Following several months of research, this article is on an issue that has become close to my heart. For my opinion on the trophy hunting of grizzly bears, please check out the article I wrote for the Martlet.
Grizzly hunt opens for spring season despite continued controversy
British Columbians want protection, not trophies
The morning sun reflected off the deep, ink-coloured water, calm except for the gentle waves curling out behind the boat. Doug Neasloss scanned the dense rainforest on either side of the narrow river for a glimpse of brown fur, or the tell tale sound of snapping branches. Admiring the pristine surroundings, the group of European tourists sat patiently, hoping to spot a grizzly bear emerging from its winter hibernation.
Neasloss, elected chief councillor of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, headed up river deeper into the Great Bear Rainforest towards one of his favourite areas of old-growth forest. He quickly killed the boat’s engine when he noticed something dark creating ripples by the bank of the river. Neasloss thought it was one of the playful harbour seals found along the B.C coast, but as the group got closer to the estuary, realization hit: it was a dead grizzly bear.
The spring hunt for grizzly bears is in full swing across British Columbia. This season alone, hundreds of hunters will descend into the Great Bear Rainforest to seek out a trophy. While this centuries-old practice is still going strong in many parts of the province, more and more people are raising their voices in opposition.
The spring season for grizzlies is open from April 1 to May 31, with the fall hunt running in October and November. Hunters kill around 300-400 grizzlies in B.C. each year, but opponents of bear hunting argue that it doesn’t make sense ethically, economically, or ecologically.
Definitions of trophy hunting vary, but it usually involves killing for the prized parts of an animal, such as the head, hide or paws. Grizzly bears are generally not hunted for their meat. “Nobody eats it,” says Neasloss, because the meat is strong and can carry the harmful parasite Trichinella.
“Killing bears for trophy, or anything for trophy, and not to eat it, is wrong,” says Dr. Chris Darimont, a Hakai-Raincoast Professor in Geography at the University of Victoria and the Science Director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
“It’s unethical to kill something and cause it suffering [for] the benefit of parading around a trophy to other men. That’s what trophy hunting is about,” says Darimont. “I see a very big difference between doing that and killing to [feed] your family and loved ones.”
Neasloss agrees. “In my culture we’re always taught if you harvest anything you’re supposed to use it. You don’t waste anything and you’re supposed to respect it.”
Coastal First Nations are at the centre of the fight to end the grizzly bear hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest. In 2004, nine coastal First Nations groups declared a ban on trophy hunting in their traditional territories. They approach bear hunters in the field to educate them about the ban, which the government has not officially recognised.
Neasloss wants to continue to negotiate with the province, but as he points out, “First Nations communities on the coast have never surrendered rights or title… If we can get them to recognise [the ban] then good, but if not, we’re not going anywhere… We’ve been here for 10,000 years and we’re going to continue to be here for another 10,000 years.”
First Nations communities are not the only ones opposing the government’s stance on bear hunting in B.C. A poll by marketing research company Insights West found 91 per cent of British Columbians are against trophy hunting. It revealed almost identical attitudes from hunters, non-hunters, urban, and rural respondents. Darimont believes most B.C. residents, and most hunters, feel ethically opposed to trophy hunting. “The dividing line between hunting for food and hunting for trophy and sport is rigid and well-defined,” says Darimont. “There’s a lot of momentum against this hunt.”
MLA Jennifer Rice represents North Coast in B.C. as a member of the New Democratic Party. Most of the Great Bear Rainforest falls into her constituency, which is the second largest electoral district in the province. “I struggle with trophy hunting in an area as significant and valuable as the Great Bear Rainforest,” she says. “Speaking with the community and First Nations in my constituency, the vast majority support a ban on trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest. Not hunting for food doesn’t mesh well with our values.”
Dr. Faisal Moola, Director General for the David Suzuki Foundation in Ontario and Northern Canada, says the Insights West poll shows, “there is no issue in this country where there is that degree of unanimous opinion about anything: healthcare, education, foreign policy… It’s amazing to see that level of public opposition to grizzly bear hunting and yet the B.C. government continues to ignore the wishes of the public.” The findings suggest that grizzly bear hunting is “at odds with the moral values of the vast majority of B.C. residents,” says Moola.
Karly Skakun, 20, is a Victoria-based hunter in her third year at Camosun College. She got into hunting with her mother and shot her first black bear when she was 17. “Instantly I started shaking, I was excited, I was overwhelmed. It’s kind of a weird feeling to shoot an animal, like, they didn’t do anything wrong to you… I definitely did cry.”
Skakun uses as much of the bear meat as possible, often combining it with pork to make sausages. She says nothing is left except the bones, guts and any bruised or bad meat, which are given to her family’s hounds. “Trophy hunting is just kind of ridiculous in my eyes… If you’re gonna kill something, kill it for your food.”
