The BC government has killed the grizzly hunt. But will Conservation Officers enforce the ban?
AFTER YEARS OF LETTER WRITING, strategy sessions and protests, opponents of BC’s grizzly bear trophy hunt were euphoric when the NDP government killed the hunt in December.
“Can you believe it? I have just had a weep,” said Valerie Murray, founding member of Justice for BC Grizzlies, as Environment Minister George Heyman and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson announced that all grizzly hunting in BC would end immediately.
Grizzly sow and cubs (Photograph by Mike Hoekendijk)
Earlier, in August 2016, the government had said that grizzly hunting would stop in the Great Bear Rainforest and trophy hunting would be banned in the rest of the province, but there was a loophole large enough for a pickup truck to drive through. It took the shape of allowing a food hunt, provided meat was packed out, and perceived trophies, such as the head, hide, paws and penis bone, were either left in the woods or turned over to the government.
Fears that the meat hunt would be a thin disguise for business-as-usual were exacerbated by advertisements on the Guide Outfitters Association of BC website promoting the 2018 hunt.
After the initial announcement, government allowed time for further consultation and the reaction was fast and furious. Out of 4,180 emails received by government, almost 80 percent wanted a total ban on grizzly hunting. “British Columbians told us in no uncertain terms, very clearly, how strongly they feel about protecting grizzly bears and grizzly bear habitat,” Heyman said.
The only exception will be First Nations, who will be allowed to harvest grizzlies for food, social or ceremonial purposes or treaty rights. But that impact is expected to be minimal.
Scrapping the “sustenance hunt” surprised both sides of the polarized controversy, with many expressing amazement that the government had listened to the opinions of British Columbians. “We can bearly believe it,” quipped Joy Foy of the Wilderness Committee.
On the other side, opposition Liberals and grizzly hunters claimed the ban was an effort to divert the attention of environmentalists from the NDP government’s earlier decision to go ahead with the Site C dam.
Members of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC predict some businesses will fail as a result of the ban, but a 2014 study found that bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest generated 12 times more in visitor spending and 11 times more in government revenue than hunting.
Also, First Nations are likely to benefit from increases in bear viewing and aboriginal tourism, said Vernon Brown, a councillor with Kitasoo Xai/xais Nation, which runs a successful tourist lodge and bear watching operation in Klemtu.
Liberals John Rustad and Peter Milobar accused the NDP of abandoning “scientific-based decision making in favour of political calculus designed to appease US-based environmental groups.”
But, science is largely on the side of a hunting ban.
Government figures put the BC grizzly population at 15,000, but some scientists believe the number is much lower. Although DNA testing is used to assess populations in some parts of the province, computer models are used to calculate populations in other areas and there are concerns those figures could be inaccurate.
BC is one of the last areas in North America where grizzly bears live in their natural habitat, but nine of the province’s bear sub-populations are in trouble, and three in southwest BC have been assessed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Groups such as the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative are pushing to have those populations listed as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act.
While sub-populations are increasing in some areas, studies show other areas have been heavily over-hunted. A 2013 Simon Fraser University and University of Victoria study found that in half the population groups where hunting is allowed, more grizzlies have been killed than government targets allow.
The Province has long claimed a harvest rate of 250 to 300 bears a year is sustainable, but studies point to slow reproduction rates and show that about 34 percent of bears killed are female—a figure generally accepted as too high.
Poaching, accidents and bears shot by conservation officers all increase the death rate. A David Suzuki Foundation study, using government figures, found that between 1975 and 2016, humans have killed 13,804 grizzlies in BC. In 2016, 87 percent of all human-caused killing was attributable to trophy hunters.
In neighbouring Alberta, the hunt was suspended in 2006 and the species was declared as threatened in 2010. The difference between Alberta and BC came into sharp relief in September when Bear 148, who had been radio-collared and relocated in Alberta, was shot by a hunter when she wandered into BC.
ADDING TO THE PUBLIC DISCOMFORT WITH THE HUNT is a highly critical report by Auditor General Carol Bellringer, released last fall. It found a tangle of unimplemented plans, lack of organized monitoring, spotty oversight and unclear accountability. It also made clear that protecting the bears will take more than a hunting ban. Besides pointing to habitat loss as a major threat, it cited 600,000 kilometres of resource roads with 10,000 more kilometres added each year. The road network means humans have more access into wilderness areas, resulting in the illegal killing of bears and more human-bear conflicts—which usually end with a dead bear.
Heyman, who is promising to implement all recommendations from Bellringer’s report, says the government will be looking at Species at Risk legislation, a grizzly bear management strategy, and a wildlife management strategy. Excessive access to grizzly habitat is one problem to be addressed, as is understaffing of the Conservation Officer Service (COS), Heyman said.
A Green Party spokeswoman agreed that environmental enforcement capacity has been crippled by budget and staff cuts. She noted that between 2001 and 2012, while the Liberals were in power, COS staffing levels fell by one-third, meaning a 32 percent decline in boots on the ground at a time when resource activity was increasing. Simultaneously, the number of tickets for environmental violations fell by more than half, and convictions plummeted.
But dissatisfaction with the COS goes deeper than funding cuts, and some are calling for a complete overhaul of the mandate and makeup of the service.
In 2016, 27 grizzlies were killed by conservation officers after encounters with humans, resulting in accusations that gun-happy officers don’t look at other options. Over the past four years, according to ministry figures, conservation officers killed 72 grizzlies and 1,872 black bears.
“The public doesn’t trust the Conservation Officer Service any more. I couldn’t count on my fingers and toes how many times I have heard people say there is no way they would phone a conservation officer because the animal will end up dead,” said wildlife photographer Trish Boyum, operator of an eco-charter boat.
Bryce Casavant, a conservation officer, who in 2015 was suspended and then transferred into another ministry after he refused to kill two bear cubs, is blunt about the inherent conflict of interest he sees among conservation officers.
“Until there is the political will to change the behaviour of the Conservation Officer Service, there is no hope for BC wildlife,” said Casavant, a researcher with Royal Roads University and a former officer with the Canadian Forces Military Police who ran for the NDP in the last election.
The heart of the problem, said Casavant, is that the COS is an armed police service, basically functioning as a private army for the environment ministry.
But unlike other police services, there is no independent oversight board, and complaints are investigated internally.
There is also no oversight of hiring. Casavant said the vast majority of conservation officers are hunters or trophy hunters, and many are members of the BC Wildlife Federation (which is supportive of hunting, at least under certain circmstances). In fact, recruitment is aimed at those sectors rather than at people with a science or conservation background. “So, it doesn’t matter what regulation you put forward. If they want to kill bears, they are going to kill bears,” he said. In some cases, a CO has posed for pictures with a tranquillized bear cub, only to shoot it in the head once he is out of the public eye, Casavant charged.
In December, BC Supreme Court ruled against the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals and Dawson Creek resident Tiana Jackson who claimed a conservation officer had exceeded his authority by killing a black bear cub even though a wildlife centre had agreed to take the cub. However, the court did confirm that conservation officers had to follow government policy.
Before taking on new battles around habitat conservation and COS practices, environmentalists are celebrating the Christmas present for grizzly bears. “We are very grateful that the government has finally stepped up to do what the people have asked for, which is an end to this barbaric, bloody sport hunt,” Foy said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.