Why am I writing about the grizzly bear hunt? Hasn't conservation won and hunters lost? It's not that simple.
The grizzly bear (Ursus Arctos) hunt in BC has been a controversial issue for years and with the recent NDP government's decision to ban the trophy hunt altogether there has been a media barrage about the issue. While some applaud the government for its decision, others are not so happy about the ban. A short read at the comment section in any news article shows there are a lot of misconceptions about grizzlies and the trophy hunt in BC.
This isn't a simple issue and I want to shed light on the topic. I'm hoping after reading along you'll have the sense to formulate your own idea and opinion about this issue. I'm hoping that you may read this and go "The governments decision to ban the trophy hunt was a ______ idea and that is because of _________ reason."
How am I biased?
I should begin by explaining that I come to this discussion with my own background and potential biases. I do my best to try and see more than one side of the issue and keep that bias out of the equation but full disclosure here that my background may limit my worldview.
After a lifetime of living around bears, I've been working for numerous years as a grizzly bear viewing guide with Bella Coola's Tweedsmuir Lodge and I study in Outdoor Recreation and Conservation at the University of Northern British Columbia towards a BSc. I live, work and play in the mountains and have travelled in grizzly bear terrain throughout Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia. I was born and raised in a relatively rural community and I've been exposed to numerous dimensions of hunting.
The decision to ban hunting was lauded by some as the urban majority bashing those who live in rural communities, citing a bunch of suburban environmentalists winning out against the hard working people who go to the woods as a way of life. While that is a valid argument, you'll soon learn is there are a lot of dimensions to this issue and those who argue the issue tend to be at polar opposites.
Are there positives sides to trophy hunting?
This piece isn't about to discuss the ethics of hunting or trophy hunting in particular. That's a whole other topic. Rather this piece looks into the sustainability hunting grizzlies and pragmatic conservation.
Trophy hunting is often viewed from the public majority as a human dominant act where the life of the animal is no more than a trophy to place upon a wall, and an experience ratified by the 'thrill of the kill'. It's easy as a population to look in disgust at those who trophy hunt but let's take a second to look at trophy hunting from a different perspective.
Trophy hunting as 'Conservation Hunting'
In some areas of the world, trophy hunting is used for conservation purposes with huge success in restoring animal populations. Namibia is a prime example of such Conservation Hunting where big game hunting licenses for different animals are sold at exorbitantly high prices. The money is then returned towards conservation purposes. Local guides direct the hunter to older animals past their prime. The number of animals hunted is low, selective and although not without flaw, heavily controlled.
The economic aspect provides incentive to support wildlife populations and the funding is directed to anti-poaching. The resulting land conservation has allowed animal population to thrive where other areas without such practices are losing their populations dramatically. In many cases, human development and resource extraction are the greatest threats to these animal populations.
BC has a similar strategy in that grizzly bear tickets are heavily controlled and offered on a lottery basis for residential hunters and a number also allocated to guide outfitters who support their businesses through the selective trophy hunts of various animals, including grizzly. These businesses tend to operate in remote rural areas where economies are either non-existent or dominated by non-renewable resource extraction such as mining. Grizzly hunting provides a renewal tourism revenue that could be sustained much longer and provide much longer-term economic benefit than big open pit mining. In many of these trophy hunting areas, the opportunity for bear viewing is nearly non-existant as the populations of many interior grizzly bears are quite dispersed over large areas.
Many who work as hunting guides or outfitters now feel their jobs are threatened... And what about other provinces/states or territories with grizzly populations in the Yukon, Alberta, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. Now those areas will be under greater pressure for hunting grizzlies as BC no longer allows hunting the trophies.
Many who rely on the hunt for their jobs are worried the ban might extend to them.
And what about poaching in BC? The trophy hunt ban risks creating greater pressures on bears as poaching might increase with the lost opportunities to hunt the bears legally in a controlled manner.
However, unlike Namibia, the BC government's control of the grizzly bear hunt has been flawed in the opinion of numerous scientists in that population estimates are exactly that, estimates. Many would argue that the 400 bears killed or harvested in BC each year in addition to the [up to] ~300 unreported grizzly deaths and ~80 human-caused mortalities is unsustainable. With a population size estimate of possibly up to 15,000 bears, humans may be killing a large portion of the population each year. What's even greater cause to worry is that the population estimates for grizzly bears may be severely outdated or ill-conceived. More on that in a bit.
Similar to Namibia, the government issues license fees to kill grizzly bears but it is unclear where the money goes in BC. In an ideal scenario, the money would be used towards grizzly bear studies, conservation, anti-poaching enforcement, etc. but as far as my research can conclude, the fee acts as a sort of 'grizzly bear tax' with the money going to the government. Government grizzly studies, population monitoring, and conservation enforcement does not seem to be directly supported by the lottery tickets such as in other trophy hunting countries. This is a major flaw if BC wants to conduct "conservation hunting'.
