Patrolling up and down British Columbia’s coast with binoculars are a group of dedicated First Nations volunteers that boat right up to armed hunters, often American, in their vessels to dissuade them from killing at-risk grizzlies just for sport.
Called the Coastal Guardian Watchmen, they urge unsuspecting trophy hunters to halt their pursuit of grizzlies as insensitive to First Nations culture, and against tribal law.
“Sometimes it gets nasty,” said Jason Moody, a patroller from Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola.
“Sometimes you get [trophy hunters] realizing, ‘OK, you guys don’t want the hunting around here. We’ll go somewhere else.'”
Foreign hunters from places like Virginia and Texas pay thousands of dollars to come to B.C.—to be in one of the few places left where the fourth-largest carnivore on the planet can be shot for a trophy head or a bear rug.
Many trophy hunters don’t like the altercations with the now 16 native patrollers on the coast.
“It gets tense. Usually just having a presence is enough,” says William Housty, who chairs the Heltisiuk First Nation resource management office in Bella Bella, and coordinates many of the indigenous watchmen.
Housty’s biggest worry is intoxicated hunters harming his crews that double as field researchers, quietly collecting grizzly-hair DNA in the woods.
“If there are drunk hunters walking around drinking Jack Daniels — who is to say they won’t shoot one our researchers. That’s one of our biggest beefs with the province,” he said.
The Guardian Watchmen do not have the legal powers to board vessels or enforce conservation laws, but they wish they did. Provincial officers, the Coast Guard and the RCMP are not seen often enough, said Housty.
And many hunters they come across are not carrying provincial licences.
“A lot of the people who come up here don’t actually have tags. They’re poachers,” said Housty.
The wildlife manager recalled an infamous incident in 2013 when NHL player Clayton Stoner let some coastal watchmen on board the famous hockey player’s boat to photograph the defencemen’s recent grizzly kill.
NHL defenceman Clayton Stoner posing with a beheaded grizzly in 2013. Photo by Coastal Guardian Watchmen.
The head and claws were removed, and Stoner smiled for the watchmen’s photo snaps that would soon become national news material.
“He let himself be an idiot poster child for the trophy hunt,” laughed Housty.
Stoner defended his bear kill at the time.
“I applied for and received a grizzly bear hunting licence through a British Columbia limited-entry lottery last winter and shot a grizzly bear with my licence while hunting with my father, uncle and a friend in May,” the hockey star said in a statement.
But since that media spectacle, many watchmen admit they’ve only been partly successful in slowing the trophy hunt.
The Guide Outfitters Association says as long as it is kept legal by the B.C. government, their members will continue flying in high-paying hunting clients to kill grizzlies.
“While we try to accommodate [aboriginal] wishes, but until they have jurisdiction, the authority around it is the Crown,” says the association’s executive director Scott Ellis.
“Our guys are still going to operate their businesses.”
But Coastal First Nations are now threatening legal action to put an end to the industry.