The number of grizzly bears killed in B.C. exceeded government targets in half the areas where the province permitted hunting of the species, a new study released Wednesday concludes.
The study, a collaboration of six biologists from Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, looked at grizzly hunting in 50 of 57 population units from 2001 to 2011. (The number of units open to hunting declined to 41 in 2012).
Published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the study used historical records to find evidence of mortality exceeding government targets in those units by one to 24 grizzlies, or two to 171 per cent, during three periods over the decade studied.
“There is so much uncertainly in the management,” said the study’s lead author, Kyle Artelle.
“The question is, how much risk are we willing to accept with this population? It’s like Russian Roulette. When you pull the trigger, there’s a good chance that nothing will happen. But there is also a chance you’ll get a bullet in the head.” Grizzlies are officially a species of special concern.
Artelle, a Raincoast biologist and SFU PhD student, said it is especially troubling that the number of female grizzlies shot above government targets totalled about 134 during the study period. “Hunters are encouraged but not required to target males. It’s hard to discern at a distance. A small male may look like a female and vice-versa.”
More than 3,500 grizzlies (including more than 1,200 females) were killed during the study period. Legally sanctioned trophy hunting took more than 2,800 of those bears (including more than 900 females). Other sources of mortality included poaching, shooting of nuisance bears in defence of people or property, and road or rail accidents.
The current B.C. population of grizzlies is estimated at 15,000.
In response, Andrew Wilson, director of fish and wildlife, in the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said in a statement that “while we will review the study more carefully in coming days, we do not initially share its conclusions.”
He added: “All evidence, including an expanding distribution, a large portion of older males in the harvest, the numerous DNA-based mark recapture estimates, and feedback by people who spend a great deal of time in grizzly bear habitat, suggest that across most of the province, robust populations remain.”
He noted that about 35 per cent of B.C. is closed to grizzly hunting and that ministry biologists are having their own study published soon in the same scientific journal on grizzly populations which “provides further scientific support that B.C. has been sustainably managing grizzly bears.”
Said Wilson: “Historically, hunters have taken around 300 grizzly bears a year out of an estimated population of 15,000, or a two per cent harvest rate. This is a modest harvest target well below what is required for conservation requirements.”
Researchers noted that the province can easily rectify the problem by reducing the number of limited-entry permits for hunting grizzlies.
Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal people on B.C.’s north and central coasts, has declared bear trophy hunting off-limits in their territories, but the provincial government does not recognize the ban.