Bearing progress: Universities join the call for better management of B.C.'s grizzly bear populations.

Photo form iwona_kellie | flickr.com

Photo form iwona_kellie | flickr.com

In a move that bolsters the protests and concerns of many British Columbians, including British Columbia’s Coastal First Nations Alliance and the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, a trifecta of universities has released a report that sheds some light on B.C. grizzly bear crisis. The report notes that B.C.’s grizzly bear hunt is not sustainable and is threatening already struggling bear populations.

While the provincial government has long justified the hunt as part of a sound, sustainable, science based policy, the University of British Columbia, University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University reject this argument. Through collaborative efforts, researchers found that kill limits are being exceeded in many areas of B.C., including Southwest B.C. where populations are most at risk.  This newly released report not only provides support to activist and First Nation groups who have been working to ban the hunt and address trophy hunting in B.C., but it also points to the source of the problem in current government planning.

Currently, the BC government divides the province into more than 50 subzones or grizzly bear population units that are allotted harvest levels based on the number of bears in the area, the estimated reproductive rate of the populations, and the known number of bear mortalities.  Researches from all three universities decided then to utilize eight years worth of grizzly bear data and developed simulations based on a range of population and mortality estimates. When inputting the provincial estimates, it was found that overkilling of grizzly bears took place in 19% of the population units; as they factored in a higher range of uncertainty, the number of overkills climbed up to 70%.

Why is overkilling taking place while the government insists its population planning is sound and sustainable? Dr. Chris Darimont of the University of Victoria points to the reality that the government is not taking into account three key factors. The first is unreported bear deaths caused by humans; 85% of human caused grizzly bear deaths is due to hunting, the remainder is attributed to car accidents and ranchers who do not report killing grizzlies on or near their property.  The second is accurate on-the-ground estimate of how many bears are in each zone; this requires ongoing fieldwork and monitoring of bear migration and well-being. Lastly, a strong understanding of how fast bear populations grow is believed by researchers to be critical in developing more accurate grizzly bear population management policies.

While organizations such as the Coastal First Nations Alliance and Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative are collaborating to carry out on the ground research and monitoring, unreported bear deaths are more difficult to address in terms of timely, accurate recording. This is well illustrated by a 2011 incident where a Squamish man shot and killed a mature male grizzly bear and used the defense that he mistook the grizzly for a black bear. Not only did the man neglect to report the killing, he also shot the bear in an area that is off-limits to grizzly bear hunting at all times. While the man’s actions were eventually caught and punished with a $10,000 this year, it demonstrates the circumstances where valuable grizzly bear life can be needlessly lost and go undocumented.  

Darimont concedes that the three key factors which are being neglected do hold a great deal of uncertainty; thus they necessitate a great deal more monitoring and research to close the knowledge and uncertainty gap. Overall, he concludes that the government is playing “Russian roulette” with B.C.’s vulnerable grizzly bear population, which could inevitable topple numbers to level that cannot be recovered.  This conclusion echoes sentiments from various activist and community groups that are working tirelessly to bring struggling grizzly bear populations to British Columbians attention. Thus the tri-university report is not only timely, but it also adds legitimacy to the plight of an iconic Canadian specie.

The report calls for a type of management that has been gaining attention in a diversity of sectors; it can simply be termed adaptive planning. It is a form of short and long term planning that moves away from the notion of viewing data and the world it is embedded in as static or predictable; instead it acknowledges that humans, nature, business, politics, etc. operates in circumstances that fluctuate.  Albeit at times fluctuations or changes are expected variations as part known scientific and mathematical patterns or natural phenomena; yet other times changes are simply unforeseeable, and a great deal of the time it is because we neglect to take into account the reality that humans can act or make decisions that are unpredictable, irrational and/or illogical, i.e. hunting grizzlies in areas where hunting is unlawful.

While there is little we can do about human nature or predicting the unpredictable, we can change the mechanisms, policies, and procedures we have in place to help us adapt as seamlessly as possible. This demands a major paradigm shift, especially in government, industry, business and their stakeholders; yet it is not an impossible feat. And as the tri-university report outlines, they do believe there is a way to mold static, lagging planning into more knowledgeable and adaptable approach that requires a more on-the-ground, closer-to-source data building method.  While mathematical/scientific calculations still hold a valuable and integral place in planning and management of any specie population, more room can be given bringing researchers into the world and culture of the populations they are studying. Ideally, this can begin to build a stronger human-nature relationship and prompt more timely and accurate observations of changes in habit, behaviour and health of a specie. 

It is this type of relationship that is common in First Nation communities across B.C. and it is one that can and must inform environmental planning and academic research as B.C. moves forward. Fortunately, B.C. universities are willing to bridge the scientific and traditional knowledge gap, yet if government and other stakeholders do not accept this, it is blatant bypassing of an opportunity to adapt and progress as human beings and as a modern society. 

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See also: We can't let British Columbia's grizzly bears disappear.