Trophy Hunting of Bears
In April, the BC government once again opened the gratuitous sport hunt of bears in the Great Bear Rainforest and across BC. The genetically distinct Haida black bear is being targeted as well as the monarch of the rainforest - the grizzly. Even the coastal black bear that carries the recessive gene that produces the pure white bear, or Spirit bear, can legally be killed in over 98% of its range.
In 2007, 430 grizzlies were killed in BC, 363 of them by sport hunters, making the year the highest rate of hunter-caused mortality of this iconic bear since records have been kept.
In 2009, approximately 300 grizzly bears were killed. These sad statistics put the lie to the provincial government's own description of grizzlies as "perhaps the greatest symbol of the wilderness" whose "survival will be the greatest testimony to our environmental commitment." Many of these bears are killed within the 60 provincial parks and conservancy areas where it is still legal to trophy hunt bears and a disturbingly large percentage of the bears killed are reproductive -aged females.
Conservationists and independent scientists have been saying for years that the grizzly sport hunt in its current form reveals a provincial government sorely out of step with reality on three fronts - grizzly bear science, economics, and public opinion. First Nations have been pleading with the government to stop the hunt because, as Art Sterritt from Coastal First Nations describes: "This is not a sport, it is a senseless slaughter. The trophy hunt goes against every moral teaching that we carry and is disrespectful to our culture and values."
For decades, wildlife management and regulation has been governed more by politics than by anything resembling sound scientific reasoning, despite the fact that COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the British Columbia Conservation Data Centre consider grizzlies a species of special concern.
In 2004 the European Union banned the importation of grizzly bear parts from BC over concerns that bear populations are not being managed sustainably. While grizzlies are listed as a species of special concern in Canada, they receive no legal protection under provincial or federal law. Government policy makers continue to use flawed methodology, speculation and conjecture instead of peer-reviewed science to establish grizzly bear population estimates. They argue that grizzly bear hunting is important economically when it is abundantly clear that bears are worth more to the economy alive than dead. They also say there is a social or historical imperative to maintain the hunt, when it is also obvious that a majority of British Columbians and international tourists would rather see our bears alive and protected.
Male grizzlies have large home ranges, as large as 4,000 square kilometres, making them extremely susceptible to habitat fragmentation through resource extraction and road building. In this light, sport hunting can have a critically detrimental impact. Because grizzlies reproduce slowly, they also recover slowly from human-induced mortality. Furthermore, the use of boats, trucks, and blinds to stalk bears, as well as the practice of baiting of bears have, in some cases, created a modern hunt that is too efficient, tipping the balance dangerously in favour of humans.
On this point, a critical review of the BC government's 1994 Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, written by renowned bear scientists Drs. Brian Horejsi, Lance Craighead, and Barrie Gilbert, is as relevant today as when it was first released in 1998. As the authors wrote more than 10 years ago, "the history of population estimates in BC has consistently erred on the side of under-estimating mortality and over-estimating population size." Early estimates were based on the number of bears killed, which was arbitrarily set at a mortality rate of 5%, meaning, absurdly, that the estimated population always matched the mortality.
Between 1972 and 1979, the province declared the total population of grizzlies to be 6,660. In 1990, that number doubled to 13,160, using the same flawed habitat suitability-based model. Today, government continues to increase the estimate and has recently increased acceptable human- caused mortality rates to 9%. Essentially, the BC government has found that it is much easier to artificially increase the number of bears in BC and subsequent mortality targets than to protect bear habitat or eliminate the hunt.
In 2007, Kootenay-based wildlife biologist Dr. Michael Proctor used a method called DNA mark and recapture to survey grizzly bears in the Purcell Mountains. He came up with "estimates considerably lower than Provincial estimates." Where government biologists said that grizzly bears were at 93% of their habitat potential in the Central Purcell Mountains, Proctor's results indicated a much lower number at roughly 54%, putting bears in this region of southeastern BC close to the 50% mark - the threshold for threatened status. Proctor's research is particularly significant considering that the province used inflated grizzly bear population estimates as a cornerstone for its environmental approval of the controversial Jumbo Glacier ski resort proposal.
