Is B.C.‘s trophy hunt for grizzly bears bad business?
By Cassidy Olivier
The first sign that change was coming to Julius Strauss’s bear-viewing business came sometime in mid-May, following an encounter near Cascade Creek in B.C.’s Selkirk Mountain range.
Strauss, the owner of the Grizzly Bear Ranch, located near the West Kootnenay city of Kaslo, was scouting for a location where his guests might catch a glimpse of what they had paid thousands of dollars and travelled hundreds of miles to see up close: one of B.C.’s famous grizzly bears in the wild. The area looked promising: there were bear tracks, piles of scat and strong sight lines. It was, in a word, ideal, Strauss would say later.
But as he made his way back up the trailhead, Strauss ran smack into what many in the province’s lucrative bear-viewing industry say is the biggest threat to their long-term viability. As he approached his SUV, it wasn’t a grizzly bear that greeted Strauss but a small 4x4 truck carrying a group of resident hunters. They, too, were looking for signs of Ursus arctos horribilis along Cascade Creek. The similarities ended there.
“The grizzly hunters, in camouflage and carrying weapons, stared at me,” Strauss wrote in an email to The Province. “With them was a neighbour from up the road: ‘They’re after the grizzlies,’ he said. So I left the area, returned to the ranch and made my excuses to the guests.”
On that occasion, Strauss was able to shield his guests, the majority of whom are international tourists, from the reality that the bears they had paid to see were also the targets of a controversial trophy hunt. Weeks later, however, he wasn’t so lucky when his guests learned of the hunter driving around with a freshly skinned grizzly pelt tied to the roof of her SUV. They were outraged.
In a business where reputation is everything, Strauss quickly determined that his spring season just wasn’t compatible with the annual hunt. As a result, he decided to cancel next year’s spring bear-viewing season.
“We can’t, with a clear conscience, take guests into a valley where bears are being hunted,” he said. “Because the way they see it, they come to British Columbia, they are putting a lot of money into coming here, they are spending a lot of money locally, and they are doing that with an aim of seeing bears.
“They feel very strongly about these animals. And when they feel that effort is not reciprocated in any way, either by provincial laws or whatever — they get angry and upset.”
A TURN-OFF FOR TOURISTS
It’s a business decision that challenges an important aspect of the polarizing debate raging around B.C.’s grizzly bear hunt.
For years, it’s been the provincial government’s position that the B.C. hunt — one of only two in Canada, the other being in the Yukon — can coexist with the province’s burgeoning bear-viewing industry. Strauss believes he’s proof they can’t.
By his estimates, the cancellation will cost him between $60,000 and $100,000 in unrealized revenue. The local economy, meanwhile, will lose out on between $48,000 and $80,000 in spinoffs as well as a few part-time jobs at his ranch, he says.
But there are also the less tangible losses.
“If we are trying to view bears that are being hunted in the same place at the same time, it patently doesn’t work,” he said. “And that’s at a very concrete level. On a sort of wider, slightly more philosophical level, there are lots of people who are very uncomfortable to come to a place where the bear hunt is legal, and they are less likely to spend their money in British Columbia viewing bears because the grizzly hunt is legal.”
It’s a concern shared by some of the other bear-viewing business owners scattered throughout B.C., about a dozen of whom have organized themselves under the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of B.C. (CBVA) as a lobby for industry standards, protected viewing zones and an outright ban on hunting grizzly bears.
While the thrust of CBVA’s argument is rooted in the ethics of killing an animal for sport, it’s the association’s economic argument that might prove to be its trump card. A comprehensive study published last year by the Center for Responsible Travel in conjunction with Stanford University comparing bear viewing versus bear hunting in B.C.’s Great Bear Rain Forest concluded that bear viewing in that region alone attracts more visitors, creates more jobs and generates millions of dollars more in annual revenue than does the hunt.
The report found that in 2012, bear-viewing groups in that region generated “more than 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting,” with viewing expenditures for that year totalling $15.1 million compared to the $1.2 million generated by guided non-resident and resident hunters. Bear viewing also directly contributed $7.3 million to government coffers, compared to the $660,5000 from hunters. The report further concluded that bear-viewing companies create an estimated 510 jobs a year, of which 133 are full-time, while guided outfitters generate “only 11 jobs.”
