Trophy hunters in the line of fire

By Larry Pynn,
Vancouver Sun
June 12, 2009

Gary Shelton has shot his share of grizzlies over the years, but the bear he’s likely to be remembered for is the one he didn’t even kill. In 1970, Shelton was on a hunting trip near Green Lake, south of Highway 20 between the Bella Coola Valley and Anahim Lake in the west Chilcotin. While walking along the edge of a high-elevation meadow, he spotted an animal skeleton so big he assumed it to be a moose. Then he tripped over a grass-covered skull with canine teeth, and realized a bear had died here. A very large bear. So big, Shelton figures that at any given time only one of its kind could possibly roam the B.C. coast, an area that today is fittingly known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

Shelton estimated the bruin topped 1,000 pounds, dwarfing the 550 to 750 pounds that adult male grizzlies typically weigh on the coast.

“A bear that size is unusual,” he reflects from his home in Hagensborg in the Bella Coola Valley. “Think of a horse with short legs.” By counting the annual growth rings on a premolar tooth he reckoned the bear had lived at least 40 years, the sort of age that only a grizzly with strength and cunning and luck can achieve. So old that more than half his spinal column had been fused by arthritis. Grizzly skulls are calculated by adding the maximum width and length, which, in the case of Shelton’s bear skull, produced a score of 27 2/16 inches.

The Montana-based Boone and Crockett Club, which maintains hunting records for North America, reports that the skull remains tied with a bear shot in the Dean River in 1982 as the biggest grizzly of recorded time in B.C. Throughout North America, only a 1976 specimen from Lone Mountain, Alaska, proved to be a hair bigger, at 27 and 13/16th inches.

Shelton says he tends to keep his story about the record grizzly skull and other king-sized bears he has shot to himself because he doesn’t feel it’s something you should brag about.

The Vancouver Sun only found out about it through Boone and Crockett. “It’s a personal thing,” he says. “I rarely talk about it and few people know.”

Shelton is not known for shying away from bears or publicity. He is the author of three best-selling books on bear attacks, and has taught courses to thousands of government and industry workers on how to act in bear country.

His very public views on bear management have made him reviled by conservationists, even as another famous grizzly hunter from the Bella Coola Valley, the late aboriginal Clayton Mack, remains revered, his larger-than-life tales spun into two popular books. Shelton argues that grizzly populations are growing in B.C. and the ministry of environment should allow more hunting of them. Male grizzlies are even showing up on northern Vancouver Island, where historically they have not existed.

“Bear hunters have been labelled horrible people,” he laments. “But what the hell are you going to do with all these bears?”

Let them live. And learn to live with them. That’s the answer from the environmental movement. Ian McAllister penned the name Great Bear Rainforest and has teamed up with aboriginal communities (under the coalition Coastal First Nations) and Humane Society International/Canada in a campaign to end bear trophy hunting on the B.C. Coast. He counters that the grizzly is an intelligent and iconic species, slow to reproduce, and its habitat denuded in recent decades by modern man. He argues there is insufficient science to justify the continued hunt, which is overwhelmingly opposed by the public.

Polls over the past two years show 73 to 78 per cent of British Columbians oppose trophy hunting of bears, up from 52 per cent in 2001, when the province lifted a moratorium on grizzly hunting. “There are changing values,” says McAllister, who is also a nature photographer living on Denny Island on the central coast. “It is no longer acceptable to kill these animals for sport.”

International pressure is not the only tactic being used by conservation groups to achieve their goal. In late 2005, Raincoast Conservation announced it had bought guide-outfitter Leonard Ellis’ hunting territory on the B.C. coast for $1.35 million.

Raincoast executive director Chris Genovali said that in the three years since his organization acquired the guiding territory, only one client has shot anything: a black-tailed deer that was donated to an aboriginal community for food.

Then, in 2007, a consortium of charitable foundations and business people, with participation from the Tlingit First Nation, bought Guy Antilla’s guiding territory in the Taku River area of northwestern B.C. No animals have been shot there since then, but two grizzly hunters are booked for the fall. Phil Timpany, the official guide-outfitter for the area, explained that the guiding territory has been heavily hunted over the years and that the current goal is to let it recover while coming up with a business strategy that emphasizes ecotourism, including grizzly bear viewing.

As long as trophy hunting of grizzlies continues, however, bear viewing can serve to habituate bears and make them more vulnerable to hunters. “Absolutely,” confirms McAllister, who shoots a black-tailed deer annually and is not opposed to subsistence hunting. “Bears can be viewed by tourists from around the world on one day and killed the next for sport by trophy hunters.”

