 inches longer than the 400, so the balance of weight is distributed out farther from your body, even though the lens is basically the same weight as the 400).  However, it wasn't any harder to hand-hold than my old 500 was, and I even managed to hand-hold it with the 2X TC on it for about a minute at a time (and that's without a gym visit in the past two years, ulp).

Conclusion for the Canon 600mm f4 II lens in terms of weight and hand-holdability: it's doable.  Not great, but not bad, either.

The next thing I took a look at was sharpness. I was particularly interested to see how sharpness was with the teleconverters on these lenses, as I determined long ago that the only way I will own the Canon 400 f2.8 is if I can get sharp shots from it at 560mm f4 or f4.5 (it's often tough to get razor sharp shots wide open with teleconverters, so I'd already decided that if I could get sharp shots even at f4.5, I'd be happy) and at 800mm f5.6 or f6.3 (again, I'd be happy enough if 6.3 works). I wasn't nearly as concerned for the 600mm, because I'd already be starting with a telephoto the equivalent of the 400 with a 1.4x TC.

Now, a few quick notes:

Disclaimer #1 - despite driving and hiking around for two solid days, I barely found anything to photograph other than tree trunks and signs. What can I say, it's been an extremely slow winter so far near Banff and Canmore (the slowest one I can remember in 18+ years of shooting).

Disclaimer #2 - it appears I did not get the sharpest copy of the Canon 400mm f2.8 to test, as I had trouble getting razor sharp shots out of it even after micro-adjustments with and without teleconverters.  I was unable to get any sharp shots out of it with teleconverters, period.  There were tons of 'pretty sharp' useable shots, but they did not leap off my screen like the shots from the 600 did.

Unprocessed 100% screen capture of a wild, free-roaming propane sign. Canon 400mm f2.8 at 1/6400th at f2.8.

So as a result of these disclaimers, I've gotten another 400 to test that arrived yesterday (it was like Christmas day again in the Marriott household, opening up a cardboard box and tossing aside the bubblewrap to reveal a silver, metallic box containing sheer beauty...but I digress....) and I will not  be discussing the sharpness of the 400 any further until after I get to play with this one.

That said, the 600 was a dream (I know I already used that terminology describing the weight and hand-holdability of the 400, but I couldn't figure out how to improve on saying that).  Super sharp at f4 for the most part, very sharp at f5.6 with the 1.4X TC on (which was more than I could have hoped for), and even occasionally acceptably sharp at f8 and f9 with the 2X TC on (note that I'm using the version III TCs for all of this).

Unprocessed 100% screen capture of the same propane sign. Canon 600mm f4 at 1/2500th at f4 (note sharper edges)

Unsharpened 100% screen capture. Canon 600mm f4 w/ 2X TC at 1/640th at f8.  Acceptable sharpness even wide open.

A 1200mm f8 machine -- I honestly could not stop wiping the drool from my face after seeing this on my screen and imagining the possibilities with this combo and a little post-process sharpening.

Conclusion on the sharpness of the Canon 600mm f4 II: fully drool-worthy.

So what else could I test?  Well, from a practicality standpoint, a big issue for me was whether or not either lens could fit into my main gear bag, a Kiboko Gura Gear 30L bag, or into my main backpacking bag, a Satori f-Stop bag with an XL insert. I currently use half of the Kiboko to store my 500mm f4 lens with one of my 5D III camera bodies when I travel and when I drive around, so this was important to me to be able to still be able to contain all of my gear to one camera bag when needed.

The 600 fit in, but without the camera body attached to it.  Despite the fact this is how many photographers travel with their gear (it's safer to travel with your cameras not attached to lenses in terms of accidental breakage during transit), I prefer to travel with my gear 'ready' and attached, but once I finagled the rest of the Kiboko around, I was still able to fit the 600, two 5D III bodies, a 70-200 f2.8, the 1.4X and 2X TCs, and a 17-40 (along with memory cards, batteries, and rain covers) in the bag.  The 600 still wasn't attached to a body, but I can live with it if this is the lens I end up going with. 

The 400 also fit in, this time with a body attached to it.  Problems?  Nope, basically good to go.

The f-Stop Satori bag was more of a challenge, and I never did get all of my gear to fit in their XL insert, but I had the same issues with my 500mm with this bag.  Still, it's an excellent bag when I just want to carry the big lens and go off into the backcountry with it, as it's far more comfortable as a pack on my shoulders than the Kiboko is.

