A grizzly reality: Trophy hunting in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.

Photo from Heather and Mike | flickr.com

Photo from Heather and Mike | flickr.com

The idea that the (annual BC bear) hunt is based on sound science, to me and a great many other scientists, is absurd, for a number of reasons. But in an overarching way, science provides information; it does not provide permission to behave unethically. And to me, that is primary issue at stake here: this is unethical behavior, to kill something without eating it.
— Dr. Chris Darimont, University of Victoria

Picture the most awe-inspiring, intimidating, wild beast you can think of. Do you picture it in the rugged, secluded, great outdoors? Or are you admiring it in a picture, or mounted on a wall, a trophy for all to see?

In British Columbia, this awe-inspiring beast is a grizzly bear, and according to a poll, 87% of British Columbians believe these beasts should be admired from afar and not on a wall or floor as a trophy of domination. This poll represents a growing push for British Columbia to replace its anarchistic bear hunting laws for rules and regulations that support a more symbiotic relationship between grizzly bears and humans.

The poll question posed to British Columbians was fuelled by a convergence of two events; one being the release of a picture of NHL’s Minnesota Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner posing with the head and paws of a slain grizzly in May 2012.  

As part of the annual fall bear hunt in BC, Stoner was issued and paid for the grizzly bear hunting license provided by the provincial government through its annual lottery. Although legal, the ethics of trophy hunting are controversial.  Following the photo shoot, the head and paws were carried out, while the skinned carcass was left to rot in a nearby field. This all took place the same year that an alliance of BC Coastal First Nations announced the ban on trophy hunting for bears in the territories making up the Great Bear Rainforest.

It was later uncovered that the bear killed by Stoner and his fellow hunters was a 5 year old male grizzly, named Cheeky to the local field technicians and First Nations of B.C.’s Kwatna estuary. It is at this point that the documentary, Bear Witness by the Coastal First Nation Alliance, picks up the story to reveal a deeply upsetting reality that is bringing together elected leaders, scholars from University of Victoria’s Applied Conservation Lab, and the Coastal First nations alliance. This alliance includes the Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate and Council of the Haida Nation, as well as the Wuikinuxv Nation in Rivers Inlet, the Heiltsuck Nation in Bella Bella, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation in Klemtu, and the Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola. The latter nations collectively cover a total of 45,000 square kilometers of pristine coastal bear habitat, known as the Great Bear Rainforest, where hunting is allowed by the BC government in 50% of the forest. Overall, approximately 300 grizzlies are shot by resident and non-resident hunters in BC, 100 of which are allotted to the Great Bear Rainforest.

Briefly, the 20-minute documentary presents a well-rounded snapshot of the issue as it is seen from the perspective of the First Nations who monitor and collaborate with the University of Victoria.  It reveals the passion, frustration, and the resulting action that is being taken on behalf of the First Nations who witness trophy hunting on their land.  The interviewees themselves illustrate their close personal and cultural bond with grizzly bears; but just as importantly they establish their understanding of the larger issues of wildlife conservation, national symbolism, and sustainability that are at stake.  There is great desire for the First Nation’s land to be instrumental in sustainable and non-extractive opportunities.  Thus, in the case of grizzly bears, they value ecotourism that brings people from across Canada and the world to witness the bears in their natural, day-to-day living, free from human disturbance and fabricated vilification.  While it is understood that the bears are far from local pets and require their space, respect, and reverence, they are also a specie that are critical to the local ecosystem, and they symbolize the wild, rugged, pristine and free nature of BC and Canada.