Political interference has also trumped science when it comes to following through on commitments to establish special management areas for grizzly bears. As far back as 1998, Drs. Horejsi, Craighead, and Gilbert noted that the British Columbia Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy did well at documenting the threats facing grizzlies, but lacked the necessary regulatory teeth to implement landscape-based conservation measures. Indeed, as the reviewing scientists noted, the government highlighted the strategy's own limitations when it candidly admitted that it would not impose any new regulatory limitations on land use, such as logging, mining, and other industrial scale development, to protect grizzly bears.
Early in 2001, following widespread public outrage over grizzly bear mismanagement and government incompetence on this issue, the outgoing New Democratic Party heeded the demands of 68 professional biologists and established a three-year moratorium on hunting grizzly bears "pending completion of comprehensive population studies in the province's six bio-regions." Just six months later, one of the first acts of the newly elected BC Liberals was to reinstate the trophy hunt. "The previous New Democratic Party government imposed the three year moratorium for political reasons," then Water, Land and Air Protection minister Joyce Murray stated disingenuously. Well over 2000 grizzly bears have now been killed for sport in BC because of Premier Campbell's crass political knee-jerk reaction to an NDP decision.
The second pillar of government grizzly bear management to crumble is economics. The continuation of grizzly bear sport hunting for the benefit of a handful of guide-outfitters and wealthy, mostly foreign, clients is predicated on some troubling and false assumptions about the economic benefits of grizzly bear hunting versus viewing. The enduring provincial government myth that the grizzly bear sport hunt is an important economic contributor fails to hold up under scrutiny, as a 2003 study by conservationists suggests. While direct revenue from the grizzly bear hunt is estimated to be approximately $3.3 million, grizzly bear viewing currently brings in roughly $6.1 million. Dean Wyatt, owner and manager of Knight Inlet Lodge, says he has hosted 16,000 guests since 1998, when he bought the lodge and introduced bear viewing to the Glendale River and estuary.
"Our guests are shocked when they hear that we're shooting grizzlies. Many of these people come from countries that have lost most of their large carnivores," Wyatt says of his mostly British, Australian, and European clientele. "The government has always thrown economics in our face, now we're proving that there's more money in viewing."
There's no doubt, provincial government policy shows a bias against grizzly bear viewing even though the sector is expected to grow in economic importance and proposes a much more sustainable and humane way for the general public to enjoy grizzlies than a limited entry sport trophy hunt. The Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia lists 11 member companies and the industry is growing exponentially.
Flaunting Public Opinion
Clearly, BC citizens expect much more in terms of protecting grizzly bears. In fact, while wealthy trophy hunters fly in from around the globe to shoot bears in BC, an overwhelming majority of citizens are in support of an outright ban on grizzly bear sport hunting in British Columbia. According to a random poll conducted by Ipsos Reid in 2009, 79% of British Columbians oppose the trophy hunt of bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. Five other polls have been done since 2000 on this issue, and they all show the vast majority of British Columbians oppose the trophy hunt, including a majority of BC-registered hunters.
British Columbia supports one of the greatest diversity of bears in the world, however, our government continues to treat bears as an expendable resource. The science behind the population estimates on which annual hunting rates are based is flawed, and arguments in support of grizzly bear hunting are based on false assumptions about the economic importance of the hunt. Clearly, a growing number of people believe it is time to end the trophy hunt before these animals are pushed to the brink of extinction or extirpated as they have been elsewhere in the continent.
Why do we allow the bear hunt to continue? This question has been put to government by over 100,000 people in recent months, and they have yet to be provided with an answer that addresses the three pillars outlined here.
Ian McAllister is the co-founder of Pacific Wild, www.pacificwild.org a wildlife conservation group based out of the BC central coast. He is a co-author of the recently released Salmon Bears, Giants of the Rainforest, (Orca Books).