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Grisly bears

Trophy hunting of grizzlies under fire in British Columbia

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VANCOUVER -- If you looked at all the weird ways the British Columbia government raises money in 2013, you'd be hard pressed to come up with a wackier, more old-fashioned idea than letting people go out in the bush armed with high-powered weapons, track down a grizzly bear and blow it to smithereens.

The "successful" hunter then stands or kneels beside the lifeless animal while photographs are taken to prove his prowess and then the bear's head, hide and paws are cut and skinned off the still-warm carcass, which is then left to rot in the sun.

The meat of the vanquished bear, which might weigh more than 300 kilograms, will be left untouched, at least by the human palate, grim evidence of how the B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection is managing its wildlife holdings.

This recurring scenario of wanton bloodlust and unrestrained machismo has a group of First Nations on B.C.'s Central Coast aggressively and creatively lobbying the provincial government to shut down grizzly bear trophy hunting as an anachronism that no longer makes any sense whatsoever.

While admitting "no animal is more symbolic of our wild areas than the grizzly bear," the government has responded by urging the First Nations to respect the law of the land, which permits hunters with licences to blast away like testosterone-fuelled Ernest Hemingway wannabes in a long ago manly African savannah.

But it appears the government could be both losing the war of public opinion and making an expensive miscalculation about the value of wild animals to the public and the provincial treasury.

And they are also up against Jessie Housty, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Nation, and her colleagues who have organized a spirited defence of the grizzly bear by creating a website that points out the arrogance and ignorance of continuing to allow the trophy hunt of an animal that, according to Parks Canada, once ranged in North America from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River and from Central Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

The website -- bearsforever.ca -- notes times have indeed changed on a section of the B.C. coast referred to as the Great Bear Rainforest, a 64,000-square-kilometre strip of territory that is said to be the biggest temperate rainforest in the world.

"With fewer fish and smaller trees, both animals and people are trying to adapt," the website says. "For a large majority of British Columbians, killing bears for trophies no longer fits with modern values of stewardship and sustainability."

The website was put together after Clayton Stoner, a B.C.-born National Hockey League defenceman with the Minnesota Wild, shot an adult male grizzly named Cheeky in May near the Kwatna River estuary, an area that First Nations have declared off-limits to trophy hunting even though the provincial government issues hunting licences there.

Local aboriginal field technicians first saw Cheeky, a seemingly playful five-year-old, in the estuary in early 2013. "After watching him stick his tongue out at them, the technicians named the curious bear Cheeky," the website said. "Keeping a distance of about 45 metres, he would follow alongside as they did their work, stopping to eat and roll in the grass."

The website also notes coastal trophy hunting is disrespectful and unfair. "Guides actually offer to barge in SUVs so hunters won't have to hike. Bears can be spotted from planes, chased down in boats, or shot as they walk by camouflaged blinds.

They're hunted in the fall when they come down to feed on salmon, and then hunted in the spring when they emerge from hibernation. And unlike animals such as deer or elk, there are no rules against shooting mothers. A third of the grizzlies killed in B.C. are female."

For his part, Stoner was unrepentant, even when the photos of him holding parts of the dead grizzly went viral. "I love to hunt and fish and will continue to do so with my family and friends in British Columbia," the 28-year-old Stoner said.

The province, meanwhile, defends the trophy hunting as a sound management tool.

Government records show 3,786 grizzly bear tags were issued province-wide in 2013 and approximately 300 grizzlies are shot each year.

The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection adds the overall hunting industry contributes approximately $350 million annually to the province, with grizzly bears generating the most revenue per hunting trip at $1,331.53, or $420.03 per day.

The ministry also says that since 1997, B.C. has invested more than $7 million in grizzly bear inventory work and estimated last year the grizzly population in B.C. at 15,000 bears.

But since Cheeky's early demise, an assistant professor at the department of geography at the University of Victoria was reported as saying the government's estimates for bear populations in B.C. are crude and wrong.

A public opinion poll found 87 per cent of respondents agreed bear hunting should be banned in the Great Bear Rainforest. A number of environmental groups have pointed out much more money, and jobs, can be generated through grizzly bear ecotourism than grizzly bear hunting. Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs was quoted as calling the trophy hunt disgusting and barbaric.

Housty, who lives in Bella Bella, finds herself at the centre of this growing anti-trophy-hunting movement. She and her associates in the Central Coast First Nations Bear Working Group and the University of Victoria's Applied Conservation Science Lab are currently gathering as much fact-based information on the animals as they can.

A 26-year-old university student, Housty says grizzly bears are a sacred species important to First Nations as they are part of the clan system and are central to traditional stories. "Grizzly bears in general are an icon of B.C. They are part of the big wilderness we celebrate."

Grizzly bears are magnificent and intelligent animals, she says, adding she doesn't understand someone senselessly killing an animal to hang the trophy on a wall as a form of entertainment and not even eating the meat.

Housty says a continuing grizzly bear trophy hunt could actually create a backlash against the B.C. government, both in and out of the province. "A lot of people have expressed shock that this is still allowed."

She added her organization has had a great deal of support even amongst hunters that trophy hunting is not an acceptable or sustainable industry.

"This is going to end, it's just a matter of time."

Better sooner than later since B.C.'s reputation as an intelligent steward of a globally-recognized wilderness and environment is in as much limbo as an unsuspecting grizzly bear waiting for a bullet to fatally strike.

 

Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.

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