Bear Mar­ket

The con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness of hunting griz­zlies in Bri­tish Columbia

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Glo­ria Dickie

The con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness of hunting griz­zlies in Bri­tish Columbia

When the griz­zly falls, it does so silently. Rain and the re­ver­ber­a­tion of a gun­shot mask what should be the tremen­dous sound of the 900-pound body col­laps­ing into the shal­low wa­ter of the es­tu­ary. Clad in cam­ou­flage, Steve West raises a tri­umphant fist as smoke bil­lows out of his .50-cal­i­bre muz­zleloader. “Ooh, Bob, that’s a nice bear,” he says to Bob Mil­li­gan, an out­fit­ter West has hired to guide him on this hunt, who’s op­er­at­ing a metal skiff in the river be­hind him.

It’s a cool evening in June 2012, the sun sink­ing be­hind the cedar-peaked moun­tains of the north­ern reaches of the Great Bear Rain­for­est, as the pair wade through the grassy es­tu­ary to­ward West’s tro­phy. Mil­li­gan, who, for more than twenty-five years, owned one of Bri­tish Columbia’s most no­to­ri­ous and valu­able guide-out­fit­ting busi­nesses, grabs the bear’s din­ner-plate-sized paw and holds it against West’s hand. A bear like this can make any­one feel small. West reaches down into the tide­wa­ter and hoists up the griz­zly’s head by its wet ears to re­veal the an­i­mal’s face for the cam­era­man film­ing the hunt. West hosts a TV show, Steve’s Out­door Ad­ven­tures, on the Out­door Chan­nel. “That’s what it’s all about right there!” he says.

West grew up hunting for meat — deer and elk, mainly — and made his first foray into tro­phy hunting in the 1990s. In ad­di­tion to host­ing his show, he also works as a book­ing agent for ex­trav­a­gant ex­pe­di­tions in Canada and the United States, mak­ing him a big name in the busi­ness. Over the years, he has hunted the world: oryx in Namibia, wa­ter buf­falo in Aus­tralia, and muskox in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. “Griz­zlies are hunted be­cause they’re a chal­lenge,” West ex­plains, stand­ing in his wood-pan­elled of­fice in La Grande, Ore­gon, as a cam­era­man records our in­ter­view on West’s be­half. Amid threats on so­cial me­dia and irate phone calls, he has be­come wary about be­ing taken out of con­text on such a flash­point topic. “There’s the man ver­sus bear thing that comes into play,” he con­tin­ues. “Yeah, I’ve got a gun or a boat. . . . I’m hold­ing an ad­van­tage of weaponry, but there’s still an el­e­ment of dan­ger.”

For decades, West was one of sev­eral hun­dred tro­phy hunters who ven­tured into BC’S forests each year in hopes of bag­ging a griz­zly. His 2012 bear was his first taken in the prov­ince, and it set a record: the largest griz­zly ever to be killed with a muz­zleloader—a gun that’s loaded through the bar­rel. BC, along with the Yukon and Alaska, was one of only three places left in North Amer­ica where hunters could legally kill griz­zly bears for sport.

But on Novem­ber 30, 2017, BC’S newly in­stated NDP govern­ment put an end to the griz­zly bear tro­phy hunt through­out the prov­ince, ful­fill­ing one of its cam­paign prom­ises. The de­ci­sion was largely hailed

as a vic­tory. The de­bate over hunting griz­zly bears in the prov­ince had long been waged along po­lit­i­cal and moral lines. For many, the tro­phy hunters who killed a few hun­dred bears ev­ery year were bar­baric. But some Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the prov­ince re­lied on the in­come; a sin­gle hunt of­ten to­talled tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in rev­enue for com­mu­ni­ties with few op­tions for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. For these com­mu­ni­ties, the is­sue has not been one of con­ser­va­tion ver­sus dec­i­ma­tion but of lost liveli­hoods and un­cer­tain fu­tures. M uch of the ide­o­log­i­cal fight over the griz­zly bear tro­phy hunt has played out not in Bri­tish Columbia’s in­te­rior, where a higher con­cen­tra­tion of the prov­ince’s an­i­mals have been killed, but in the Great Bear Rain­for­est. Known as the mid- and north-coast tim­ber sup­ply ar­eas be­fore be­ing re­named by con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gists to make the re­gion sound more provoca­tive for en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, the ecore­gion is the jewel of BC’S rugged coast where white “spirit” bears and sea wolves roam. The 6.4mil­lion hectares of lush Sitka spruce forests, grassy river es­tu­ar­ies, and iso­lated in­lets and is­lands run­ning from the tip of Van­cou­ver Is­land to the Alaska pan­han­dle were for­mally pro­tected by the pro­vin­cial govern­ment in 2016, plac­ing 85 per­cent of the ecore­gion’s old-growth forests off lim­its to log­ging. With trees largely pro­tected, ac­tivists turned to the ecore­gion’s name­sake: bears.

First Na­tions have long shared the same es­tu­ar­ies, rivers, and foods with these an­i­mals. El­ders say that if a per­son ever be­comes lost in the for­est, to sur­vive, they should eat ev­ery­thing a bear does — salmonber­ries, sil­ver­weed, choco­late lily, north­ern rice root — save for skunk cab­bage. In one story, bears have the abil­ity to take off their fur and be­come hu­man. In dance, myth, and leg­end, the griz­zly bear reigns — serv­ing as mother, pro­tec­tor, and medicine man, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous na­tions’ sto­ries. The an­i­mal is revered but also hunted — rarely for food but of­ten for its long, curved claws and its skins, which are fash­ioned into cer­e­mo­nial crowns and coarse fur capes.

