While most citizens oppose the bear trophy hunt, BC’s politicians seem reluctant to offend hunters.
IT'S AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR CAUSE that, in BC’s politically sensitive, pre-election months, should have the two major political parties tripping over each other in an effort to adopt it as their own.
Instead, provincial Liberals are literally sticking to their guns in support of the controversial grizzly bear trophy hunt while the NDP has not yet settled on a position.
Polls have consistently shown that British Columbians dislike trophy hunting, a blood sport that sees foreign hunters paying upwards of $16,000 for the chance to shoot a grizzly bear for the sake of a head on the wall or a furry rug on the floor.
An October 2015 Insights West poll found that 91 percent of British Columbians and 84 percent of Albertans oppose hunting animals for sport. The margin of error for BC is plus or minus 3.1 percent.
But, so far, with the exception of the BC Green Party, those numbers are not enough to spark political support. Instead, a proliferation of diverse non-profit groups are taking up the challenge to protect the grizzly, which has been listed as a species of special concern by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Organizations such as Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Pacific Wild have approached the hunt from a scientific perspective for decades, while the newly-formed Justice for BC Grizzlies is appealing to would-be politicians to look at the ethics of killing for sport. Nine area First Nations, who comprise the Coastal First Nations, want to end the commercial grizzly hunt in their traditional territories and, together with Raincoast, have been buying up hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest to reduce the threat to the bears.
Another unusual approach is being taken by the fledgling Grizzly Bear Foundation, headed by philanthropist Michael Audain. The Foundation has launched a board of inquiry, holding meetings around the province, looking at threats such as habitat loss, food supply and climate change as well as hunting. The panel will submit a report to government by February.
For those who are uncertain how to get involved, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, has prepared a legal toolkit “Facilitating Public Participation in Grizzly Bear Hunt Management in BC.” The toolkit first addresses the question: Why are grizzly bears important? Grizzly bears, it asserts, “are a vital ecological, cultural and economic resource in BC. They are apex predators that interact with other plant and animal species in their habitats and their population health is therefore a key indicator of the overall ecosystem’s health.”
Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics is the latest business organization to become involved and will be launching a campaign this November at its 240 stores around North America. Lush is also producing a 30-minute documentary on the hunt. “I think people will be appalled that, in BC, trophy hunting of grizzly bears is still happening,” said Carleen Pickard, Lush ethical campaigns specialist.
Meanwhile, Auditor General Carol Bellringer is looking at whether the government is “meeting its objective of ensuring healthy grizzly bear populations throughout BC.” Bellringer’s report is due this spring, but it is not known whether it will be released before the May election.
While the Liberal government is showing no sign of changing course, the NDP is having internal discussions.
“A couple of caucus meetings are coming up. Stay tuned…We know this is important and it’s on our radar,” said NDP Environment spokesman George Heyman.
Back in the dying days of the last NDP government, in 2001, a three-year moratorium was imposed on the grizzly bear hunt. Immediately after the election, however, it was almost immediately rescinded by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals when they swept to power.
Martyn Brown, Campbell’s chief of staff in 2001, said he believes the moratorium was probably lifted by ministerial order, rather than after any in-depth discussion or cabinet debate, and was likely the result of pressure from rural MLAs, many of whom were ardent pro-hunters.
“It certainly wasn’t something that was a broad discussion that I can recall,” said Brown, who suspects the issue got lost in the many policy decisions and budget cuts made immediately after the Liberals came to power.
Brown believes the grizzly hunt should no longer be ignored and he wants to see trophy hunting banned throughout the province, for grizzly bears and all other species.
“It’s [because of] uncertainty about the management of the population and principally the ethical concerns,” he said. “Precious animals and wildlife are being taken for nothing but a trophy. They are not being taken for food or ceremonial purposes, they are simply for people’s self-aggrandizement and whatever twisted, distorted satisfaction they get from killing an animal,” he said.
Brown is surprised the NDP are silent as he believes they have little to lose by coming out against the hunt. “If they really thought about it I think they would realize there’s a very small percentage of seats that might be at risk, if any,” he said. “The risks are so minimal and the rewards would be so much greater if they would just stand up and say and do the right thing and say this is a barbaric, out-dated hunt that needs to be stopped,” Brown said.
Premier Christy Clark would also have little to lose by restoring the moratorium, Brown said. “But I don’t think the BC Liberals are even slightly interested in revisiting their position because of the likes of [Energy and Mines Minister] Bill Bennett particularly and others from rural BC who are defenders of the trophy hunt ostensibly for its economic value and its importance to rural lifestyle,” he said.
Another factor is that the Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC) is a generous contributor to the Liberals, with records showing that between 2011 and May 2015 GOABC contributed almost $37,000 to the Liberals compared to $6,000 to the NDP.
The government position is that there is no need to halt the hunt as the grizzly population is healthy, with an estimated 15,000 bears, and the hunt puts money into the economy.
“A Scientific Review of Grizzly Bear Harvest Management System,” commissioned by the Province and written by three biologists, concluded that, despite difficulties in monitoring and a lack of sufficient funds, BC’s procedures “have attained a high level of rigor, with a solid scientific underpinning.”
