The proposed plan is vague, rushed and alarming say those concerned about grizzly bear conservation.
TEARS STREAMED DOWN Trish Boyum’s face as she watched a relaxed mother grizzly bear flop on to her back and nurse her cubs, unconcerned about the proximity of Boyum and a Zodiac full of bear watchers.
“She was just across the river channel from us, eating grass and when the cubs wanted to nurse, she laid down and nursed them basically right in front of us…Her trust in us at that moment was just so, so heartwarming,” said Boyum, a wildlife photographer and marketing director for Ocean Adventures, her husband’s boat-based bear-viewing company.
But, for the last two months, bear watching for Boyum has been tainted with fear that the grizzlies that she and her guests have grown to know, could, once again, be hunted for their heads, hides and paws.
Mama Grizzly with young triplets (Photo by Trish Boyum Nature Photography)
“It is pretty hard to understand the mentality of someone that gets joy out of killing something so beautiful that has done nothing to them…The thought of someone coming in there with a gun and killing that mom and any of her cubs is just soul-destroying—and our guests feel the same way,” said Boyum, who has watched that mother grizzly and several generations of her cubs for 24 years.
Grizzly Bear Stewardship Framework: “watered-down science”
The Province is gathering input on a draft Grizzly Bear Stewardship Framework, with the stated aim of improving conservation efforts and identifying knowledge gaps.
But the document has alarmed conservation groups who say the framework could open the door to reinstating the grizzly bear trophy hunt which, after years of bitter political battles and growing public distaste for trophy hunting, was banned by the NDP government in 2017. The exception is Indigenous people are allowed to hunt grizzlies for food, ceremonial or social purposes.
Grizzly cub learning to eat barnacles from its mother (Photo by Trish Boyum Nature Photography)
Apart from the vague content of the Stewardship Framework, the public input process is flawed, said Brian Falconer, Raincoast Conservation Foundation director.
The initial deadline for responding to the document was August 18, but, after an extensive letter-writing campaign, it was extended to September 8 and then to October 6. However, some organizations say that still does not allow enough time for thoughtful feedback.
Falconer believes the questionnaire reduces a complex issue, that will affect grizzly management for generations of bears, to, sometimes inappropriate, multiple choice answers.
“It really dumbs down a lot of the responses,” said Falconer, who is also concerned that much of the document is based on assertions, rather than science, with no links to source material.
Karen McAllister, Pacific Wild executive director, said the timing of the release, when most people involved with grizzly bears were out in the field, immediately raised suspicions about the intentions of the Stewardship Framework.
“The timeline was insane. They put it out in the middle of summer with about a month for everyone to read a 75-page document and then fill in what they called a simple survey,” McAllister said.
“We had one of our staff biologists go through it and it took them three hours, so thinking that someone without any knowledge of science or grizzly bears in general might be able to wade through this document was ridiculous,” she said.
McAllister and others are worried about the Framework’s vagueness, lack of emphasis on conservation or habitat protection and references to the ban being an ethical decision, rather than one based on science.
“There’s a big concern that this is a sort of underhanded way of reinstating the grizzly bear trophy hunt,” said McAllister, noting that the ban has never been enshrined in legislation.
“They sidestep all the science, or lack of science.…We’ve got the second slowest reproducing land mammal in North America, a species listed as special concern under SARA (Species at Risk Act), a species that’s been extirpated from 50 per cent of its original range so one would think it is not just ethics. Even if it was about ethics, we’re talking about a majority of the public who find killing grizzly bears abhorrent,” McAllister said.
The concerns are echoed by other conservation organizations who believe that, aided by pressure from pro-hunting organizations such as the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. and B.C. Wildlife Federation and by what is seen as a hunting culture in the Forests Ministry, the document could lead to licensed hunting of grizzlies, especially in northern B.C.
“The Province, in this document, asserts, without much scientific basis, that many of the northern population units in B.C. are of ‘very low conservation concern’ implying that they could likely withstand pressure from a licensed hunt,” Falconer said.
