The Zodiac glides along the water, nudging up against the bank of a river that flows into the heart of the Fiordland Recreation Area on the central coast. The passengers step out and wade through a lush estuary blossoming with purple lupines and knee-deep in Lyngby’s sedge, a favourite springtime food of coastal grizzlies. Here and there, the fertile alluvium is freshly overturned where a grizzly has clawed the ground to uncover succulent silverweed roots. A quick scan of the broad floodplain with binoculars reveals two grizzlies methodically eating their way along the forest’s edge, their distinctive shoulder humps shimmering with blond-brown fur. Camera shutters click furiously.
More and more foreigners are paying top dollar for the opportunity to see a magnificent grizzly in the wild. British Columbia, though, still permits the sport killing of an animal that is highly evocative of what remains of our wilderness and is regarded as a keystone indicator of ecosystem health. Last year, a record-setting 430 grizzlies died for sport, for animal control, or from poaching, yet the complex science used by government to establish hunting quotas remains at the heart of one of the most controversial wildlife-management issues in Canada. That’s why environmentalists, First Nations, and bear-viewing companies believe the province is risking international shame over the hunting of grizzlies, considered by the federal Species at Risk Act, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and the B.C. Conservation Data Centre to be a species of special concern.
A recent public-opinion poll that says most British Columbians—73 percent—want the provincial government to end the hunt is adding fuel to the controversy. The poll was commissioned by Pacific Wild, a nonprofit group started last year by Ian McAllister after his split from the Raincoast Conservation Society, an environmental group he helped found more than 15 years ago.
“I think the results of this poll are pretty compelling,” says McAllister, who, in his fight to end sport hunting of grizzlies on the central coast, spearheaded a successful $1.35-million buyout of a guide-outfitter’s coastal hunting licence. “Ending the sport hunt will have a positive spinoff for a whole range of other species, and it’s the least we can do for grizzly bears.”
Armed with the results of the poll, conservationists, First Nations, and grizzly-bear-viewing operators plan to turn up the pressure on government to halt the hunt, arguing that bears are worth more alive than dead, that most people don’t support the hunt on ethical grounds, and that the science underpinning the hunt is weak.
“The ball is in the government’s court now,” McAllister says.
First Nations up and down B.C.’s coast say the sport hunting of grizzly bears has no place in their traditional territories.
“All of our people on the coast are opposed to the hunt,” says Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations Turning Point Initiative, an alliance of 10 central and north coast First Nations. “Arriving on a riverbank to find a naked carcass without a hide is repulsive to First Nations.”
Wildlife viewing is considered a foundation of a burgeoning coastal Native tourism economy that has already spawned aboriginal-owned bear-viewing operations in places like Hartley Bay and Klemtu and is employing Native wildlife guides. Non-Native outfits are also cashing in on the international appetite for wildlife viewing. Dean Wyatt, owner of Knight Inlet Lodge, heads up the nascent Commercial Bear Viewing Association, which has 12 member companies. He estimates that Knight Inlet Lodge alone will do $3 million in bear-viewing business during the 2008 season, and he believes that a government reevaluation of the grizzly-bear sport hunt is long overdue.
Ethics and economics aside, the history of grizzly-bear management has been fraught with controversy over the science used to estimate populations and set harvest quotas. The biology of grizzly bears makes them at once beautiful and intriguing, yet also particularly vulnerable. Their reproductive rate is one of the lowest of any land animal in North America. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until at least age five, and intervals between births can be as long as three years, with cubs remaining attached to the mother for between two and three years. Males range massive territories of between 2,000 and 4,000 square kilometres, making them highly susceptible to habitat fragmentation through resource extraction and road-building. In this light, critics view sport hunting as an unnecessary and unethical burden on an already troubled species; the logic being that because grizzlies reproduce slowly, they also recover slowly from human-induced mortality.
Brian Horejsi, an Alberta-based large-carnivore specialist who has researched B.C. bears extensively and been a vocal critic of grizzly-bear management, calls government science a “house of cards” waiting to tumble, an “empty eggshell” of subjectivity.
“I don’t think the B.C. government has any better understanding of bear populations today than it did 10 years ago,” Horejsi says from his home office in Calgary.
In 1998, Horejsi was coauthor of an independent review of B.C.’s 1995 Grizzly Bear Management Strategy. The widely publicized review found the government’s plan sorely lacking in tough regulations to protect bears, mechanisms to implement land-use strategies to safeguard habitat, and adequate controls on hunting.
“The report is old but the material and the thrust is still relevant today, and that’s shocking,” Horejsi says.
The decade-old review took specific aim at government science, saying that “the history of population estimates in B.C. has consistently erred on the side of underestimating mortality and overestimating population size.” The average citizen would need a degree in mathematics to thoroughly understand the evolving approach to grizzly-bear population science. Early estimates were based on the number of bears killed, which was arbitrarily set at five percent of the population and considered sustainable, “thus arriving,” according to the review, “at a population estimate that justified the kill level”.
