A report by two out-of-province scientists say the grizzly hunt in B.C. is sustainable and that the bear population is being well managed. But an overwhelming majority in B.C want to see the hunt banned. Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Three years ago, Vancouver art collector Michael Audain was sitting on a log in the rain in the Great Bear Rainforest when something magical happened.
A mother grizzly bear and her three cubs walked by, on their way to feast on spawning salmon in a nearby river.
“She must have known we were there, but she was completely calm and didn’t show the slightest interest in us,” said Audain, the wealthy chairman of Polygon Homes.
“She just ambled slowly by and it was amazingly close — 15 to 20 feet away. It moved me so much I thought, ‘I have to look into this. Maybe there’s something I can do to help safeguard these wonderful creatures. ’ It changed my life.”
The encounter — which happened on a guided bear-watching trip near Klemtu — led Audain to start the Grizzly Bear Foundation, which is currently holding hearings around the province.
The foundation expects to issue a report early next year with recommendations on how to protect B.C.’s grizzly bears.
It’s not the only significant report looming on the province’s iconic apex predator.
Carol Bellringer, B.C.’s independent auditor general, is set to release her findings from a major review of the government’s management of the species. Bellringer’s office is conducting an audit of the “planning and activities” around managing grizzly bear populations to ensure they are healthy and sustainable.
Hovering over all of this is the emotional debate over grizzly bear hunting.
B.C. is the only province that allows trophy hunting for grizzlies, with about 300 bears killed each year. The debate is shaping up as an election issue that could trouble Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals, who have stood firm in supporting the trophy hunt despite polls suggesting more than 90 per cent of the public want it banned.
Perhaps all this explains why the government felt it necessary to take proactive defensive measures in the form of a new report that says B.C.’s grizzlies are doing just fine.
The report, written by two out-of-province scientists, concluded the government’s management of grizzly-bear trophy hunting has “attained a high level of rigour with a solid scientific underpinning.”
“We believe that adequate safeguards have been established to ensure, with a high degree of confidence, the sustainability of this harvest,” said the report, which confirmed earlier government estimates that there are about 15,000 grizzlies in the province, a number calculated by analyzing bear DNA samples.
The Liberals, no doubt sensing political danger around the issue with the election approaching, used the report to pat itself on the back.
“The panel confirmed that B.C.’s population estimates are second to none,” said Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson.
The bottom line: Killing 300 bears a year out of a population of 15,000 is a reasonable and sustainable practice. The hunt will go on.
But not without the fur flying in a major political battle.
“Very few people I know are against hunting,” said Green Party leader Andrew Weaver. “But they are against trophy hunting, where primarily foreigners come here solely for taking a trophy back to their home country — a head or a skin — and just leaving the carcass to rot.
“People are absolutely opposed to that and the government should step up and do something about it.”
What about this new report showing the hunt is sustainable and the bears are doing well?
“There is zero trust in this government’s management of wildlife and this report was commissioned by the government,” Weaver fires back. “We need independent, peer-reviewed reports — real science — not reports conveniently commissioned by the government right before an election.”
Bear biologist Kyle Artelle, a University of Victoria PhD candidate, thinks the government’s grizzly population numbers are not reliable.
Artelle, who co-wrote the only peer-reviewed article on the B.C. grizzly hunt ever published in a scientific journal, argues the government’s bear DNA samples don’t provide certain population numbers, which could be further distorted by unreported poaching.
“Hunting targets might have been too high,” he concluded.
With the science in dispute — and anti-hunting groups whipping up public opposition to the trophy hunt — the scene is set for a political showdown in the May election.
The New Democratic Party has been cautious when talking about the grizzly-bear hunt, perhaps fearing a backlash from rural voters. Grizzly hunting was allowed when the NDP was in power in the 1990s, though the New Democrats announced a three-year moratorium before the 2001 election, something the Liberals quickly reversed when they took power.
But now the NDP is considering a grizzly-hunting ban as part of an election platform.
“We’re having discussions about it,” said NDP environment critic George Heyman. ”We’re certainly aware of the strong public support for a ban. We’re also aware of the important role that grizzly bear-viewing tourism plays in a number of areas of the province. We’re working our way through the policy.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NDP soon propose a ban on grizzly bear hunting, which will put the pressure squarely on Christy Clark in an emotional issue for voters in the election.