“I believe, really strongly, that, as conservationists, wildlife managers and as humans, that our focus should be on healthy populations and avoiding the impacts that have led other populations to the brink of extinction.”
Bear biologist Wayne McCrory, founder of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, is disappointed the “watered-down science” of the Framework and accompanying Together for Wildlife Strategy fail to address issues raised in a scathing 2017 Auditor General’s report that criticized management of the trophy hunt, the lack of a management plan and the need for habitat protection.
“There’s a lack of any action plan in the Framework to move forward on what needs to be done…the need for more habitat protection and a grizzly bear management plan,” McCrory said
The lack of direction and concern about phrases such as the hunt being “currently closed” were echoed by Falconer.
“They acknowledge that human induced mortality is the major concern, they acknowledge that habitat loss and habitat fragmentation is really, really important, but they don’t offer any solutions for that—no policy changes or pursuit of policy changes that would reduce the fragmentation of grizzly habitat. Most of that is in forest practices and there’s a fundamental conflict of interest to start with when you house the ministry of wildlife in the Ministry of Forests,” Falconer said.
Pro-hunting lobby and some First Nations against ban
A ministry spokesperson, in an e-mailed answer to questions from Focus, said the hunt remains closed to all licensed hunting “and changes to that approach are not being considered at this time.”
The focus of the Stewardship Framework is about broader grizzly bear stewardship principles, according to the ministry.
A spokesperson for the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. said no one was available to speak to Focus, but guide outfitters have claimed loss of income and business since the grizzly ban, which they say was a political decision and not based on conservation science.
Earlier this year, guide outfitter Ronald Gordon Fleming and the company Love Bros. and Lee, a company run by Fleming, were given the go-ahead by B.C. Supreme Court to lead a class action lawsuit against the B.C. government over its decision to ban the hunt.
The B.C. Wildlife Federation website says the organization “fully supports the return of a science-based grizzly hunt” and is committed “to working with First Nations to restore the grizzly bear hunt in B.C., governed by science-based management.”
However, the Federation is critical of the Stewardship Framework saying the Province has consistently reduced funding to renewable resource management, has failed to set objectives for grizzly bear recovery, and continues to make wildlife management decisions based on political expediency rather than available evidence.
Action to protect grizzly habitat is almost non-existent and research and data collection have ground to a halt, even though “evidence points to habitat disturbance as a main driver of grizzly bear declines, not hunting,” according to the BCWF website.
Although most Indigenous communities are against hunting grizzlies and the Union of B.C Indian Chiefs has stated that trophy hunting goes against Indigenous practices, some, such as the Tahltan First Nation, in northwest B.C., want the hunt reinstated.
Tahltan Central Government President Chad Day told The Narwhal in 2020 that the sport hunting ban has thrown the ecosystem out of whack, resulting in shrinking caribou, moose and salmon populations.
Also, the Framework notes that the Nisga’a Final Agreement “includes allocation consideration for the purposes of licensed harvest of grizzly bear.”
The document acknowledges that, while some Indigenous communities have a deep understanding that grizzly bears should not be hunted and some have benefited economically from bear-viewing, other communities have suffered economic losses from the closure of grizzly hunting.
“Some Nations have expressed interest in reinstating a licensed hunt to provide a source of local income,” it says.
“Should licensed hunting be considered in the future, it would require a more detailed and focused review of Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, science and policy.”
Regional boards at risk of being dominated by hunters
One of the major concerns is a plan to set up regional wildlife advisory boards.
In other jurisdictions, such local committees usually end up being led by hunting organizations with a vested interest in predator control and trophy hunting of bears, McCrory said.
“The whole government design of the Grizzly Bear Framework document and the way it is deceptively worked on the topic of grizzly bear hunting informs me enough to conclude that the formation of these local committees is a backdoor way for the government to reinstate grizzly bear trophy hunting and let the committees help deflect the flak from the majority of British Columbians who are opposed to the grizzly bear trophy hunt,” McCrory wrote in a letter to B.C. Premier David Eby and government ministers.
Falconer is worried that local committees would be dominated by industry and pro-hunting factions and questions how local committees and local stewardship plans, would mesh with provincial plans.
