The controversial business of hunting grizzlies in British Columbia
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.”