Environmentalists decry hunting's record toll on B.C. grizzlies

From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
April 15, 2008 at 3:57 AM EDT

VANCOUVER — A record number of grizzly bears were killed in British Columbia last year, according to new figures released yesterday by environmental organizations.

“It’s kind of shocking … very disturbing,” Chris Genovali of the Raincoast Conservation Society said of provincial government statistics that show 430 grizzly bears died in 2007, bringing the total to nearly 11,000 killed in the province since 1975.

“I don’t think you can call that a sustainable harvest,” said Mr. Genovali, whose group has long been lobbying for a moratorium on B.C.’s grizzly bear hunt.

The numbers could rekindle the bear-hunting debate in B.C., an issue that has brought the province international criticism. Typically, about 300 grizzly bears are killed each year in B.C., but the numbers fluctuate, ranging from a low of 97 in 1975 to last year’s high of 430. “We were very surprised to see the numbers up for last year,” said Mr. Genovali, whose organization won a court order in 2004 that allowed it to pry bear mortality statistics out of the province.

While the 1975 to 2003 figures had previously been released, the latest information, for 2004-2007, was obtained only when the David Suzuki Foundation requested it recently, citing the earlier court ruling.

Mr. Genovali said the numbers show that, from 2004 to 2007, 1,391 grizzly bears were killed in B.C., which, because of its salmon rivers and mountainous wilderness, is recognized as the heart of the grizzly’s remaining habitat in North America.

The vast majority of the bears – about 88 per cent – were shot by hunters, while animal control measures, poaching and other unspecified causes accounted for the remaining mortalities.

Mr. Genovali said he is concerned because B.C. doesn’t know how many grizzly bears there are in the province. “These bears are being taken out of a population that we don’t believe the government has a handle on,” he said. “This is the opposite of the precautionary principle.”

He said population estimates for grizzly bears in British Columbia have changed, going from 6,660 animals in 1972 to about 13,000 in 1990 to about 17,000 today. He said those estimates aren’t scientific.

Environment Minister Barry Penner said he hadn’t seen the latest data, but noted the government has imposed regional hunting closings whenever game biologists raised concerns about sustainability.

“Our commitment is to a science-based approach,” he said. “My top concern is sustainability … [and] my preference is to err on the side of conservation.”

Faisal Moola, science director of the David Suzuki Foundation, said the government estimates the grizzly bear population by determining how much bear habitat there is and then extrapolating a number based on how many bears should be found there.

“But they are not actually out there counting bears,” he said. “Leading bear biologists are very, very critical of this approach because of the level of imprecision.”

Mr. Moola said grizzly bears are designated by the national Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the federal Species At Risk Act and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species as a species of special concern.

Since 2003, the European Union has banned the import of grizzly bear trophies from B.C. because of concerns the hunt is not sustainable.

“It doesn’t make sense to be hunting a species that is at risk,” Mr. Moola said.

He called on the government to establish no-hunting zones for grizzly bears in B.C.

“The government has made some progress in establishing protected habitat. They did set aside areas in the Great Bear Rainforest recently… but hunting is still allowed in those areas, so we have a situation where the habitat is protected, but the bears aren’t. That doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

But Scott Ellis, general manager of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., said the province is doing a good job of managing grizzly bears. “The grizzly bear harvest is at a sustainable level,” he said.

He said he didn’t have any hard figures to back it up, but anecdotal reports from guides around the province indicate “there’s more grizzly bears than ever out there.” He said guide outfitters hunt in designated areas that range in size from a few hundred square kilometres to a few thousand square kilometres.

But each guide, he said, will take only one or two bears a year. Clients pay about $10,000 to go on a grizzly bear hunt.

B.C. residents can also hunt grizzlies without hiring a guide.

The B.C. Wildlife Federation, which has about 30,000 members in the province, believes the grizzly bear harvest is being correctly managed.

“We believe that hunting as it is currently practised in British Columbia does not threaten any grizzly bear population,” the organization states in a position paper. “It is our opinion that grizzly bear populations continue to thrive and are not endangered … “

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.