Trophy Hunting of BC Grizzly Bears

Millions of people, from royalty to your next door neighbour, travel the world over to “feel” bear country, often because their own bear country is gone.
Dr. Brian Horejsi, Dr. Barrie Gilbert and Dr. Lance Craighead.
There are few experiences as inspiring or as evocative of North American wilderness as the site of an adult grizzly foraging for clams along the inter tidal flats, or perhaps fishing the rapids of a pristine river teaming with spawning salmon. Yet as more and more international tourists discover the wonderful experience of viewing these beautiful mammals in their natural environment, British Columbia marks another dubious milestone in its checkered history of grizzly bear management.

In 2007, 430 grizzlies were killed in B.C., 363 of them by affluent, mostly American and European sport hunters, making last year the highest rate of hunter-caused mortality of this iconic bear since records have been kept. This sad statistic puts 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.”

Conservationists and independent scientists have been saying for years that the continuation of the 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. For decades management and regulation has been governed more by politics and received wisdom than by anything resembling sound scientific reasoning, despite the fact that COSWEIC (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

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 increasingly evident that bears or worth more to the economy living than dead, and they say there is a social or historical imperative to maintain the hunt when it is obvious that a majority of British Columbians and international tourists would rather shoot bears with cameras than guns.

Any discussion of grizzly bear sport hunting must begin with science and it is the first of the three pillars around government grizzly bear management to crumble. Despite Canada and the United States being home to world renowned bear biologists, the provincial government has shown a reluctance to incorporate this knowledge and experience into sound, science-based bear management decisions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 30-plus year history of grizzly bear population estimates and the establishing harvest quotas.

To understand why grizzlies are at the center of a controversial wildlife management issues, it is at first necessary to examine their natural history. The biology of grizzly bears makes them at once beautiful and intriguing, yet also particularly vulnerable sport hunting and habitat loss. Their reproductive rate is one of the lowest of any land animal in North America. Females don’t produce their first litter until reaching sexual maturity at between five and eight years of age and their litters rarely exceed four cubs. Intervals between births can be as along as three years and cubs remain attached to the mother for between two and three years. Male grizzlies have massive ranges, as large as 4,000 square kilometers, 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 has in some cases created a modern hunt that is too efficient, tipping the balance dangerously in favor of humans.
On this point, a critical review of the B.C. 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, revealing much about continuing misguided government policy. As the authors wrote more than 10 years ago, “the history of population estimates in B.C. 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 five per cent. 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 a flawed habitat-based model.

Manipulating data collected from a single government study of grizzlies in southeastern B.C. in the late 1980s, the province extrapolated habitat characteristics from the Flathead Range onto other regions of the province to arrive at an arbitrary population estimate.
In 2000, Dionys de Leeuw, a biologist with the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, published a scathing report titled “Grizzly Overkill in British Columbia Bear Management,” in which he pointed out the absurdity of the province’s habitat-based population estimate methodology, saying 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 switched to an even more complex and equally unreliable system of population estimation using a combination of methods - multiple regression and expert-based analysis. 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 particularly region could support in theory. This number is then reduced, using a so-called expert-based quantification of human disturbance – roads, logging cutblocks, power line right-of-ways, urban development, etc. – in a given region to arrive at final population estimate. Though this method is an improvement, it still amounts to a tenuous guestimation of grizzly bear numbers, which the province has now boosted to almost 17,000.

However again as recently as 2007, independent research has poked serious holes in government scientific methodology. Kootenay-based wildlife biologist Michael Proctor used a method called DNA mark and recapture to survey grizzly bears in the Purcell Mountains and came up with “estimates considerably lower than Provincial estimates.” Where government biologists said that grizzly bears were at 93 per cent of their habitat potential in the Central Purcell Mountains, Proctor’s results indicated a much lower number at roughly 54 per cent, putting bears in this region of southeastern B.C. close to the 50 per cent 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 B.C. Liberals was to reinstate the hunt and appoint a new expert scientific panel composed of American biologists.

“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.

However in an interview at the time Wayne McCrory, bear biologist and former member of a government scientific panel, called the Liberal government’s decision to lift the moratorium “political stupidity not based on any good science.”

More than 10 years after the government first proposed establishing grizzly bear management areas, little progress has been made. The management areas are meant to be special no-hunt zones, providing refuges for grizzly bears in the various eco-regions of B.C.: the northern boreal mountains, taiga plains, boreal plains, sub-boreal interior, coast and mountains, Georgia depression, central interior, southern interior, and southern interior mountains. However the province is now saying the establishment of these management areas is less a scientific than a social decision, and what’s currently on the table falls far short of the scientific mark. For example in 2004 Drs. Horejsi, Gilbert and Craighead examined three proposed grizzly bear management areas for the B.C. Coast and Mountains, as described in the central and north coast land and resource management plans, and found them “too small to maintain viable grizzly bear populations.”

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 benefit 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 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. A research project completed in 2006 by Peter Swain, for a masters of science at the University of Lancashire, examined the value of grizzly bear viewing in British Columbia, and his findings show that bear viewing is a much more significant component of the tourism sector than the provincial government would suggest.

A survey of tourists conducted by Swain indicated that opportunities for viewing bears “are very important to vacation decision-making.” He also concluded that B.C. is poised for strong growth in wildlife viewing, but that government could do much more to promote the sector. To this end, Swain came up with key recommendations, including; a strategic analysis of conservation concerns and identification of possible locations for bear viewing; analysis of potential areas for salmon enhancement; watershed assessments of candidate areas for viewing, recognizing wilderness values, resource user conflicts and tourism accessibility; and exploration of potential community and operator involvement, start-up funding and small business development issues.

The third pillar of government grizzly bear management to crumble is public opinion. Clearly, B.C. citizens expect much more from the province in terms of protecting grizzly bears. In fact, while wealthy trophy hunters fly in from around the globe to shoot bears in B.C., 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 McAllister Opinion Research of more than 600 citizens, 51 per cent of respondents were unaware that the sport hunting of grizzly bears continues at a record pace. In addition, 60 per cent of respondents said grizzlies do not have enough protection, 73 per cent are in favor of a total ban on grizzly bear sport hunting and 84 per cent agree that investing in development of eco-tourism and lodges for learning about grizzly bears will be more sustainable than shooting grizzly bears for sport. Furthermore 79 per cent of respondents said the Liberal government’s policy to continue allowing the sport hunting of grizzly bears is unethical; something that politicians should keep in mind when British Columbians head to the polls again in May of 2009.

British Columbia is one of the last great refuges of the grizzly bear, which once roamed widely across North America, however our government is treating this species as an expendable resource. The province has made scant progress toward its promise of establishing no-hunt grizzly bear management areas. The science behind the population estimates on which annual harvest rates are based is bogus, decried by independent biologists in B.C., Alberta and the United States. Arguments in support of grizzly bear hunting are based on false assumptions about the economic importance of the hunt. And clearly, a growing number of people believe it is time to lay down the weapons and start taking the issue of grizzly bear management seriously before these animals are pushed to the brink of extinction or extirpated as they have been elsewhere in the continent.

All Photography © Ian McAllister unless otherwise noted.
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