As a young woman, Skakun doesn’t fit the stereotypical profile of a hunter. She has killed two black bears and says hunting is something most people can enjoy. “Killing things definitely isn’t for everyone, unfortunately, but if you ever get the chance to, I’d take it. It’s probably one of the coolest things ever.”
The hunting community plays an important role in the controversy surrounding bears in B.C. The British Columbia Wildlife Federation (BCWF) represents 50,000 hunters in the province.
“Trophy hunting, just by definition, stirs emotions,” says President George Wilson. While the majority of the federation’s members support the hunting of grizzly bears, Wilson says the BCWF opposes “the hunting of any animal where you simply remove the hide and the head and leave everything else behind. We don’t support that in any fashion.”
Wilson estimates that one to two per cent of the BCWF’s members hunt grizzly bears, and says there aren’t any members of the federation that hunt bears exclusively for trophy. “That probably would have been a different answer five years ago because that was acceptable, but that’s not acceptable any more for bears.”
Neasloss disputes this assertion. “Resident hunters will shoot them, chop off their head and leave the rest of the bear there in the estuary where they shot them. That’s quite a common scene up here… The fact that the B.C. Wildlife Federation says they don’t do that just isn’t true.”
“I can’t believe how many times I’ve gone out hunting and found carcasses,” says Skakun. “Bears, elk, deer. It’s kinda gross. If you’re not hunting for meat, don’t come.”
B.C. residents make up about 60 per cent of grizzly bear hunters in the province. The remaining 40 per cent are non-resident hunters, usually from other parts of North America or Europe. In what is known as commercial hunting, guide outfitting companies must accompany foreign hunters to kill bears in B.C.
Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head and leader of the B.C. Green Party, wants to ban hunters that don’t kill for meat. Last year, Weaver introduced legislation to address trophy hunting. One bill aimed to curb the killing of grizzly bears by forcing hunters to take home the meat from any animal. Weaver was disappointed that the bill was not passed. The requirements would not have affected local sustenance hunters, but “if you’re a hunter coming from Texas using a guide outfitter… that grizzly bear carcass [would be] going back to your house in Texas.”
Weaver hasn’t decided whether he will put the bills forward again this year, but he believes these changes to hunting regulations would “effectively put an end to foreign hunters coming to B.C.”
The economics of bear hunting can’t be ignored: the government says the industry provides a good source of income for the province. A study by the Center for Responsible Travel found that, during the 2012 season in the Great Bear Rainforest, bear hunting generated almost $700,000 in revenue and provided 11 jobs. That same year, bear-viewing tourism made $7.3 million and created over 500 seasonal jobs.
Weaver says hunting grizzly bears is not in the public’s interest because it is “simply not as lucrative economically [as] trophy viewing.”
Coastal First Nation communities see trophy hunters as a threat to burgeoning bear viewing operations. “Tourism and trophy hunting are incompatible industries,” says Neasloss. “They cannot happen together. Once you shoot a bear it’s gone, it’s gone forever. It doesn’t make any sense.”
But according to Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources in B.C., “Bear hunting and bear viewing are not mutually exclusive economic activities. In fact, both activities have existed concurrently for many years.”
Money aside, many scientists dispute the ecological implications of hunting grizzly bears. The province’s population estimates have faced harsh scrutiny in recent years. Thomson says the grizzly bear population in B.C. is “stable and self-sustaining,” but the government has been criticised for ignoring independent population estimates in determining how many hunting licenses to issue. Their computer models suggest there are 15,000 grizzlies in the province, yet other research has found there could be as few as 6,000. This discrepancy means that the government could be allowing too many grizzlies to be hunted each year.
“The province has no idea how many bears there are at all,” says Neasloss. “10,000 could get sick tomorrow and fall off the face of the earth and the province wouldn’t even know… They base all their bear populations on these habitat models. There’s no gumboots on the ground, there’s no one out here physically doing research.”
Around 3,500 grizzly bears were killed between 2001 and 2011, according to a Raincoast Conservation Foundation study. Hunters killed more than 2,800 of these animals; poachers, conservation officers, or road accidents are responsible for the other mortalities. Unlike animals such as elk, there are no rules preventing hunters from shooting grizzly bears with cubs. Roughly one third of the grizzly bears killed in B.C. are female, which conservationists say is damaging for a species with a particularly slow rate of reproduction.
Grizzlies are largely extinct south of the Canada-U.S. border and the remaining bears are confined to two per cent of their historic range. Grizzly bears are listed federally as a species of special concern in Canada. In 2010, the Albertan government declared grizzly bears to be a threatened species, following the suspension of the grizzly hunt across the province in 2006.