Dean Wyatt, the owner of the Knight Inlet Lodge, didn’t need an economic report to tell him grizzly bears are worth far more alive than dead. Wyatt, who also sits on the CBVA’s board of directors, pioneered the bear-viewing business in B.C. The provincial government, he says, is well aware of the economic benefits of bear viewing versus bear hunting, yet remains committed to its position on the hunt.
Last month, Premier Christy Clark reasserted this position following public outcry over a graphic video showing a grizzly bear being repeatedly shot at by a group of hunters.
“Coexistence would be a marvellous thought if the government would give us protected territories,” says Wyatt, whose lodge hosts an estimated 2,000 guests per year from more than a dozen countries. “But the problem is, the government doesn’t give us protected territories. They don’t give us protected watersheds. What they say is, you guys figure out a way.”
So far, Wyatt says, he’s managed to coexist by paying the local guide outfitter, who owns the guide certificate in the area, $20,000 a year not to hunt where Wyatt views. Going forward, Wyatt believes that many of the small and mid-sized bear-viewing businesses, like the Grizzly Bear Ranch, will struggle to stay viable.
“In the future, it could create bigger problems,” he said. “Without a doubt.”
There are others, however, who feel everything is fine the way it is. This includes the provincial government, those in the guide outfitting community and some hunters. Collectively, they note that the overlap between viewing and hunting seasons is minimal in the areas where it does occur, that annual harvest rates are based on sound science and represent only a fraction of the bear population, and that the hunt is limited to very specific parts of the province.
“They are (coexisting),” said Scott Ellis, the executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. (GOABC), a powerful pro-hunt lobby. “It is my understanding that the bear-viewing industry has done quite well. The grizzly bear hunt is quite a lightning rod for many people. And if we make decisions based on science and based on fact, on how we manage wildlife, including grizzly bears, then the grizzly bear hunt will continue.”
It’s a position shared by provincial cabinet minister Bill Bennett, an avid hunter and outspoken proponent of the grizzly hunt. While he respects the position of the anti-hunt lobby, Bennett, who’s minister of energy and mines, said the annual grizzly harvest is an important part of the government’s conservation strategy. And, he said, contrary to the perception held by those “in the Lower Mainland” that the grizzly bear is going extinct, the population is robust and healthy.
In fact, the grizzly bear is classified by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as a species of special concern.
“They are a dangerous animal and one of the reasons why government allows hunting to take place of grizzly bears ... (is) so you can control populations in parts of the province where populations need to be controlled so they are not roaming the streets of Elkford and Sparwood and Fernie and Kimberly and going into people’s bedrooms,” said Bennett.
“Hunting them actually makes them more afraid of humans than they would otherwise be and, actually, I think that probably saves a lot more grizzly lives overall because, you know, they become more afraid of humans.”
THE ETHICAL QUESTION
Beyond the economic benefits of keeping the bears alive, there are other reasons why some, like Wyatt and Strauss, believe the hunt should be banned.
Many question the science behind the government’s population projections — the government estimates there are about 15,000 grizzly bears in B.C. — as well as the very philosophy behind the hunt, which runs contrary to the hunter’s ethos that dictates you only kill what you intend to eat. The grizzly bear is one of the few animals in B.C. exempt from meat harvesting regulations, meaning their skinned and headless carcasses are left to rot where they fall.
A 2013 peer-reviewed scientific study spearheaded by Kyle Artelle, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, raised several important questions relating to the government’s policy on grizzly bear conservation.
Most startling, the report found that between 2001 and 2011, human-caused grizzly deaths in half of all hunted populations exceeded mortality rates deemed sustainable by the government’s own biologists. Of the human-caused grizzly bear deaths, four out of every five were the result of trophy hunting, the report found.
“Also, we don’t know how many bears are poached,” said Artelle. “That’s a very hard number to figure out. Another thing is we don’t know, across the province, the growth rate of populations. In other words, how many bears you can actually take from a given population without it suddenly declining.
“That was something else we were looking at: how all these uncertainties combine and how likely current (harvest) targets are way too high or could be causing declines based on the government’s assumptions of how much mortality a given population can take.”
FIRST NATIONS BAN HUNT
Many critics, including a coalition of First Nations who announced last year a ban on bear hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest, argue that killing such an ancient and intelligent animal for fun serves no purpose and is morally reprehensible.
