From the Coastal First Nations ban on trophy hunting in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest in 2012, to the current Coast to Cascades coalition that is calling on the BC government to step up grizzly bear education and habitat remediation, it is clear that grave concern is intensifying for BC’s grizzly bear population.
This reality is accurately captured by Johnny Mikes from Coast to Cascades, who stated, “We have a unique opportunity to save grizzlies in southwest BC, but it may be our last.” Research of populations, spanning from southwest BC into the BC-Washington Cascade Mountain, is illustrating fragmented grizzly habitats with populations edging closer to the precipice of irreversible decline.
Of the nine grizzly populations across BC that have been designated as threatened by the BC government, five are located in the Coast to Cascade region; there are fewer than 100 bears in four of the populations combined, and one of which is critical for regional grizzly bear recovery*.
Concurrently, the province of BC is approaching an impasse; either grizzly bear recovery planning is taken seriously and implemented as long term, permanent community planning, or passivity to the issue catalyzes permanent damage. The damage would not only be inflicted on an iconic species of North America, but to the ecosystems and food chains of which grizzlies are an indicator and keystone species. As Joan Synder of BC Nature explains, “grizzly bears are excellent indicators of a healthy ecosystem, and by ensuring the survival of the grizzly we also look after thousands of other plants and animals that live alongside it.”
Likewise, a declining grizzly bear population is indicative of problems with their habitat, including fatal human interaction, lack of staple sustenance, low reproduction rates, and overall ecosystem imbalance caused by improper development of mining, forestry, hydroelectric projects, tourism, settlement, ranching and agriculture. While these industries are fundamental to economic and societal needs of various regions and communities of BC, it is crucial that they are developed holistically, in tandem with conservation measures and an understanding and awareness of long-term environmental impacts.
In response to threatened grizzly populations of the Coast, Chilcotin and Cascades Mountains, the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative is not only calling the BC government to implement restorative measures, but they are also emphasizing education and awareness among communities and visitors of grizzly habitats. The latter effort is twofold: it supports the initiative’s vision of “thriving human communities and healthy, connected wildlife habitats”, while highlighting a salient issue of how to navigate human-bear interaction as development increases the proximity and frequency of human bear conflict. For example, backcountry roads can cut through female grizzly bear home ranges and interfere with access to critical food and raising of her cubs. Development also exacerbates habitat loss and fragmentation, which, once again, increases the likelihood that human and bears will interact as bears wander to find food, and ideally, safety. Sadly, when humans and bears cross paths, the outcome is rarely without loss of human or animal life.
According to the BC government, since 2006 people have killed 3 breeding aged females from the 24 bears that comprise the 3rd smallest grizzly population near Lillooet; an area that also has no hunting season. The loss of breeding females means the loss of potential offspring; the very animals that will help populations recover. At the same time, loss of male grizzlies is equally as damaging to future population growth. Furthermore, grizzlies’ naturally slow reproductive rates that are embedded in fragmented and threatened habitats is also a factor that is affecting healthy reproduction rates.
Meanwhile, in Yellowstone National Park, there was an alarming spike in grizzly encounters, from zero between 1986 and 2010 to four deadly incidents during the summers of 2010 and 2011. An article by Jeff Hull of Outside magazine investigated this sudden change. The biggest factors at play were the increase in bear population, the increase in visitors to the park, and the lack of understanding among hikers of how to handle contact with a grizzly bear. Although BC has not experienced loss of human life to the extent that Yellowstone has, the story does highlight how critical it is for humans to be educated and aware of how to live with grizzlies so that death does not occur for either species.
The Coast to Cascades Initiative is working to bring the issue of grizzly bear population restoration to the forefront of the minds and actions of the BC government and residents. More importantly, the initiative aims to emphasize that the downward population trend of Coast to Cascades grizzlies is still reversible. To bring about this reversal, we need:
- Immediate and long term political action to reduce grizzly bear deaths and to secure bear habitat;
- Sound community planning and implementation based on sound science;
- Better understanding of grizzly bear ecology;
- Willingness on the part of humans to be flexible and educated on grizzly ear behaviour, habitat, how to act in a human-bear interaction, how to avoid human-bear conflict, and how to spot the difference between a grizzly and a black bear;
- Reporting of grizzly bear sightings in southwest BC as well as observations and signs of grizzlies in a given area. This information is vital for monitoring and research of this keystone species. www.coasttocascades.org outlines contact information to report any sightings, questions, or insights about grizzlies in southwest BC
Research and monitoring that is currently underway to establish a more accurate understanding of grizzly bear behaviour and means of survival is critical; yet this new knowledge and information holds little meaning if it is not shared, understood, and implemented through legislation and planning in all forms of development. The best way to ensure planning and implementation are followed through on is to promote and encourage the government of BC to take immediate action on this issue. It is at this point where BC residents are integral in the process of raising awareness, getting involved, and taking the time to learn how to coexist with a species that has been an ambassador for wild places for over 5 million years, and is symbolic of the true wild nature of British Columbia.
*Garibaldi-Pitt (2 bears), Squamish-Lillooet (59 bears), Stein-Nahatlatch (24 bears) and the trans boundary North Cascades (6 bears). The fifth, the South Chilcotin (203 bears), has two-thirds of the regional grizzly bear population.