“They could say they are not bound by provincial law—we would like to do this with habitat or whatever—and it could potentially be very destructive, as it has been in Alaska where (a similar system) has been very bad for bears,” he said.
Local committees would also shut out the larger community, where people with an interest in bears or who find hunting grizzly bears is morally, ethically and ecologically abhorrent, would not have a say, Falconer said.
Amber Peters, a wildlife biologist and campaigner working with Valhalla Wilderness Society, said that, although the Together for Wildlife Strategy, with local people making decisions about wildlife, sounds appealing on the surface, the devil is in the details and could certainly result in hunting and trapping organizations or groups with a vested interest making bear management decisions.
“It’s big money for a small number of people (if they are allowed) to kill grizzly bears . . . We should have qualified biologists making these decisions,” she said.
Any consideration of grizzly bear management must also take into account the big issues, such as loss of habitat, wildlife corridors, forest fires, failing salmon runs and climate change, Peters said.
Larger issues and checkered history
Those larger issues have left the bears increasingly under stress, agreed McCrory.
“I have witnessed starving grizzlies on the south coast from lack of salmon due to clearcut logging of watersheds and mortality resulting from Atlantic salmon farms; prime grizzly bear habitat areas eroded by clearcuts, roads and backcountry recreation tenures awarded by the Mountain Resource Branch; old growth bear den trees floating in log booms on the south coast from lack of old-growth protection,” McCrory said in a letter to Premier David Eby.
The e-mailed statement from the Forests Ministry said the Framework was developed in collaboration with, or with input from, leadership, community members and knowledge holders from approximately 85 First Nations governments and Indigenous groups.
“A key learning from that process was the different First Nations have different approaches to grizzly bear stewardship. Regionally based planning recognizes and honours this reality,” it says.
About 15,000 grizzly bears—half the Canadian population—are believed to live in B.C, but that number is questioned by some conservation organizations. Populations in some areas have been extirpated and about 15 populations are highly threatened or critically endangered.
The trophy hunt killed between 250 and 300 bears a year and a 2016 David Suzuki Foundation study, using government figures, found that, between 1975 and 2016 humans killed 13,804 grizzlies, with most deaths attributable to trophy hunters.
The ban came with a checkered history. The NDP initially announced a moratorium on grizzly trophy hunting in 2001, but the New Democrats were almost wiped out in the next election and the governing Liberals immediately reinstated the hunt claiming the ban opened an urban-rural divide.
In the intervening years it became clear that British Columbians were overwhelmingly against the hunt and that the increasingly popular tourist attraction of bear watching was much more lucrative and brought more to government coffers than bear hunting.
Finally: the ethics of killing a sentient being
Conservation groups agree that the science clearly indicates there should never be a return to trophy hunting, but there are also ethical and moral considerations.
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said, if the hunt is re-opened, it could lead to unforeseen problems.
“Grizzlies, like other non-humans, don’t like being harassed and killed and other bears might see and feel what is going on,” he said in an e-mail to Focus.
“Grizzlies are sentient, feeling beings. They’re extremely intelligent, but, more importantly, they have rich and deep emotional lives. They feel their own pain and that of others and they shouldn’t be killed for fun, trophies or sport. I can’t understand why anyone would enjoy killing bears for the hell of it,” Bekoff said.
Grizzly mom with yearling cubs at sunset (Photo by Trish Boyum Nature Photography)
Trish Boyum of Ocean Adventures said that, contrary to stories of grizzlies being fearsome killers, her interactions have shown that the bears are peace-loving, emotionally intelligent animals.
“[They] do not deserve to be killed for cash, kicks, trophies and certainly not as a guise for management or stewardship,” Boyum said.
“I’m forever humbled by and grateful for the trust of these beautiful bears and for all that they continue to teach us about who they really are,” she said.
Freelance journalist Judith Lavoie has spent over 30 years as a reporter in the Greater Victoria area. She has won four Webster awards and has been nominated for a National Newspaper Award and a Michener Award. She enjoys exploring stories about the natural world and Indigenous issues, along with the politics around them.