It’s a view that appears to be shared by a majority of British Columbians surveyed in several recent polls related to trophy hunting. The most recent, published earlier this month by Insights West, found that 91 per cent of British Columbians, living in both rural and urban areas, are against trophy hunting.
There are other reasons why critics of the hunt argue that it cannot coexist with bear viewing. Jefferson Bray, the owner and manager of the Great Bear Chalet, says the hunt is bad for tourism as it sells a false message to visitors seeking a pristine wilderness experience. But he also suggests that the hunt has become increasingly unfair because bears are growing more acclimatized to humans as a result of increased viewing.
“What is happening is we are building this tenuous trust that we are not a threat,” he said. “We are sharing this world with them, yet we are setting them up to be raped. I’ve had clients, on learning that we still allow trophy hunting, say, ‘Look, I’m sorry I can’t invest money in this. I’m going to go somewhere else.’
“It doesn’t take anything to blow a grizzly bear into the next world. It isn’t a sport. It’s all sold to us as a perverted definition of masculinity. But it’s crap.”
As for bears becoming more acclimatized to humans, Ellis, the executive director of the GOABC, suggests that’s something for which the bear-viewing industry needs to take responsibility.
“I think everyone would be concerned if the bear-viewing industry is habituating bears,” he said. “It would be a large concern, not just for the guide fitting industry, but I think for the general public. These are wild animals that eat meat and need to be respected. So habituating an animal like a grizzly bear or, as a matter of fact, almost any kind of wildlife, will be a problem and is strongly advised against by all experts.”
Strauss said he would like the government to rescind the recent changes granted to the spring hunt in his region, which extended it by 10 days. It now runs April 1 to June 15. Turning back the clock would allow him, he said, to reinstate the spring viewing season in 2017. (The fall grizzly hunt started on Oct. 1 and runs until Nov. 15.
“I’m not one of these touchy-feely tree-hugging types who believes we can’t harm a blade of grass or we must all eat granola and tofu,” said Strauss. “But there is a sense that when you spend time around grizzly bears in the wild, that they are highly intelligent animals.
“There are totally valid reasons for killing a bear. But to kill it for sport, or for fun, is somehow something that, if you spend a lot of time around these animals, it sort of physically hurts you because it is a pointless exercise.”
VIEWING VS. HUNTING
The economic impact of bear viewing and hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia:
- Bear viewing expenditures in the Great Bear Rainforest: $15.1 million
- Expenditures by resident hunters and guided non-resident hunters in the Great Bear Rainforest: $1.2 million
- Number of people employed by bear-viewing companies in Great Bear Rainforest: 510, or 133 full-time jobs
- Number of people employed by guide outfitter companies in the Great Bear Rainforest: 11, or 4.8 full-time positions
— Published in 2014 by the Center for Responsible Travel. All figures based on 2012 data
GRIZZLY HUNTING STATS
For B.C. residents, the annual grizzly hunt is handled through a lottery system called the limited entry hunt. It is open to any B.C. resident who has a resident hunter number.
Non-resident hunts are handled separately through a guide quota system. Harvest quotas for guides are based on a portion of the total allowable annual harvest. Non-resident hunters who wish to hunt in B.C. must do so by employing a guide.
Due to low success rates, more tags are issued via the limited entry hunt than bears harvested. In 2014, there were 9,733 applicants for the LEH draw; 3,067 of those applicants received grizzly tags.
That same year, 267 grizzly bears were harvested: 165 by residents and 102 by non-residents through guided hunts.
- Spring and fall LEH totals:
2014: 9,733 applicants
2015: 9,614 applicants
- Tags issued:
- Harvest numbers:
2014: 267 (165 by residents/102 non-residents)
2015: Numbers not final
— Source: Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
DONATIONS TO B.C. LIBERALS
The Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., which represents 245 outfitters, has been a generous donor to the B.C. Liberal Party over the years.
According to financial records, the group has donated $36,975 to the B.C. Liberal Party since 2010. The GOABC has also donated to the provincial NDP to a lesser degree: about $6,000 since 2011.
In 2012, the guide association presented Premier Christy Clark with a “President’s Award” at its annual convention, held in Kelowna.