Timpany said he feels pressure from the government to fill his bear-hunting quota. Resident hunters, in turn, pressure the government to give quotas to them when outfitters don’t use them. “We’re in a card game with the government right now,” Timpany said.

But the ministry seems to be taking a liberal view, at least in Raincoast’s case. Ministry spokesman Suntanu Dalal explained that the Wildlife Act states that guide-outfitters who do not guide may apply to the regional manager for permission to temporarily discontinue or partially discontinue the use of a guiding area.

The act also allows the regional manager to suspend, cancel or refuse to renew a guide-outfitter’s licence. Dalal noted the legislation generally refers to total non-use, and is intended to allow guide-outfitters to put their areas in abeyance for unforeseen circumstances such as illness or death.

“This section is not intended to allow a guide outfitter to permanently not use a guide area because they feel like it,” Dalal said. “Since Raincoast is taking hunters and has harvested, this section doesn’t directly apply.”

Guide-outfitter Peter Klaui of North Coast Adventures says if society does not want him to hunt grizzlies any more, then he is more than willing to sell his quotas of 23 grizzlies over five years, or sell his entire territory to Raincoast or any other conservation group.

“Tell them to get their cheque book out. I’m serious. Negotiate. I’ve never been approached by anybody.”

Genovali said his group is interested in potentially purchasing more guiding territories, since the provincial government is unlikely to declare additional grizzly bear management areas off-limits to hunting and the NDP does not support a blanket ban on such trophy hunting. “We’re looking for creative solutions,” he said. “These guys get compensated and grizzly bear conservation gets put as a priority.”

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said natives would be willing to raise the money themselves to buy out the outfitters. But first they’d need a change in provincial policy to ensure that the government won’t take away the rights from an outfitter who does not engage in trophy hunting of bears and won’t transfer those rights to resident hunters.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “The government is not showing leadership.”

Environment Minister Barry Penner did not respond to The Sun’s request for an interview.

Klaui noted he won’t hunt in the Kingcome River drainage, where he has an allocation of seven bears over five years, because aboriginals don’t want trophy hunters around. “I won’t take my clients there because of the animosity,” he said. “It’s not a good situation and I’m staying away from it. I won’t subject anybody to that. I’ll never take a bear out of there.”

Robin Dawson, acting chief of the Tsawataineuk band, a community of about 100 people on the Kingcome River, confirmed her people are against bear trophy hunting in their territory. “We’ve made a stand. We don’t want that happening in this valley. We let them know.”

Sterritt explained that grizzly and black bears have been used as house crests by coastal natives for generations. Before the advent of guns, natives used bows and arrows or trapping methods such as snares to kill bears for sustenance or ceremonial reasons, or if they posed a threat. While some natives continue to hunt black bears for food, that is not the case with grizzly bears, Sterritt said, adding he knows of no traditional rite of passage associated with killing grizzlies.

“We have to stop the random taking of bears to hang on a wall,” he said, noting that is also inconsistent with efforts to promote a bear-viewing industry. “It’s just unacceptable.”

Klaui said some grizzly hunters are collectors and others see it as the ultimate culmination of a love for hunting that began with shooting gophers as kids. Trophy hunting for bear is no different than trophy hunting for elk or mountain sheep or even fish for that matter, he argued. “When people come salmon fishing in B.C. they don’t want to catch a two-pound salmon.”

Jesse Zeman, a 28-year-old commercial pilot from the Okanagan, has been hunting since age 10 and argues that bear hunting is arduous work that inevitably leads to a rewarding wilderness experience. It’s not all about the kill, he says, adding that human encroachment on bear habitat is far more damaging than the numbers shot by hunters each year.

“Cities, ski hills, four-lane highways, and wildlife fences are what threaten the future of grizzly bears. It is my fear that continued rapid growth in British Columbia will further threaten and isolate grizzly bear populations.”

The B.C. government collected $124,880 in 2008 from the sale of 1,561 grizzly hunting licences to residents and $427,570 from the sale of 319 grizzly licences to non-residents — substantial money for a ministry forever strapped for funding. B.C. hunters legally shot 319 grizzlies in B.C. in 2008, including 220 by residents and 99 by non-residents, evidence that only a fraction of those who buy grizzly tags shoot one. Those 319 grizzlies represent two per cent of the 16,000 grizzlies that the ministry of environment estimates exist in B.C., although conservation groups contest the figure.

The federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada officially lists the grizzly bear as a species of special concern. Unlike other big-game species, including deer, moose, elk, and even black bear, grizzly meat is not required to be removed from the bush in B.C. While fears of contracting the parasite trichinosis may deter hunters from eating grizzly meat, Mel Arnold, president of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, insists it is safe when sufficiently cooked.

He described the taste as akin to pork.

B.C. requires that non-residents be guided, which typically costs $20,000 US for a grizzly. Klaui said 90 per cent of his clients are from North America, with a few Europeans still signing up despite a European Union ban on grizzly pelts from B.C. In 2008, his client, Spanish hunter Gabriel Perez-Maura, shot one of the biggest grizzlies on record in B.C. during a trip to Loughborough Inlet. Klaui said as far as he knows the pelt is with a taxidermist in the U.S.

“We don’t get involved in that. I don’t know what arrangements he’s made.”

Americans who hunt polar bears in Canada face a similar dilemma. The U.S. has listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and its population depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, meaning imports of pelts from Canada have been banned since May 2008. Doug Burdin, litigation counsel for Safari Club International, a trophy-hunting organization, said from Washington, D.C., that he is involved in two lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the threatened species listing and the import ban.

In the meantime, dozens of polar bear hides, especially those of bears shot in the weeks before implementation of the ban, “are in cold storage in Canada” waiting for the day when they might be legally imported into the U.S., Burdin said. Scott Ellis, general manager of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., said from his Surrey office that Europeans currently shooting grizzlies in B.C. must also put their hides in storage.

“It’s not based on science,” he said of the European ban. “It’s an emotional issue. You have a more urban society in Vancouver that sways the politicians.” Europe has no similar ban on the importation of grizzly pelts from Alaska or Canada’s Yukon or Northwest Territories, pro-hunting areas where environmentalists have not focused their attention.

Grizzly hunters also pay to mount their trophies. Fur and Feathers Taxidermy in Surrey charges $965 for a head mount, $270 per foot for a rug, and $660 per foot for a life-sized mount portrayed in a natural habitat diorama. Of course, the typical snarling face of a mounted grizzly bears little resemblance to the reality of the anxious bear at the time it was shot.

Klaui refused to release the photo of the Spanish hunter’s kill, but, as of press time, it was displayed on his website, http://www.ncasafaris.com/bc-guided-grizzly-bear-hunt.html, boasting a measurement of 26 12/16”, big enough for 13th spot in North America. The hunt is also the subject of a feature story in the winter edition of Mountain Hunter, a magazine published by the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C.

The hunter is quoted as saying: “The large grizzly was walking in the same direction we had last seen him. As we walked out into the open we were able to close the distance to about 90 yards. The first shot was solid but the large boar shook off the impact and started to run into the timber. My second shot missed, but the third shot put the huge bear down.”

He later states: “Peter brought out champagne to toast this beautiful animal and a wonderful experience.” That the grizzly suffered unnecessarily due to the Spanish hunter’s poor marksmanship is no surprise to Timpany, who managed a guiding territory in the 1970s in the Taku area where he was forced to kill bears injured by his clients. He said excited hunters often miss in the face of a grizzly. “It’s a problematic situation.”

Shelton concedes the battle over public opinion has been lost. But he warns urbanites that grizzlies will continue to be shot as long as their numbers continue to grow and come into conflict with humans, especially in areas such as the Bella Coola Valley.

Raincoast Conservation reports that a total of 18 grizzlies were killed as problem bears in the Bella Coola Valley in 2007 and 2008. The group blames human behaviour such as leaving out attractants that lure bears in, including salmon and backyard fruit.

“People here are not bloodthirsty killers,” Shelton counters. “But at some point you have to draw the line.”

As for Shelton’s record grizzly skull, the story only began with its discovery near Green Lake. For a year he wondered how that big bear had died, whether it had collapsed from old age or been ravaged by a younger and stronger competitor. Then one day while examining the hip bone he’d brought home, he noted a curious hole. He shook the bone and out popped a bullet, from a .303 British military rifle. This was no death from old age.

The mystery then turned to who shot it. That would be resolved another three years later when Shelton was chatting with a store owner at Nimpo Lake who knew pretty much everything that went on in that country. He reported that an aboriginal hunter had talked of shooting a huge grizzly in the Green Lake area around 1967.

“In those days, if people saw bears, they shot them,” Shelton explains. “That’s the way it was done back then.”

Four decades later, big grizzlies continue to roam the lush estuaries and salmon spawning channels of the central coast. But there is one big difference. As tourists are drawn here from around the world to confront grizzlies with cameras, not guns, the debate is less about how many should still be shot than whether they should be killed at all.

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