Hunting grizzly bears remains highly controversial and is turning into an election issue in British Columbia, Canada. However, trophy hunters defend the practice by maintaining that there is social value in hunting grizzlies by reducing human bear conflicts in addition to the conservation and economic benefits.
There are an estimated 15,000 grizzly bears in British Columbia. Hunting grizzlies is legal in that province and there are two different types of hunts. The resident hunt is conducted via a lottery, which is open to residents only. It accounts for 60% of grizzly bears killed in British Columbia. The second type of hunt, the guided hunt for non-BC residents, is conducted by so-called guide outfitters. An estimated 350 bears are killed or ‘harvested’ in total every year, a number that constitutes only 2% of the overall grizzly population as hunting organizations like to point out.
British Columbia holds provincial elections on May 9th and while BC Liberals continue to support the hunt the provincial NDP has promised to end the trophy hunt of grizzly bears with the NDP leader John Horgan stating “...these bears are worth far more to the province’s economy alive than dead.”
Why is the grizzly hunt so controversial? Scientist and environmentalists believe that the government’s population estimates are not accurate and that the hunt creates too much risk for a population that is already under pressure from habitat destruction and depleted salmon stocks. But quite apart from the risk to the species, which is one of the slowest reproducing land mammals, grizzly hunting is also in direct conflict with First Nations that have banned the hunt on the coast. In addition bear viewing operations are hindered from expanding and in some cases from operating due to conflict with the resident hunt. Grizzly Bear Ranch in the Selkirk Mountains, for example, had to stop their spring season because residents were hunting bears while tourists were trying to view them. As Julius Straus recently explained for a documentary on the grizzly hunt: “We live or die by our reviews and we cannot afford a review that says: ‘I went to Grizzly Bear Ranch and I went out to view a bear and somebody popped out from behind a rock and shot it.’ That would be the end of our business.”
A recent report by the Grizzly Bear Foundation (GBF) found that “bear viewing generated 12 times more visitor spending and 11 times more government revenue than grizzly hunting.” Julius Strauss even suggested that after speaking to government officials off-the-record, he learned that the grizzly hunt is being subsidized by BC taxpayers because the hunt is so costly to operate, a suspicion that was also confirmed by the GBF report.
Another common argument is that shooting grizzly bears reduces human-bear conflict by keeping grizzly numbers in check as well as keeping bears scared of humans. However both the GBF report as well The Grizzly Truth, a documentary that scrutinizes all of the arguments made in defense of grizzly hunting, refute that assertion. Kevin Van Tighem, the former superintendent of Banff National Park and author of Bears Without Fear says that: “My observation is that most of the grizzly bear attacks that have happened in the last century have been by scared animals. So how was keeping that bear scared of humans helpful to the bear or the person that ended up being attacked?” The GBF report supports that argument by stating that: “recent empirical evidence, based on 54 years of data from BC grizzly bears, suggests that hunting has no effect on bear‑human‑conflict.” Kevin argues that “there's an intellectual and moral dishonesty around saying that grizzly bear hunting has social value.”
The report also contradicts the notion that hunting grizzlies helps ungulates recover their population: “Some hunters believe that grizzlies are killing too many ungulates and therefore are responsible for the decrease of caribou and moose populations in certain parts of BC. Again, the science does not support this causal relationship, but rather points to the existence of a more complex set of factors, including human‑caused habitat alteration.”
Finally there is the popular argument that hunting male grizzlies reduces cub mortality since male grizzly bears kill cubs. Grizzly hunters even appear on TV programs hunting bears in Alaska while calling themselves ‘Cub Avengers’. But that notion is another popular myth and both Kevin Van Tighem and Julius Strauss explain why that is the case in the upcoming documentary.
Brian Falconer from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation concludes that: “all of these arguments that are presented are just an attempt at justifying the emotion: the thrill of the kill.” Interviews with hunters in the documentary as well as conversations on the The Grizzly Truth Facebook page seem to confirm that suspicion. As one of the grizzly hunters commented on this page: “I love killing grizzlys makes my day when a grizzly takes a dirt nap it’s a great feeling. Nothing like standing over the king of the forest as he takes his last breath.”
While we may vehemently disagree with that sentiment and the idea of hunting grizzlies for sport at least we are now having an honest conversation and we have moved past the notion that grizzly hunting serves a social purpose.
Charlie Russell, who has lived with grizzlies for ten years, suggests at the start of the film that popular myths about the grizzly bear being dangerous and ferocious animals are in fact “lies that have been told for obvious reasons and those reasons are around hunting.” His study in Russia tried to correct that perception, showing that we have completely misunderstood those animals for more than a century.
The Grizzly Truth will be released on March 30th and you can view a trailer on this page.