After a decades-long fight, the fate of the controversial practice of grizzly bear trophy hunting now rides on whatever happens June 22, when a new government sits in British Columbia's legislature for the first time.
Ahead of that sitting, debate among hunters, guides, First Nations, eco-tourism companies, scientists and conservationists has been heating up across the province. A recent report released by a charity known as the Grizzly Bear Foundation claims the long-term survival of grizzly bears in the province is in jeopardy. The report outlines challenges with the bear's food source, conservation, and the impact of human-bear interactions—and calls for the end of the trophy hunt.
Roughly 300 grizzly bears are shot by hunters in BC each year. Some estimates put the grizzly bear population at about 15,000 bears for the province of BC, while others suggest there are 25,000 grizzly bears in Canada. They're classified federally as a species of special concern.
A recent Insights West poll shows that 74 percent of British Columbians oppose the practice of grizzly bear trophy hunting. Those poll numbers follow a stream of articles and documentaries like Trophy and Tom Reissmann's The Grizzly Truth, which showcase the hunt's many critics.
For Grizzly Bear Ranch owner Julius Strauss, who takes his guests into the wilderness to peacefully view bears, two opposing philosophies on grizzly bears are too different to co-exist: "…the two cultures, the people who like to watch bears and celebrate the nature of the bear, and the people who want to shoot bears for sport, kicks, bragging rights, whatever it is, are such alien cultures, you can't really do them together at this point."
In 2015 Strauss's business came under financial strain after a local grizzly bear, affectionately named "Apple" by the locals, was killed by a hunter.
"The bear was sort of the backbone of our business," Strauss told VICE.
Strauss said that the province stands to make more money from bear-viewing business rather than from hunters. Strauss said "Apple" was potentially worth "tens of thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the province." Strauss added that it doesn't economically make sense for local hunters to be paying $80 for a tag to go shoot grizzlies for sport (In order for local BC residents to get a tag for grizzlies they are selected out of a lottery). BC residents pay $80 for a tag, while foreigners or visitors to BC can pay more than $1,000 for a grizzly tag).
Estimates suggest the bear-viewing industry brings BC upwards of $13-million dollars to the province annually. By comparison, the Guide Outfitters Association of BC claims hunting, particularly grizzly and big game hunting, brings the province an excess of $120-million dollars a year.
Kathy MacRae, executive director of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association (CBVA), said that ending the hunt makes more economic sense to the province. According to MacRae, the CBVA was formed as a sort of an "voice" against trophy hunting. The CVBA helps educate and set standards for guides in the bear viewing business. MacRae said the CVBA has given more than $3-million dollars to bear conservation projects in the last 20 years.
The hunt has also come under scrutiny from First Nations groups and organizations who cite ethical reasons for wanting the hunt to end, "Our position on trophy hunting for bears in general (not just grizzlies) is clear. We don't support it. There are multitudinous reasons why we don't, but the most important is that it violates our system of laws and stewardship customs—which is the basis of our ban. It is illegal according to our legal system," said Jess Housty, who is part of the Bear Working Group with the Coastal First Nations / Great Bear Initiative, to VICE in an email.
"The key fact is, the province of BC operates these hunts—resident and commercial—on our unceded territories, where our Indigenous laws—the original laws of these lands—are clear that killing for sport is not acceptable," Housty said. "Science gives information, not permission. Economic arguments are not above ethical ones. Ethically, trophy hunting is not consistent with our ancestral laws." VICE reached out to several other First Nation organizations for an interview, but did not receive any responses.
Jesse Zeman, spokesperson for the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said that he thinks the debate about the ethics of the hunt is a "matter of convenience" for those opposed to the hunt. Zeman also said that the way the word trophy is used isn't entirely consistent with the reality, adding that from his experience grizzly hunters do consume the meat from grizzly bears. Ultimately, Zeman said the B.C. Wildlife Federation supports the hunt, as long it's sustainable to the grizzly population, which they currently think is the case.
Chad St. Amand, a BC hunter and resident, told VICE that the moral or ethical side of the hunt is the "only argument they have"—"they" being those who oppose the hunt. But even then, says St. Amand, the ethical issue is hazy as he said most hunters he knows eat or consume grizzly bear meat and fat.
St. Amand also said there's a bit of disconnection between those who live in urban areas and those who live in a more rural environment. St. Amand suggests there needs to be more discussion between the two groups on the issue. He also says he actually supports some of the initiatives these anti-hunt coalitions suggest, "Me as a hunter, I fully support closing the hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest… there needs to be areas in the world where you can go and look at bears, and go look at wildlife, without killing them." He added that he's all for hunting as long as it's sustainable for the grizzly population, and he argues that given the current peer-reviewed science out there, there's not much evidence to prove that the hunt isn't scientifically sustainable.
Scientific studies looking at grizzly bear sustainability in BC are scarce. In November of 2016 a study was published in The Journal of Wildlife Management which concluded that although hunter related kills of grizzly bears had an impact on the grizzly population, more "measurements" of the animal were needed to conclude that the hunt was not directly impacting the sustainability of the grizzly bear.
Another 2013 study done in the Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) suggests that grizzly hunting has had an impact on the sustainability of grizzly bears in the province, particularly from 2001-2011 where hunting mortality increased. However, the study does suggest that more research and studies be done to give a better understands of the impact of hunting on the mortality rates of the grizzly bear.
But Kyle Artelle, a PhD candidate in Biology at Simon Fraser University who has extensively studied grizzly bears, says that people need to be careful when blending science with a political stance, or preference. "I think it is important to separate out what science can actually tell us versus what are ultimately ethical questions. Science tells us how the world works, it doesn't tell us how the world should work," Artelle told VICE. "As that relates to grizzly bears, science can tells us how many bears there are, science can give us an idea on what a given management action might do, or what its effect might be, but it can't tell us whether or not that's OK."
While the future of the grizzly hunt was already uncertain, the 2017 B.C. provincial election held this past May has added another layer of confusion. On June 22, the BC NDP and Greens hope to defeat a minority BC Liberal minority government in a confidence vote in the legislature. But a certain set of political chess moves could deliver the province a new election instead.
Prior to B.C.'s provincial election, both the BC NDP and Green Party said they would end the hunt if put in power. Meanwhile, the BC Liberal government said it would end the hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest, but mentioned nothing of ending the hunt in the rest of the province.
Whatever happens June 22, the many sides of BC's trophy hunt debate should be watching closely to see what happens next.
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