The next part of my testing involved shooting from a bean bag in my car to see how the lenses performed in terms of functionality and comfort.  This is also a fairly big issue for me, as I shoot a lot from my vehicle when photographing things like wolves and grizzly bears, my bread-and-butter as a wildlife photographer.

YAY!  Some actual wildlife to shoot...Canon 400mm f2.8 at 1/2500th at 2.8 off a beanbag

Both lenses proved to have some issues in this regard when compared to my current 500 f4 I. First, the added length of the 600 makes it much harder to 'store' on the seat beside you or in the back seat.  It's not as readily accessible for quick wildlife shooting in the heat of the moment in that rather than just grab and shoot with it like I can with my current 500, I continously found myself grabbing, making-sure-I-didn't-slam-it-against-something-inadvertently-while-I-was-bringing-it-to-the-beanbag, and then shooting.  However, I think I could work around this and get used to it over time.

The 400 proved to be even more of a challenge because of where their focus ring is situated (more about this in the next few paragraphs).  It is almost impossible to shoot off of a beanbag with this lens without having the focus ring rub on the bag and override your autofocus, whether you're shooting in One Shot or AI Servo modes.  What does that mean in layman's terms?  That you miss shots because of it, getting more soft, out-of-focus shots than you should in a shoot.

So this brings me to my biggest complaint about both the 400 f2.8 and the 600 f4 (and even the new 500 f4): they all still have FTM focus override that you cannot disable.  So what the heck does that mean?  It means that at any time that you are shooting, if you accidentally touch, move, feel, nick, or blow on the focus ring (that giant black ring that is dead center on all the lenses, right where your hand wants to go to hold, balance or temper the lens), you risk having the full-time manual focus override kick in, ruining your autofocus.

A quick example using the 400 f2.8: you are using perfect big lens technique (hand on the lens, lens on a tripod) shooting a big bull elk.  The elk shifts a bit, so you refocus (One Shot, Servo, shutter button, back button focus -- it doesn't matter) using autofocus, but at the same time, your hand moves just a smidge on top of the lens, accidentally nicking the focus ring, which is super sensitive on the 400 2.8.  The result?  The focus ring will override your autofocus, even if just for a split second, and you might miss that amazing moment when the breath comes out silhouetted against the dark background.

So is it a major oversight on Canon's part?  Absolutely.  I can't think of a single time I have EVER used the focus ring and manual focus override to 'fine-tune' my focusing after autofocus has already locked on to a spot.  If I think autofocus has locked on to the wrong spot, I simply refocus using autofocus on a slightly different part of the animal.  What I do not ever do, is then manually refocus to fine tune things...why not?  Because viewfinders these days are extremely difficult to manually focus through, and because most of these manual focus rings are so sensitive to the touch that it's very tough to manipulate them precisely. 

If I really need to use manual focus, I will flick the switch from AF to MF and go to town.  End of story.  There are those that will argue that if there's a branch or blades of grass in the way that it's necessary to be able to override autofocus, but for those rare cases, I simply switch over to manual focus completely.  Takes me a millisecond to flick that switch.  The bottom line?  I was extremely disappointed that this FTM focus override cannot be disabled on these new lenses, as it's a serious impediment to wildlife photographers who find themselves shooting off of beanbags with any regularity.

Will this FTM focus override stop me from buying one of these new lenses?  No, likely not.  I used clear plastic tape as a workaround for my current 500 (which also has FTM focus override) to 'tape' the focus ring in place so that it couldn't move when I didn't want it to, and I'll likely try the exact same thing with the 400 I'll be testing over Christmas. 

I did also find that the 400 2.8 had one other flaw in its design: the lens foot is not positioned very well for balancing the lens on a gimbal-type ballhead like a Jobu or a Wimberley.  This holds particularly true when you've using either TC with the lens, as the center of weight for the combo is quite a bit further back on the lens from where the center of the lens foot is.  I do think it's workable if I can find a long enough lens plate, but for a $10K lens, I shouldn't have to worry about stuff like that.

However, if my taped-down focus ring works on the new test 400, and if I can get sharp shots with it with and without TCs, then I'll be down to decision time.  Which will it be, the 400? 500? or 600?

My decision will be made somewhat easier by the fact that there don't seem to be any new 500s available anywhere in North America right now, and there's no ETA on their arrival.  That's why I didn't test a Canon 500mm f4 version II.