Does hunting grizzlies keep these dangerous animals away from areas of human population?
Are grizzlies dangerous? Yes. Any bear deserves respect. But we too often characterize bears as either vicious dangerous beasts or cuddly beautiful animals, rather than recognizing the spectrum to these terrifying but beautiful animals. The following 2 videos demonstrate that bears present a threat but is a mauling imminent to any who encounter a bear? And do we need a trophy hunt to keep bears at bay and give bears respect of humans? Is it shoot or die; man versus nature?
In my experience, bears being more fearful of humans does not necessarily mean increased safety. Grizzly bears are inherently defensive and respond primarily to large threats through physical dominance. This could mean a bluff charge or an attack. Though these attacks usually do not aim to kill, it doesn't take much for a large bear to inflict mortal damage.
The paper (with abstract shown below) demonstrates some interesting statistics. Grizzlies have been responsible for more attacks per capita but an equal number of fatalities as black bears. However, the large majority of grizzly attacks were defensive sows with cubs, bears defending a carcass or surprised at a close range. Black bears have been more commonly found to be predacious.
If bears are given greater cause to fear humans, they may only be more defensive and more dangerous. Many of my experiences with grizzlies in Bella Coola were in areas where human-bear contact was extremely high but the bears feel unthreatened and attacks are, to my knowledge, nearly non-existent. Such is the case for nearly any bear viewing operation.
Want to stay safe in grizzly country? Travel in larger groups. Most bear attacks happen to groups of 1-2, never to 4 or more. Go slowly; keep your wits about you. The smell of a dead carcass and/or lots of bear signs could be a clue to avoid an area. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Bear spray is useless tucked far way or used improperly, however, used properly, it has been shown to be the Most effective means of fending off a grizzly attack. And whats more it isn't lethal to a bear who's defending itself.
Despite the real fear evoked in a bear charge, a bear means you no real ill will; you've just scared it in its own house. If the bear owned said house with the same rules as in some US states, it would have legal right to kill you in self-defence. The other way around would be construed as murder in that context. I don't mean this to say that animals>humans but I also want to highlight that humans>animals is also not appropriate. Being in bear country requires mutual respect.
So what about hunting grizzlies in BC for sustenance?
Many feel it's wasteful to be allowed to hunt bears in certain areas in BC but to have to wastefully leave behind everything but the meat. Others feel that this meat hunt provides a loophole to trophy hunting or still does not meet the requirements to maintaining healthy bear populations.
Hunting for sustenance is an age old practice and to believe that humans don't play a role in animal populations propels the notion that humans are not a part of nature. Our role in the ecosystem however, has become blurred. There are many who rely on sustenance hunting for their way of life and in some ways, meat garnered locally and sustainably is more environmentally sound. However, should this apply to grizzlies? An indigenous perspective also plays a large role in this discussion given that hunting has been a way of life since time immemorial. More on that perspective further on.
Second hand accounts of grizzly meat have often been described as tough and not really the best meat. Many would argue that black bear, which thrive in much larger numbers have similar meat and provide the sustenance needs of bear hunters. I would personally agree that hunting a bear for just the meat is wasteful of the fur and to not waste creates a loophole in the ban. Allowing the meat hunt and ending the trophy hunt seems defective.
Given that hunting grizzlies for meat is still allowed in BC, it comes down to a numbers game. Can grizzly bear hunting be done sustainably?
How many grizzlies are there?
Populations for grizzlies are largely estimates based on population assessments in certain areas. Those areas have then been used to extrapolate the numbers of similar areas in a cookie cutter manner. This is problematic because in a given year grizzlies may travel as much as 500-square-kilometers in search of food and not every valley is alike with the same population of grizzlies. Population estimates in BC range from 11,000-15,000 to as few as 6,000 bears according to some. Tallying bear population properly is costly, difficult and takes a lot of time.
One thing can be ascertained from all this, the population is unclear and this is highly problematic towards sustaining populations despite hunting.
In the Rocky Mountain National Parks (Jasper, Banff, Kootenay & Yoho) there is an approximate tally of 200 bears that move in and out of the parks. That's about 1 bear per 100 square kilometers or 10,000 hectares. Conversely, the Khutzeymateen valley north of Prince Rupert has a record high density of nearly 45-60 bears for that drainage with about 1 bear per 7 square kilometers or 700 hectares. Either way bears require large range and move long distances. The density of the population may vary greatly.
However, grizzly populations for hunting tickets are divided into relatively small parcels and for each such parcel 1 to 20+ grizzly tickets may be issued for the hunt. For some areas such as Skeena or Omineca, the government may issue as many as 50-60+ tickets for the grizzly hunt. Based on grizzly range and distribution, I would argue that there are flaws in the 'sound science' behind the estimates of allowable grizzly hunting tickets and population counts.