It is the loss of grizzlies to trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest that has united these nations and councils to coordinate research methods to identify, track, and tally the grizzlies who inhabit the hunting areas. This collaborative spirit has grown out of a disconnect that exists between first nations’ and government’s data and subsequent reasoning on how many grizzlies inhabit BC, and the related hunting quotas which are enforced. The current government believes the hunting laws that are currently in place establish the appropriate balance for both humans and the ecosystem of which grizzlies are a key specie.  Yet, there is a strong belief among First Nations that the population estimates are not correct. Thus, collaboration with the University of Victoria and research Chris Darimont is giving First Nation’s the resources, data, and knowledge to substantiate and legitimize their claims.  Interestingly, Cheeky was a bear that Dr. Darimont’s team had no record of. It is expected that many more bears will be added to this list as monitoring and collecting of data is performed by Dr. Darimont’s students and the Coastal First Nation Alliance.

While the headlines and media frenzy over Stoner’s photo, it boils down to a fairly straightforward question: Should grizzly bears be subjected to trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest?

For the provincial government, their hunting laws are based on data and conclusions that are deemed fair and sustainable.  According to Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations Minister, Steve Thomson, the current policy “is a science-based policy, which only allows hunting in regions where the grizzly bear population is stable. And in our view, the current policy we have in place provides the appropriate balance. So we feel we are respecting the interests of both parties in terms of providing those opportunities both for resident hunters and the guide –outfitting industry and for the [eco] tourism component.” Yet Mr. Thomson does not speak to the modernity of science that the laws are based on. Moreover, it is becoming more apparent that the laws may not necessarily reflect the shift among BC residents on the issue of hunting grizzlies, coupled with the surge of ecotourism in the province, which depends on a thriving grizzly population.  

Among hunters, there are those who believe in hunting only for sustenance, or at the very least using as much of the animal as possible for more than trophies or bragging rights. There are also hunters who have hunted all their lives with family and friends, as such they see it as a long time tradition that is within their rights and the law. As Stoner stated, “I applied for and received a grizzly bear hunting license through a British Columbia limited entry lottery last winter and shot a grizzly bear with my license while hunting with my father, uncle and a friend in May.” A grizzly hunting license in BC costs $1,030 for non-residents; therefore, the cost of the license, as well as the hunters who come into the area and pay for all the amenities and services attached to it, represents a significant source of revenue for the province, but not the communities who inhabit the hunting grounds.

For First Nations, the belief is that there is more revenue and overall benefit in the ecotourism/bear watching industry than hunting. Not only does it keep grizzlies in the Great Bear Forest alive, but it also supports more of the local businesses and residents of regions like Bella Bella and Bella Coola.  Bear Witness also illustrates the skepticism among First Nations regarding the province’s data and its accuracy on bear population. While they do concede that they do not believe anyone will ever know with 100% certainty how many grizzlies are in the area, they are in full support of the precautionary principle; to protect and conserve such a vital and valued specie rather that discover that sound science based hunting laws were wrong. Thus, their ban on trophy hunting reflects their values, culture, and expectations for change.  The challenge however is holding hunters to this ban while receiving no support from the provincial government to enact traditional laws.

While the debate surrounding the issue of grizzly bear hunting in BC has revolved primarily around the ethics of trophy hunting, there is another aspect of this issue that is salient and extremely relevant. That is, the collaborative community that has evolved from the controversy demonstrates how science can legitimize the traditional beliefs and personal experiences of First Nations who interact with the Great Bear Rainforest.  It is this type of collaborative spirit that has immense potential to resolve the conflict that currently exists between the provincial and the Coastal First Nations. Collaboration takes dedicated work andcompromise, but it can open avenues and opportunities that were once unseen or unheard of. If either side of this debate truly wants to develop a resolution, it will require an acknowledgement from both sides that there is a degree of legitimacy and logic to each other’s stance, but that there is also a degree of common ground that can be achieved. The inability to do so will support the status quo of feuding government leaders, First Nations, and hunters and ultimately ignores the core of the issue, and that is the sustainability and vitality of Canada’s grizzly bear population.

To learn more about the facts, and to watch Bear Witness, go to www.bearsforever.ca, sign the pledge and keep updated on this issue as it progresses.