Between 1972 and 1979, the province said the total population of grizzlies was 6,660. In 1990, that number doubled to 13,160 using a so-called habitat suitability model, based on data collected from a single government study of grizzlies in the Flathead Range of southeastern B.C. The problem wasn’t the Flathead study, which Horejsi considers a thorough and scientifically defensible piece of research. Rather, it was how the data was used: the government went on to extrapolate habitat characteristics from the Flathead Range onto other regions of the province, therefore arriving at theoretical and highly subjective population estimates.
This did little to silence the critics. In 2000, Dionys de Leeuw, a biologist with the then–Ministry of Environment, Land, and Parks, published a scathing report titled Grizzly Overkill in British Columbia Bear Management. He pointed out intrinsic flaws in the province’s scientific methodology, claiming that grizzly bears could be exterminated by 2034 while government habitat-suitability measurements would continue to indicate a theoretical bear abundance and subsequent harvestable surplus.
In 2004, the province slightly modified the habitat-suitability models using a combination of what it calls multiple regression and expert-based analysis. In simple terms, first multiple regression uses a series of habitat parameters, such as rainfall and the availability of salmon, to estimate the number of bears that a particular region could support. Then, using an expert-based quantification of human disturbances such as roads, logging clear-cuts, power line rights of way, and urban development, the number is whittled down to a final population estimate for a given region. According to government, the grizzly-bear population in B.C. now hovers at about 17,000. However, as recently as 2007, independent research once again poked holes in government science.
Kootenay-based wildlife biologist Michael Proctor used a technique called DNA mark-recapture (DNA is gathered through grizzly-bear hair samples collected along a set grid throughout the study area) to estimate populations in the central and south Purcell Mountains. In a June 2007 letter to the ministries of Environment, Agriculture and Lands, and Tourism, Sport and the Arts, Proctor wrote that his results produced “estimates considerably lower than provincial estimates”. Where government biologists said that grizzly bears were at 93 percent of their habitat potential in the central Purcell Mountains, Proctor’s DNA-based research indicated a much lower number, roughly 54 percent, putting bears in that region of southeastern B.C. close to the 50-percent threshold used to establish “threatened” status. So while the sport hunting of grizzly bears continues, clouds of doubt still swirl around government science. The fact that the provincial government only released grizzly-bear kill data to the public after the Raincoast Conservation Society took it to court in 2004 does little to instill confidence in grizzly-bear management.
“It was like trying to get ahold of a state secret,” recalls Raincoast executive director Chris Genovali.
Wayne McCrory, a veteran independent bear biologist, provides a foreboding summary.
“Unfortunately, what’s at stake is the future of one of the most beautiful wilderness animals based on some very shaky science,” McCrory says. “All this so a guy can hang a rug on his wall. Give me a break.”
McCrory was one of numerous scientists who pushed for and got a provincewide moratorium on grizzly-bear hunting during the dying days of the last NDP government.
However, just six months later, the newly elected B.C. Liberals lifted the moratorium and resumed the hunt. In the meantime, the government has failed to follow through on long-promised grizzly-bear management areas (GBMAs) throughout the province that would serve as no-hunting, benchmark sanctuaries for the various coastal and Interior grizzly populations.
Neither McCrory nor Horejsi blames sport hunting entirely for the grizzly bear’s woes, when logging and other resource development have already encroached upon bear habitat. But they believe that modern hunting—with its boats, planes, four-wheel-drives, and ATVs—will only further chase these animals into an ecological cul-de-sac. Experience has shown that even in areas where habitat is protected but hunting permitted, trophy hunting and untold poaching can have a serious impact on bear populations. Such was the case in 1994 when the Haisla First Nation noticed a marked decline in both grizzly and black bears in the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy south of Kemano. McCrory examined grizzly populations in the Kitlope and concluded that numbers were considerably lower than what government had estimated using habitat suitability, and hunting was seen as the most likely culprit. Then–Haisla chief councillor Gerald Amos described the sport hunt in a paper written by Ken Margolis and titled Bears in the Greater Kitlope Ecosystem: “They sit beside a river where the sockeye salmon spawn. That’s ”˜Joe’s Diner’ to the bears.”¦There’s nothing challenging about what they call hunting in the Kitlope.” The Haisla lobbied successfully for a ban on sport hunting in the Kitlope, which continues today. Such piecemeal conservation efforts, however, will do little to secure a healthy future for grizzlies provincewide, according to Horejsi. Doing so requires federal and provincial cooperation to implement broad conservation-based land-use decisions that will affect status quo logging, mining, and other large-scale resource extraction. Unfortunately, Canada’s Species at Risk Act is a toothless animal. The picture is starkly different south of the border, where up until 2003 grizzlies were labelled endangered. In the United States, endangered species automatically fall under the jurisdiction of the federal fish and wildlife service, which assumes responsibility for enacting a recovery plan. In 1973, in response to serious declines in grizzly populations in the Yellowstone region, the so-called Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team was formed to coordinate grizzly-bear recovery efforts among state and federal agencies in the 35,420-square-kilometre greater Yellowstone ecosystem. According to manager Chuck Schwartz, the number of grizzlies in the region doubled between 1983 and 2006 and now sits at about 600 animals.