For decades, partly be­cause BC has one of the largest pop­u­la­tions of griz­zly bears in North Amer­ica and partly be­cause of the prov­ince’s nat­u­ral splen­dour in which the bears live, hunters — of­ten men from oil-rich states and prov­inces, in­clud­ing Texas, Ok­la­homa, and Al­berta — have been drawn to the forests and moun­tains of BC in search of its kings. But today, the big­gest peril faced by bears isn’t cam­ou­flaged hunters. Are­port by the BC Au­di­tor Gen­eral, re­leased a month be­fore the tro­phy­hunt­ing ban came into ef­fect, found that “hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties that de­grade griz­zly bear habi­tat,” in­clud­ing forestry and oil and gas de­vel­op­ment, were the great­est threat to the prov­ince’s bears. The re­port also found that some bear pop­u­la­tions in the prov­ince were in­creas­ing.

Tro­phy hunting has long been a lu­cra­tive in­dus­try in BC. In 2001, griz­zlies were granted a brief re­prieve when NDP premier Uj­jal Dosanjh im­ple­mented what was sup­posed to be a three-year mora­to­rium on tro­phy hunting ahead of a pro­vin­cial elec­tion. Lib­eral leader Gor­don Campbell called the mora­to­rium “a crass po­lit­i­cal scheme aimed at sell­ing out ru­ral Bri­tish Columbians to buy ur­ban votes.” The mora­to­rium lasted only five months. When the Lib­er­als ousted the NDP, the hunt re­sumed. Un­der­pin­ning such backand-forth po­lit­i­cal bat­tles has largely been the ad­her­ence to “the best avail­able science” — or lack thereof. Ac­cord­ing to the pro­vin­cial govern­ment, there are roughly 15,000 griz­zly bears in BC today, more than half of Canada’s to­tal griz­zly pop­u­la­tion — but no one knows for sure. Bears are chal­leng­ing and ex­pen­sive to count; only 15 per­cent of griz­zly pop­u­la­tions in the prov­ince have ever been counted in a cen­sus.

Based in the coastal com­mu­nity of Bella Bella in the Great Bear Rain­for­est, in Heilt­suk ter­ri­tory, bi­ol­o­gist Kyle Artelle has stud­ied the man­age­ment of the prov­ince’s griz­zly bear pop­u­la­tions for nearly a decade. In a 2013 pa­per, Artelle and his team found that be­tween 2001 and 2011, more griz­zlies were killed than the prov­ince deemed sus­tain­able in half of all hunted pop­u­la­tions in BC. How­ever, a 2016 re­search pa­per au­thored by BC govern­ment sci­en­tists and pub­lished in The Jour­nal of Wildlife Man­age­ment said that “the hy­poth­e­sis that the griz­zly bear hunt has been un­sus­tain­able was not sup­ported by our in­ves­ti­ga­tion of avail­able in­for­ma­tion,” although it ac­knowl­edged the need for more re­search.

“[The govern­ment] doesn’t have very good data on pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates,” Artelle says. “These things are re­ally im­por­tant when you’re won­der­ing how many bears can die with­out the pop­u­la­tion de­creas­ing.” An­other study he led, pub­lished in March, found “limited sup­port for the as­sump­tion that wildlife man­age­ment in North Amer­ica is guided by science. Most man­age­ment sys­tems lacked in­di­ca­tions of the ba­sic el­e­ments of a sci­en­tific ap­proach to man­age­ment.”

For Lee Foote, a hunter who has taught wildlife re­source uti­liza­tion at the Univer­sity of Al­berta, there’s noth­ing wrong with the idea of pro­tect­ing griz­zlies in the Great Bear Rain­for­est to con­serve an in­tact ecosys­tem holis­ti­cally. “If that were re­ally the case, I could sup­port the clo­sure of hunting in that area,” he says. “But I think what’s driv­ing this is a Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion and a sen­ti­men­tal­ity that’s not grounded in re­al­ity.” Foote, who served on the sus­tain­able-use-and-liveli­hoods com­mit­tee for the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture, be­lieves the ban on griz­zly hunting won’t lead to any con­ser­va­tion gains for the species but rather a slow degra­da­tion of hu­man tol­er­ance for bears as the an­i­mal will now hold an in­trin­sic rather than a spe­cific value.

Such con­sid­er­a­tions didn’t sway the new BC govern­ment. With no con­sen­sus on the health of the griz­zly bear pop­u­la­tion, the hunt be­ing po­si­tioned in me­dia as an af­front to First Na­tions in BC, and an­titro­phy-hunting sen­ti­ment reach­ing a tip­ping point, the NDP an­nounced the ban, cred­it­ing pub­lic in­tol­er­ance rather than science. “This ac­tion is sup­ported by the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple across our prov­ince,” said Doug Donaldson, min­is­ter of forests, lands, nat­u­ral re­source op­er­a­tions, and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment, in a press re­lease sent out last Au­gust. While ac­tivists in BC

“What’s driv­ing the griz­zly hunt ban is a Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion and a sen­ti­men­tal­ity that’s not grounded in re­al­ity.”

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