Whats more, despite the fact that the trophy hunt has been eliminated in BC, this document demonstrates that there are still ~1420 potential lottery tickets for spring 2018 alone (it's worth recognizing that only a fraction of those drawn hunting permits will result in a successful hunt). So though trophies might have been eliminated, there is little to no conservation as the hunt continues with as many bears available as before. That's challenging for a mammal with the 2nd slowest reproductive cycle in North America (2nd only to the Polar Bear).
So what about indigenous considerations?
Hunting and sustenance from the land has long been part of indigenous culture and 'mode de vie'. First Nation hunting isn't affected by the ban and indigenous hunting may continue regulated by the individual bands.
The Tsilhqot'in Nation for example has been given Title Land which means they regulate all activities on their traditional territory. So though the ban risked imposing on the way of life of First Nations people in BC as another 'white man' imposed ban on indigenous ways of life, this cultural impact has been mitigated.
However, if we're to respect that way of life, which may include hunting grizzlies, we have to also respect that we need to sustain the bear population. In most indigenous perspectives on hunting-gathering, conservation is an integral part to the life; the connection to the land that supports that way of life requires conservation.
In the case of numerous Coastal First Nations bands, the conservation has become more important than the hunting and they have called for a moratorium on all bear hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest for various reasons.
What these groups have highlighted is the lack of respect shown towards nature and the bears by indiscriminately killing these persons. And I use the word 'persons' intentionally. In such indigenous groups, the worldview is that though bears are not human, they are considered persons with nearly equal rights to humans and deserving of the respect I spoke of earlier. This concepts of animals as persons is challenging to those brought up with western perspectives but this notion of indigenous values and perspectives has gained ground, such as in New Zealand (and following that India) where rivers have been declared persons with equal rights.
Killing the bears as trophies shows disrespect to the relationship between people and these animals and to disregard the moratorium the First Nations bands have called for on their unceded ancestral territory also demonstrates a large lack of respect.
The recent ban of trophy hunting has also included a ban of the meat hunt for the Great Bear Rainforest to respect those values; no grizzly bear may be hunted in the Great Bear Rainforest. However, the government stopped short and slighted the Nuxalk Nation (one of the nations that have called for the moratorium on their ancestral territory).
The grizzly meat hunting will still continue in a section of the Great Bear Rainforest surrounding King Island and the Burke, Bentick and Dean channels. This is disrespecting the values and desires of the First Nation peoples in the area for wildlife management in ancestral territories.
What's also controversial of those areas receiving little to no closure is that those area some of BC's most established bear viewing areas, Knight Inlet Lodge and Tweedsmuir Park Lodge. Knight Inlet Lodge has been viewing grizzly bears in those areas for decades and the hunt will still be in effect in all but small parcels of the area.
How does trophy hunting affect bear viewing?
It's pretty much common-knowledge that grizzly hunting and bear viewing don't coincide side-by-side. To kill the bears that nature enthusiasts come from all over the world to view directly harms a business that coincides with wildlife. There is also an ethical issue where the bears become tolerant and comfortable with humans in a bear viewing context, making them more vulnerable to hunting once they range outside the viewing areas.
Though tourism isn't the largest GDP grosser for the province, tourism in BC provides the greatest employment and Nature based tourism, such as bear viewing, is one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism. To continue to allow the hunt in areas where grizzlies are being viewed acts as a detriment to the grizzly viewing business in BC.
Grizzly bear viewing has grown rapidly and now generates more revenue than grizzly hunting in BC. This economy also brings tourist dollars to remote and rural areas, similar to hunting guide outfitters.
So how are the grizzly bears doing?
Grizzlies have been extirpated from the vast majority of their ancestral range and we are very fortunate to have some remaining strong populations existing still in BC. Even still, many of these populations are considered 'Threatened'.
Grizzlies are vulnerable to growing human populations and development.
With road construction, overfishing, and development, we threaten these bear populations.
Though grizzly populations are considered to be mostly healthy and viable in many areas, as a whole the species isn't exactly booming when we consider environmental conditions of the developing world and the history of habitat loss.
What's more, trophy hunting is changing natural selection and the dynamics of grizzly populations in the same way that Bighorn sheep have changed. By continuously removing the largest males, the population dynamics risk changing. Anecdotal accounts from various hunters, First Nations individuals and scientists describe seeing less of the larger male bears.
I hope this article has helped to inform you on the multiple facets of the grizzly bear hunt in BC. The last time a ban was enacted (in 2001) it was quickly reversed and all went back to "normal". I'm hoping this educational piece will help people build their decision making process.