“Bears take a long time to recover. They’re not like mosquitoes, and when it comes to population estimates, we always err on the conservative side,” Schwartz says from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman, Montana, explaining how the team uses a combination of physical sightings by trained field staff and radio collaring to make population estimates.
Tony Hamilton, the B.C. Environment Ministry’s senior large-carnivore biologist, has been at the centre of the perennial battle between conservationists and government biologists over grizzly-bear science, and he’s feeling the bruises. Short of conducting a physical census of grizzly bears for the entire province, which would be prohibitively expensive and virtually impossible, Hamilton says he’s cautiously comfortable with the current estimate of 17,000 grizzly bears.
“There’s a perception that we’re trying to maximize the harvest by maximizing our population estimates, and that’s just nonsense,” Hamilton says, adding that recent government papers on population science have been peer-reviewed.
He says that government has spent approximately $6 million since 1997 on fieldwork related to grizzly-bear population estimates, specifically on DNA mark-recapture programs in regions like the southern Rocky Mountains and the South Chilcotin. In early June, the government signed a cost-sharing agreement with Plutonic Power Corporation, the firm behind 196 megawatts of independent power development in the Toba Inlet region, to conduct DNA mark-recapture work around Toba and Bute inlets.
“We’re refining the habitat-suitability model. There’s still subjectivity in the model and we recognize that, but to say there are just 6,000 bears in the province like some people are claiming, that’s just not on,” Hamilton says.
He admits that last year’s tally of 430 mortalities—a number that includes hunting, animal control, and known illegal kills but doesn’t account for unknown poaching—is much higher than the average (329 per year over the past 32 years, according to government figures), but he doesn’t view the statistic as a management emergency for grizzlies. Serious discussions around grizzly-bear conservation, Hamilton says, get bogged down by the ethical, moral, and political debate around sport hunting and obfuscate other equally important concerns about land use and development.
“We need to look at the cumulative human impacts facing bears, like road development and resource extraction,” Hamilton says. “Personally, I’d like to see the hunt reduced to 100 bears annually. That’s a number that would be unassailable in terms of science and public acceptance, but I know I’m going to catch hell from the hunting community for saying that. But honestly, some of my best allies when it comes to habitat conservation come from the fish-and-wildlife groups.”
As for the long-awaited grizzly-bear management areas, they remain theoretical at best and Hamilton admits he’s frustrated by the slow progress. Negotiations between industry, government, and First Nations are ongoing for the establishment of three GBMAs on the coast—in the Khutzeymateen, Khutze, and Anahuati watersheds. When it comes to the rest of the province, there are still big mountains to climb—government is only just beginning to consider candidates for GBMAs for Interior grizzly-bear populations.
In the meantime, the B.C. Wildlife Federation, a hunters’ and anglers’ lobby group, remains confident in the science behind the grizzly-bear hunt, and president Mel Arnold is proud to say that federation members dined on smoked grizzly at last spring’s annual general meeting. While talk-show lines light up and conservationists spar with government biologists, the federation sticks by its guns on the issue of grizzly-bear hunting, arguing that its members are responsible environmental stewards and have a social and historical right to hunt grizzlies.
“I think the government is doing a good job around grizzly-bear science and population estimates,” Arnold says. “They could always do better, but I think it’s a matter of funding. The message coming from some antihunting groups that there are no regulations around hunting is absolutely false. There are very strict rules.”
Arnold says anecdotal reports from members suggest that grizzly populations are actually on the rise in some parts of the province, and he maintains that there’s more to hunting grizzlies than “hides and skulls”.
That’s something that Ian McAllister, who over the years has encountered mostly foreign sport hunters many times in central coast river valleys, says is simply untrue.
“This is a sport hunt, plain and simple. I think it’s pretty disingenuous to suggest people shoot grizzlies for food.”
As the Zodiac slips back into the water in the Fiordland Recreation Area, the passengers cradle digital cameras loaded with images of feeding grizzlies, a lot of the shots probably too blurry and distant to be of value to anybody but the one who snapped the shutter. Yet the memories will be as vivid and visceral as the controversy that brews around the continued killing for sport of an animal that is perhaps British Columbia’s greatest symbol of wilderness.