Grizzly, grizzlies. bears, hunting, conservation
by Stan Hirst
“Wildlife management is a mish-mash of science, public relations and politics, not necessarily in that order”.
I came across that humble homily in a bundle of 50-year old lecture notes from my graduate student days. Why would I keep lecture notes for that long? I have no idea, probably an elder(ly) thing.
B.C. has several wild species which exemplify this categorization of resource governance: sockeye salmon, caribou and orcas come to mind. But the species that perhaps best exemplifies the sentiment for B.C. is probably the grizzly bear. Grizzlies have been in the news lately, not because they have munched anybody significant, but because of their conservation status.
GRIZZLY HUNTING BANNED IN B.C.
Effective November 30, 2017 B.C.’s new NDP government legislated a total ban on trophy hunting of grizzly bears throughout the province. The announcement of the ban from the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development included the telling statement that “grizzly trophy hunting is not a socially acceptable practice [in B.C.] in 2017”.
Under the November proclamation, hunting of grizzles for food was still permissible under licence in the province outside of the Great Bear Rainforest. To forestall any devious behaviour, so-called “meat hunters” would not have been permitted to legally possess the paws, head and/or hide of a killed grizzly.
However, in the days following the proclamation the Ministry received more than 4000 emails from the public, of which 80% expressed strong opposition to the continued food hunt. Government reaction to the public repose was surprisingly rapid, and within a month the government announced a total ban on hunting of grizzly bears for trophies and food, effective immediately across B.C.
First Nations were the only exception to the ban and the new legislation recognized their aboriginal right to hunt grizzlies for food, social and ceremonial purposes. However, most First Nations have continued to express little interest in killing grizzlies for any purpose. The Coastal First Nations had originally led the move to stop hunting of grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest of B.C.
Grizzly bears in B.C. are classified as Vulnerable by the Conservation Data Centre and are listed as a Species of Special Concern by the Federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). They once ranged over most of B.C. and large parts of Alberta. They have been extirpated from several regions in British Columbia where they historically ranged, including the southern-central interior from the US border to north of Quesnel, the Peace Lowlands around Ft. St. John and Dawson Creek, and the lower Fraser Valley and the Sunshine Coast. Present-day habitat quality and population density vary widely across the province.
Ministry statistics reveal that, until the recent legislation changed the situation, about 170 grizzlies were killed annually in B.C. by resident hunters, and a further 80 by foreign hunters. The government issued about 1,700 grizzly bear permits in 2017, mostly to B.C. hunters.
Commercial grizzly hunts had generated about half a million dollars annually for B.C. provincial coffers from hunting licences, and further undisclosed sums in fees to commercial guides who typically make tens of thousands of dollars per grizzly hunt. In announcing the ban on trophy hunting the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development stated that recent research had indicated values higher than this for the economic value of grizzly viewing in many parts of the province.
Restrictions on grizzly hunting in B.C. are not new. A total ban was legislated by the NDP back in 2001. This was rescinded by the incoming Liberal government in the same year.
There are now an estimated 15,000 grizzly bears in B.C. About 16% of the total provincial population is classified as threatened. Provincial statistics show that 10-15 grizzlies are killed illegally each year, and a further 20-30 by animal control officers dealing with human/bear conflicts.
The advent of the new legislation exposed a long-standing schism in society about our social behaviour towards wild species. Conservation and green groups have generally applauded the decision banning trophy hunting and food hunting of grizzlies. Guiding and hunting groups, on the other hand, predictably criticized the ban on trophy hunting as being costly in terms of jobs and commercial benefits since the hunting ban will remove millions of future dollars from the industry in terms of fees, lodging, bush-plane and other travel and equipment.
Provincial political opposition framed the NDP government decision as an abandonment of scientific-based decision making in favour of “an appeasement of U.S.-based environmental groups”.
THE FLIPSIDE SITUATION
It is informative to compare the B.C. grizzly situation with that in the Yellowstone area in the western U.S. There the new federal administration in Washington moved to delist the Grizzly bear as an endangered species and awarded management responsibility to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. This means in effect that grizzlies can now be legally hunted in these western states (outside of national park boundaries).
A key factor in the decision was the fact that when grizzlies were declared endangered in the US way back in 1975 there were an estimated 136 bears in and around the Yellowstone ecosystem (which includes the national park plus surrounding federal, state and private lands). Today, following a quarter-century of strict protection, there an estimated 700 grizzlies in the Yellowstone area, both inside and outside the national park.
The partisan reaction to the legalization of grizzly hunting in the Yellowstone area has been comparable to that in B.C. for the banning of legal hunting. Guiding industries and interests have predictably endorsed the change, while the broad conservation community has condemned it. Some 125 western U.S. tribes have signed a treaty opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears, which Native Americans consider a sacred animal.
Conservation groups insist that Yellowstone bears face threats to their continued existence from many sources, not just hunting. They have cited climate change and other factors. They observe that the US Endangered Species Act, under which grizzlies remain listed as an endangered species, sets strict rules to protect species from being killed or their habitat from being harmed. State management agencies, now in control of public hunting and harvesting, classify hunting and/or trapping as valid and legal measures to keep wildlife population in check.
TO KILL OR NOT TO KILL?
Emotion is usually at the forefront of public debate on the hunting and killing of grizzly bears in North America. When the debates and deliberations move to agency board rooms and academic seminar rooms the exchanges become way more measured, extensive and rational, and reveal the biological, social and political complexities of managing an iconic and far-ranging species such as the grizzly.
Is hunting harmful to grizzly bear populations? (“Stupid question” I hear the animal rights folks muttering, but I point out the use of the word ‘populations’, which is what government and various agencies are mandated to address). The answer is complex and to be sought in huge piles of field notes, research studies, theses, journals and coffee-table volumes.
Hunting and killing are certainly the prime factors which reduced North American grizzlies from their historic abundance to their present-day status. When Europeans first set foot on the continent there were roughly 100,000 grizzly bears ranging from the Mississippi to the California coast, and throughout Canada and Alaska to Mexico. By the seventies they had been drastically reduced in numbers and were categorized as vulnerable in Canada and endangered in the US.
But the direct killing of grizzlies is not the only factor leading to a decline in numbers. Habitat loss has probably eliminated far more bears from the scene over the decades, and continues to do so, either directly or by fragmenting vulnerable bear populations. In addition, hunting has negative effects which extend beyond the direct killing of the animals. Studies have revealed negative indirect effects on hunted bear population through destabilization of social structure and increased mortality in cubs and juveniles.