The debate over the grizzly bear population size and stability in B.C. is not a new one. In 2001, the government suspended grizzly hunting because of species endangerment. Conservation expert Chris Darimont notes that the Liberals lifted the suspension when they were elected the following year: one of the party’s “first order[s] of business was to reinstate the hunt.”
So why does the government continue to allow grizzly bears to be hunted? According to Darimont, “the ethical, economic [and] cultural implications are a no-brainer. The real practical barrier on the ground… is the political situation.”
Most hunters don’t want to kill grizzly bears, but Darimont says “a few very powerful people” think a ban on trophy hunting could escalate to animals hunted for food. “Nobody wants to do that… [But] it’s enough to scare the hell out of politicians that a few pro-trophy hunting people could potentially rally thousands of hunters to change their political representative at the next vote.”
The issue causes a “tremendous headache” for the province, says Darimont, but “neither the liberals nor the NDP want to do anything that’s going to piss off hunters.”
“The government, of course, has a vested interest with the guide outfitting industry that gives them substantive donations,” agrees MLA Andrew Weaver. He says the guide outfitters in the province are effective lobbyists. “The reality here is that the political system in B.C. is broken.”
MLA Jennifer Rice also acknowledges that the government receives generous support from trophy hunters. “I don’t trust them,” she says.
The Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia did not respond to requests for comment.
The government’s stance on trophy hunting has entered the limelight once again with the recent announcement of the Great Bear Rainforest Order. Conservationists across British Columbia celebrated the protection of 85 per cent of the area after Premier Christy Clark announced the deal on Feb. 1, 2016. But the agreement is not without controversy. While it signals achievement for both indigenous recognition and forestry restrictions, it does not protect all aspects of the delicate Great Bear eco-system.
First Nation communities worked with the B.C. government, environmental groups and the forestry industry to agree on strict conservation measures designed to protect the world’s largest temperate rainforest. The deal puts an end to industrial logging in most of the old-growth forest and gives First Nations greater power over developments on their traditional territories.
Clark’s comments at a news conference, later corrected by ministry staff, suggested the deal would be favourable to the growing opposition to trophy hunting. The negotiations “include the end of the commercial grizzly hunt in Coastal First Nations traditional territory,” she said.
However, in an open letter to the Georgia Straight on Feb. 9, renowned environmentalist David Suzuki points out the landmark order is missing a key aspect. “While the agreement helps protect grizzly-bear and other wildlife habitat, it doesn’t protect the bears themselves, contrary to B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s claims.”
The David Suzuki foundation works to find solutions to conservation issues and advocates for the legal protection of grizzly bears in Canada. According to Faisal Moola, Director General for the organisation in Ontario and Northern Canada, Clark’s claims were not true. “The Premier was either terribly misinformed when she made that comment, or she is trying to obfuscate the issue,” he says. “Grizzly bear hunting is not referenced anywhere in the agreement.”
The trophy hunting of grizzly bears will now be prohibited in the areas where First Nations have bought out the guide outfitting licenses, clarifies Moola. “Essentially, all the government has done is deferred responsibility to the First Nations to now spend tens of millions of dollars to purchase those hunting licenses,” he says.
In collaboration with Coastal First Nations, Raincoast Conservation Foundation has raised almost $2 million to buy out commercial bear hunting licenses in B.C. since 2005. The group now owns the guide outfitting rights to around 30,000 square kilometres of land in the Great Bear Rainforest. In the recent agreement, the government promises to retire the purchased hunting licenses. Neasloss believes this is a step in the right direction, but the province should have offered financial support. “Nonetheless, we all want to see trophy hunting over… and we’re going to go buy them all out,” he says.
“There’s no question that the Great Bear Rainforest agreement does dramatically improve the protection of grizzly bear habitat,” says Moola, “[but] it does absolutely nothing to stop direct mortality to grizzly bears at the hands of trophy hunters.”
According to MLA Jennifer Rice, the government paid “lip service” to a ban on trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest, but have not taken any concrete action. “Respecting the desires of Coastal First Nations would be a good step to putting some truth to the years of work that was done on this agreement,” she says.
When asked why the agreement doesn’t reference the controversial grizzly bear hunt, Minister Steve Thomson said it is about land management, not hunting.
But MLA Andrew Weaver finds it “very odd” that the deal did not include the protection of the bears. He hopes trophy hunting will form part of a future agreement. “I don’t think they went far enough,” he says.
Neasloss agrees: “British Columbians oppose trophy hunting and they want it to be over. That’s huge. I don’t think the province can ignore that anymore.”
Progress has been made with the announcement of this landmark agreement, but the controversy around trophy hunting will continue so long as powerful individuals have the ear of elected politicians. British Columbians are prepared to fight the grizzly end facing Canada’s iconic bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. And while the debate rages, Neasloss can only hope that on his next journey through this unique corner of the earth, he won’t stumble upon the mutilated carcass of yet another grizzly bear.