The review, released October 18, recommended that there should be more opportunities for public consultation, increased cooperation with adjacent jurisdictions, and that BC should investigate whether conflicts exist between bear hunting and viewing.
The Province should regularly be looking at elements such as habitat conditions and food availability and should provide additional funding, according to the review. “The future of grizzly bears in the coming decades will be challenged as the human population in the province increases. Rigorous planning, habitat monitoring, conservative harvest levels and a predictable level of research, monitoring and data research is essential for the continued conservation of this species,” says the report.
Steve Thomson, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister, said the recommendations “will further improve grizzly bear management decisions in BC.”
The notion that the province makes its decisions based on the best available science is challenged by critics who question both the Province’s population estimates and the economics of the hunt.
Estimates of the number of bears in BC’s 57 individual grizzly bear population units usually rely on models, using known population densities from other areas, or the number of bears expected to survive in that particular habitat.
The methods inevitably lead to uncertainty and some researchers believe numbers could be as low as 6,000, with kills much higher than the approximately 300 grizzlies killed by licenced trophy hunters each year that the Province reports. In addition to such hunting, a toll is taken by poaching, road kills, destruction of “nuisance” bears, and loss of habitat.
A study by Raincoast, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and Hakai Institute found kill limits are regularly exceeded and several sub-populations of grizzlies are on the verge of disappearing.
On the financial front, research shows that bear viewing is far more profitable than bear hunting. A study by the Center for Responsible Travel, in conjunction with Stanford University, found that, in 2012, bear viewing groups in the Great Bear Rainforest generated “more than 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting.”
The same researchers found that bear watching sent $7.3-million to government coffers, compared to $660,500 from hunters, and created 510 jobs, compared to 11 jobs created by guide outfitters.
Retired university professor Craig Smith said such facts make the government’s stance completely inexplicable; bear viewing and hunting industries cannot co-exist. Smith recently threw his support behind Justice for BC Grizzlies. “Every bear you shoot is one you can’t view, so they’re killing the viewing industry,” he said.
The Province maintains that BC has 100,000 resident hunters—and that hunters and guide outfitters combined put $350 million into the economy each year, a figure involving multipliers questioned by critics—and likely far lower than any comparable number for wildlife viewing. (Minister Thomson admitted in a 2014 legislative committee examining budget estimates that direct revenues from the grizzly trophy hunt amounted to $414,000.)
Most hunters are not trophy hunters, of course. “I am a hunter, but I have never shot a bear,” said David Lawrie, a retired Provincial forests engineer and member of Justice for BC Grizzlies.
Even the pro-hunting BC Wildlife Federation, with 50,000 members, is against trophy hunting. The Federation supported a bill, introduced last year by Green Party of BC leader Andrew Weaver, requiring all hunters to pack out edible meat from grizzlies and all other animals—which, in a round-about way, would ensure few grizzlies were hunted. “I suspect many a trophy hunter would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pack out several hundred pounds of trichinosis-laden grizzly bear meat across international borders,” he has written.
Weaver’s bill died when the session ended and he has since clarified that he is against trophy hunting—making him one of the few MLAs clearly opposing the hunt. Trophy hunting is a “cruel, selfish and barbaric practice that is packaged and sold as sport,” he wrote, explaining that his bill—which was not supported by the guide outfitting industry—aimed to protect the rights of First Nations and resident hunters.
Alan Martin, BC Wildlife Federation director of strategic initiatives, would like to see a similar bill reintroduced. “The BCWF only supports hunts that are sustainable and, when the animals are harvested, that the edible parts are taken out. If they don’t do that then it’s not appropriate to hunt grizzly bears or any other animal,” Martin said. “If you are going to utilize fish or wildlife then it should be consumed appropriately and not done just for sport,” he said.
Martin also feels there needs to be more work in areas where there is uncertainty about populations and a close look at the effect of non-hunting mortality and changes in habitat, such as in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle infestation. “If you don’t vary the harvest rates and manage accordingly, it will catch up to you as it has done in the south-east part of our province,” he said.
Although grizzly bear meat is often thought to be inedible, as it sometimes carries the parasite that causes trichinosis, BCWF spokesman Jesse Zeman finds it tasty and healthy. The meat has to be cooked to a high temperature, which is why it is best in sausage, pepperoni or burgers, said Zeman, who lives almost entirely off wild fish and game.
However, Zeman admitted, there are questions that need to be answered about the sustainability of the grizzly bear population. “That’s the big concern. That’s what keeps people up at night now,” he said.
Chris Genovali, Raincoast executive director, however, is not in favour of Weaver’s type of pack-the-meat-out bill, calling it “daft.” “It is simply an endorsement of killing grizzly bears as long as we turn them into sausage or soufflé,” he said. “That’s nothing but a way to hoodwink the public into believing the trophy hunt is a food hunt…That would be worse than doing nothing,” he said.
Genovali feels that the growing proliferation of organizations opposing the hunt, including business and tourism groups, shows that it is an issue that resonates with the public and crosses political lines. He finds it disheartening that, towards May 2017’s provincial election, neither the Liberals nor NDP are opposing the hunt. Unless political parties, or individual candidates, come out strongly and loudly against the hunt, there will be limited opportunities for voters to get their views on the subject across on election day.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.