Regarding the 400 and the 600 that I have been testing, I'm not sure which way I'm leaning yet.  Truthfully, driving around with both lenses ready-to-go on my back seat was incredible, despite the fact I hardly saw a thing to photograph.  I was ready for low-light close-to-the-road action with the 400 f2.8, yet I was also ready for a pack of wolves to cross a river at 400m out to my side with the 600 f4.  Can I afford both?  Probably not.  Will I try to afford both?  Maybe :-)

I'll post some results from my 400 2.8 testing in the New Year.  Until then, happy shooting everyone, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and that at least a few of you gleaned some interesting information from this quasi-review.

[you can now view the second part of this Canon supertelephoto lens review here]

Merry Christmas,

John

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The Raven hits London!

As many of you already know from my many posts back in November, a raven image of mine called "Fluff-Up" won a top prize in the BBC's 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

What I didn't realize at the time was how much attention the raven would get after-the-fact as one of the showpiece images of the competition on their marketing and merchandise campaigns. I recently got this email from friends vacationing in London, England from British Columbia:

"We're in the middle of our European tour and are staying in London for couple of weeks. We've seen John's puffy raven absolutely all over the town, there are huge pictures in the tube and they're in all sorts of different places. We went to see the exhibition at the Natural History Museum and it was amazing. And the raven seems to be the biggest hit - they have created all sorts of merchandise with that image (hope you're getting some royalties!). We saw notebooks, bags, stickers, postcards, fridge magnets, calendars,puzzles and even an iPhone screen cover. I can't even remember all the stuff they had at the museum store."

"Fluff-Up" is apparently featured on billboards all over London, England promoting the exhibition

The sign for the shop at the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum shop

For those of you that aren't lucky enough to be in England to visit the exhibition at the Natural History Museum, you can also catch it at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC for the next few months.

You can also order "Fluff-Up" products from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year's e-Shop, including a fantastic book that showcases the 2012 winners.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

John

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wolf Live Contest Winners

Last week, in an effort to raise awareness of the wolf kill contest in Fort St. John and the Draft Management Plan for the Grey Wolf in BC, I offered up a Wolf "Live" Contest providing each of you with a chance to win one or more of my wolf prints.

To say that the contest was successful would be an understatement: it generated more than 250 emails to the Premier of British Columbia and the various Ministers involved in the management plan.  Coupled with news yesterday that over 2,500 people submitted Feedback to the Draft Management Plan, mostly in support of BC's wolves, and it looks like our voices reached far and wide.  Now we just have to hope that the province listens to us.

BC's NDP party has taken a strong stance against the current Draft Management Plan for Grey Wolves

One interesting note is that the NDP in British Columbia has already come out and taken a stance against the Draft Management Plan, while the Liberal party has been silent to date.  Next spring's election in BC should be interesting as the Liberals continue to waffle on big issues like the Enbridge pipeline while the NDP has come out swinging in support of protecting our environment first and foremost.

And Rich Peterson, who was targeted directly by me in my original blog post as a primary sponsor of the ridiculous wolf kill contest, has also been silent to date, only sending out one email that I know of in response to the barrage of emails he originally received (and refusing all media interviews).  His one responding email was ironic in that he asked the person he emailed (the mother of a fellow photographer that wrote to him questioning his motives and logic behind the wolf kill contest) if they had a "degree in Wildlife Management", intimating that she had no say in the wolf matters up there without having said degree -- so why is that ironic?  Because guess who does have a degree in Wildlife Management (Cal-Berkeley/UBC 1994) and guess who never heard a peep from this man?  Me!

Anyways, without further adieu, let's get to the winners!  The grand prize winner of a 16" x 24" wolf photograph from my collection of over a thousand wild wolf images is Liz Glazier from British Columbia!  Congratulations Liz!

Let's hope wolves like this one in Yoho National Park soon do not have to worry about stepping over a park border
The two runner-up winners are Ben Whittaker from Ohio and Jesse Watkins from Alberta.  Ben wins two 8"x12" wolf prints, while Jesse wins one.  Can each of you please contact me directly to collect your prize, thank you!

And thank you again to each of you for helping in this fight, it was uplifting to see the response and to know that a small grassroots campaign like this can make a difference. I will do my best to keep each of you up-to-date on future wolf and bear issues that are near and dear to my heart.

Sincerely,

John

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Win a 16"x24" Print in my Wolf "Live" Contest

In protest of the ridiculous Fort St. John wolf kill contest that I wrote about last week, I have decided to step out of the box a bit and offer up a 'Wolf LIVE Contest', featuring a grand prize 16" x 24" wolf print out of my collection of more than 1800 wolf images (including a number of 'never-been-seen-before' images of wild wolf pups and entire wolf packs).

