British Columbia’s spring grizzly and black-bear hunts open on April 1. This season, more hunters are expected to take to the province’s forests than in any year in recent memory.
In 2013-14, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations issued 1,699 resident hunting licences for grizzly bears, according to data posted online in response to a freedom-of-information request. That’s up 58 percent since 2005-06 (the timeframe for which data was made available).
The province has, similarly, issued more licences to black-bear hunters. There were 21,836 allotted in 2013-14, up 52 percent from eight years earlier.
For comparison’s sake, the total number of “resident species licences” increased only 30 percent over this period. (A spokesperson said the ministry could not immediately supply statistics for how many of those licences resulted in a kill.)
Chris Darimont, a science director with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and assistant professor at the University of Victoria, told the Straight an overall rise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “What does cause me alarm,” he continued, “is the increases in carnivore kills.”
Darimont explained there are naturally fewer carnivores compared to plant eaters. Larger predators also take more time to reproduce, and can be more easily affected by habitat destruction. In addition, he noted we often don’t know the true population of a particular animal or the mortality rate a species can tolerate before experiencing unsustainable population declines.
“That grizzly-bear hunt, in most places in the province, is done in the absence of fieldwork that examines if there really are the number of grizzly bears that [government] models say there are,” he explained. Darimont called attention to a November 2013 peer-reviewed study he co-authored that found the number of B.C. grizzlies killed by hunters has repeatedly exceeded the number targeted by the province.
A Ministry of Environment website states that in 2012, there were approximately 15,000 grizzly bears in B.C. Darimont countered that rigorous population estimates have only been conducted in about 12 percent of the province.
In a phone interview, Stephen MacIver, a policy and regulations analyst with the province’s fish and wildlife branch, said numbers of licences issued take into account estimates for animal populations and sustainable mortality rates.
“Conservation is our number one priority,” he said. “We don’t have hunting seasons on a population that can’t sustain a harvest.”
MacIver noted that while the number of hunting licences has increased in recent years, it remains lower than all-time highs that peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
William Housty, coastwatch director of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s Qqs Projects Society, has studied bear populations in B.C. and told the Straight he has noticed how numbers on the ground differ from those in government models.
“In the areas that I’ve studied [around the Koeye River, which empties just north of Vancouver Island], there has been a decrease in the populations of male and female grizzly bears,” he said. “It’s pretty disturbing that they are increasing the numbers of these licences in B.C.…It’s not a sustainable practice to be hunting at the rates that they are.”
Peter Wood, director of terrestrial conservation for the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, similarly told the Straight we simply don't know how many bears there are in B.C.
“I’m not left with a lot of confidence in how that level of hunt is established, “he said. “Overall, there is a lack of information and a lack of transparency around some of these numbers.”
Wood suggested a major part of the problem is government capacity. “I’ve met a number of the scientists who work for the Ministry of Environment and they do really great work," he said, "but they are totally strapped for cash.”
According to a Ministry of Environment overview of the Conservation Officer Service (COS) released in response to another freedom-of-information request, more hunting licences have been issued as the COS has experienced a significant increase in its workload. According to the June 2013 memo, in 2004-05, COS saw 5,261 cases filed. Sixty-three percent of those resulted in a ticket or warning. In 2012-13, COS opened 9,375 case files. It issued tickets or warnings in 55 percent of those instances.
Andrew Weaver, Green party MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, recently introduced a member's bill that takes aim at the trophy killing of grizzlies. In a telephone interview, he said the province's wildlife is increasingly threatened by habitat destruction, which creates a greater need for hunting policies designed on empirical evidence.
“We need to have a province-wide, science-based, ecosystem-based approach to wildlife management,” he said. “We don’t have that. What the wildlife division in B.C. Forest, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations needs is to be jacked up with a bunch of wildlife biologists to come up with a consultative approach that’s based on science.”
The province's conservation officers have warned there is a problem.
"With BC’s population growing and the value of our natural resources increases, our numbers have declined," reads a statement at the website of the Society of British Columbia Conservation Officers. "Inadequate staffing levels is resulting in higher case loads, slower response times and or no response at all. Our motto used to be “Anytime Anywhere” now it is “Sometimes Maybe”. We need more boots on the ground!"