In my opinion the ban depicts a first step in a working process. We are definitely not there yet. Based on my experience, research and disregarding the simple ethical question of "whether killing for sport is ok" my recommendations are as follows:
The trophy hunt should be allowed to continue to operate under specific conditions:
- No grizzly meat hunt
- Hunting limited primarily to guiding outfitters with a very small resident lottery
- Grizzly meat needs to not be wasted (donated or utilized)
- The number of grizzly tickets should be severely reduced to account for potentially much lower population estimates
- The reduced number of issued tickets should have a respective price increase per-bear
- Monies from the licenses should be directly applied towards anti-poaching, the managing First Nations bands, conservation projects and funding sound science
- Bear hunting should be closed in traditional territories where First Nations groups decide to close the hunt. This means closing the hunt altogether for the Great Bear Rainforest.
- Bear hunting should be closed in a ~500 square kilometer radius from any established or potential bear viewing operation
- Bear hunting should be closed or severely limited in areas with higher levels of human development or where bear food sources have been impacted.
- Hunting areas should be given occasional reprieve in a rotational format
- Outfitters should follow biologist recommendations for bears demographic to shoot (old male vs young male)
The reasoning behind this is to support various sustainable tourism economies in rural communities (guided hunts and bear viewing), utilizing trophy hunting for land conservation, utilizing the license revenue towards conservation, reducing the potential impacts of a ban (such as poaching or more hunting in other provinces, states or territories).
As it stands, the current ban is not accomplishing much in terms of conservation; the hunt is still on around bear viewing operators and the whole ban risks being undone completely due to the general outcry of those affected negatively by it.
Regardless, we should be thinking about our relationship with bears and remembering that these animals are deserving of respect as we should be aiming to co-exist, not obliterate.
This article has been supported by Chilko & Ipsoot as a Yellow Cedar Initiative
Canadian Electronic Library (Firm). (2016). Legal Toolkit: Facilitating Public Participation in Grizzly Bear Hunt Management in British Columbia. Retrieved from http://www.deslibris.ca/ID/10064421
Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). (2014). Economic Impact of Bear Viewing and Bear Hunting in The Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. Retrieved from http://pacificanalytics.ca/sites/default/files/reports/Economic_Impact_of_Bear_Viewing_and_Bear_Hunting_in_GBR.pdf
Destination British Columbia. (2009). Wildlife Viewing Product Overview. Retrieved from http://www.destinationbc.ca/getattachment/Research/Research-by-Activity/Land-based/Wildlife_Viewing_Sector_Profile.pdf.aspx
Government of Canada. (2017a). Parks Canada: The Mountain National Parks. Retrieved from https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/ours-bears/generaux-basics/grizzli-grizzly
Government of Canada. (2017b). Species at Risk Public Registry. Retrieved from http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=639
Green, R., & Giese, M. (2004). Negative effects of wildlife tourism on wildlife. Wildlife Tourism: Impacts, Management and Planning. CRC for Sustainable Tourism and Common Ground Publishing, Altona, 106, 81–97.
Herrero, S., & Higgins, A. (1999). Human Injuries Inflicted by Bears in British Columbia: 1960-97. Ursus, 11, 209–218.
MacHutchon, A. G., Himmer, S., Bryden, C. A., British Columbia, Ministry of Environment, L., and Parks, British Columbia, & Ministry of Forests. (1993). Khutzeymateen Valley grizzly bear study: final report. Victoria, B.C.: BC Ministry of Forests.
Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. (2012). British Columbia Grizzly Bear Population Estimate for 2012. Retrieved from http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw/wildlife/docs/Grizzly_Bear_Pop_Est_Report_Final_2012.pdf
Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. (2017). British Columbia Limited Entry Hunting Regulations Synopsis 2017-2018. Retrieved from http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/sports-recreation-arts-and-culture/outdoor-recreation/fishing-and-hunting/hunting/limited-entry-hunting/leh-regulations-synopsis-2017-2018.pdf
Peak, J., Beecham, J., Garshelis, D., Messier, F., Miller, S., & Strickland, D. (2003). MANAGEMENT OF GRIZZLY BEARS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: A REVIEW BY AN INDEPENDENT SCIENTIFIC PANEL. Retrieved from http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/gbear_finalspr.pdf
Research Services, Tourism British Columbia. (2004a). Characteristics of the commercial nature-based tourism industry in British Columbia. Retrieved from https://www.wilderness-tourism.bc.ca/docs/Commercial_Nature-Based%20Tourism.pdf
Research Services, Tourism British Columbia. (2004b). Economic value of the commercial nature-based industry in British Columbia. Retrieved from http://www.destinationbc.ca/getattachment/Research/Research-by-Activity/Land-based/Economic_Impacts_of_Commercial_Nature-Based_Tourism_Report-sflb.pdf.aspx