Want to win a 16" x 24" print of one of my wolf images? Then read on below!

The contest is simple, quick, and easy.

Here's the deal: I felt I needed to do something to entice all of you to forward emails and submit your comments to the British Columbia government stating your opposition to the Draft Wolf Management Plan as it's currently written, and asking for a number of amendments to it. So please read my blog post below and then email the ministers with your comments (I've given you their email addresses along with a form letter you can use). As long as you make sure to CC me on that email at johnemarriott@gmail.com, you'll automatically be entered. That's it, that's all! (Contest closes Friday, December 7th).

The grand prize winner will be drawn from all of the 'email entries' I receive and will win a 16" x 24" signed lustre wolf print from my collection (including shipping anywhere in Canada, the US, or overseas).  There will also be a secondary prize for one runner-up who will win two 8" x12" prints from my wolf photo collection (this will also include shipping anywhere in Canada, the US, or overseas).

So here are the details:

Write to:

Premier Christy Clark and the Minister of the Environment (Terry Lake), the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources (Steve Thomson), and the Minister of Tourism (Pat Bell)

Email addresses:

TO: premier@gov.bc.ca
CC: env.minister@gov.bc.ca, steve.thomson.mla@leg.bc.ca, pat.bell.mla@leg.bc.ca, Rob.Fleming.mla@leg.bc.ca, Adrian.Dix.mla@leg.bc.ca, johnemarriott@gmail.com

To the Premier of British Columbia,

I am writing to object to the proposed Draft Management Plan for the Grey Wolf in British Columbia.

I am against this plan for a number of reasons and am forwarding you some recommendations that I feel should be a part of any wolf management plan moving forward in the province of British Columbia.

These recommendations include, first and foremost, the establishment of large parts of the province where wolves are protected from hunting and trapping so that they may develop natural packs and behaviour. These wolves can then be studied to provide benchmarks for scientific research moving forward and can be promoted as areas in which people can watch wolves.

I would also like to recommend that all aerial hunting and killing of wolves, as well as all trapping using leg-hold traps or snares, be stopped immediately and removed entirely from any future wolf management plan.

By the draft Plan's own admissions, 11 years of killing wolves to save caribou has not worked. These programs have failed and should not be continued. In fact, your government has acknowledged that the primary cause for the decline in the province's mountain caribou population is a loss of habitat, not wolf predation. Without this critical habitat protection, which would mean restricting atv and snowmobile access, halting all resource development, and completely removing all road access, then there is no scientific basis for continuing with wolf culls to try to save the endangered caribou.

Several other recommendations I feel would be necessary in the wolf management plan moving forward include:
  • Require all wolf hunters to obtain a species specific license for wolves and reinstate wolf quotas, bag limits, restricted seasons, and mandatory reporting of kills.
  • Continue and enhance funding for government programs compensating ranchers for losses to wild predators.
  • Fund an adequate Conservation Officer Service. The Conservation Officer Service should not partner with vested interests such as ranchers.
  • Provide education and incentives to ranchers to improve animal husbandry practices and provide a better level of protection for their cattle using methods that have been successful elsewhere, such as improved fencing, and the use of guard dogs and shepherds.
  • Make wolf kill contests illegal and ban all predator hunting contests in the province.
It is time that British Columbia stepped into the 21st century with its wildlife management plans and rewriting the Draft Management Plan for the Grey Wolf in British Columbia to include these recommendations would be a good first step. I feel it would much better represent what the people of British Columbia and of Canada would like to see in regards to wolf management.

Thank you, sincerely,

[Your Name]
[Your Location]

If you have time, please also include a short sentence in regards to where you are located. If you are from British Columbia, then please indicate if this wolf management plan will be a major issue for you come voting time next year (and consider including the email address of your local MLA). And if you are from out of BC, please indicate what you will consider doing if the wolf management plan is not rewritten -- for myself, that will include a full travel boycott of northern BC as I've already expressed on my Wolf Kill Contest blog entry.

Also note that you can choose to change the first bullet point if you believe that all wolf hunting should be stopped in BC.  I'd love that, personally, but wanted to take baby steps before giant leaps.

Thank you very much everyone, let's hope that we can make a difference and bring some sense back to British Columbia's wolf management practices.

Sincerely,

John
[Note: we're up over 100 emails submitted in less than 24 hours, great work everyone!]