Coastal First Nations Declare Ban On Trophy Bear Hunting

3 Grizzlies Photograph by Ian McAllister

British Columbia is home to one of the last regions of unspoiled temperate coastal rainforest in the world, extending from the southern Discovery Islands up to the BC-Alaska boundary, including many offshore islands and lands to the east toward Kitimat. The forests here are old, with 1000-year-old cedars still standing and spruce growing as tall as 90 metres; rainfall is abundant. The region is a healthy ecosystem home to numerous species, particularly higher order predators such as cougars, wolves, grizzly bears, and black bears.

In 2006, the official boundaries of the Great Bear Rainforest were announced, covering about 14,000 square-kilometres (33% of the region) including the central and northern coasts of British Columbia and the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). The protection agreement included promises to improve forestry practices, ban logging in 33% of the area, and involve First Nations in decision-making. Despite the agreements and promises, this unique ecosystem is still under threat. The current Northern Gateway Pipelines project backed by Enbridge would bring high volumes of oil tanker traffic through the waterways, and any spill would be an environmental disaster, no matter how earnestly they promise to clean up after themselves. A more immediate concern, however, is trophy bear hunting—killing for sport.

Every year, hundreds of bears in British Columbia are killed by trophy hunters. Grizzly bears are  recognized as a threatened species, but black bears are still unprotected. Among black bears, about one in ten has an unusual white-coloured coat. These are the rare Kermode “Spirit” bears (Ursus americanus kermodei), a subspecies of black bear unique to the region. The Sprit Bear is a creature of myth and mystery in British Columbia, but it is also very real. The Tsimshian people call it moskgm’ol (white bear), and the Kitasoo/Xaixais believe these Spirit Bears are supernatural. They say, “Raven made one in every ten black bears white to remind the people of a time when glaciers covered this land and how the people should be thankful of the lush and bountiful land of today.”

That lush and bountiful land encompasses roughly 70,000 square-kilometres of mountains, rugged coastline, and fjords that support rich salmon streams and a healthy population of Sitka deer. Environmental groups such as the Valhalla Wilderness Society have worked with local First Nations since the 1990s to gather compelling research, produce wildlife documentaries, and help First Nations develop Spirit Bear viewing programs. As a result, wildlife viewing and ecotourism has become a source of sustainable income for local communities. The BC government, however, has consistently ignored pleas from First Nations and conservation groups to protect the land and the animals, continuing to allow sport hunting in the province’s parks, including “protected” areas and the Great Bear Rainforest.

In 2009, the David Suzuki Foundation [] reported that “in the 30 years the government has kept records, close to 11,000 grizzly bears have been killed in BC, 88% of them by sport hunters. Many are big-game hunters from the U.S. and Europe who pay thousands of dollars to kill a bear in BC, since these marvellous bruins no longer exist in their own home countries.” Suzuki notes a 2008 McAllister Research poll found that 79% of BC residents believe thrill-hunting is “reprehensible” and should stop, and he referenced the words of Haida leader Guujaaw who recognized that “bears are as much a part of the environment as we are,” and said bluntly, “It’s not right that anyone should make a sport of killing.”

Suzuki also presents compelling evidence in favour of ecotourism. Using bear-watching as a source of community employment and income can be far more lucrative than trophy hunting. Tourists from around the globe pay top dollar to come observe and photograph bears in their natural habitat. “In 2003, a study by the Centre for Integral Economics showed that grizzly-bear viewing brings in twice the income for coastal communities as the trophy hunt. One bear-watching operation in Knight Inlet alone grossed over $3 million in direct revenue in 2007—more than all trophy-hunting revenue combined.” Bear watching is a sustainable industry with a viable future. Bear hunting is a threat to the species, the environment, and Canada’s natural history. Suzuki’s article ends with a somber truth, “Today, the only place you’ll find a grizzly bear south of Wyoming is on California’s state flag. It would be more than a shame if all we had left to remember these magnificent animals in BC were a few films and First Nations carvings.”

Aboriginal peoples across Canada have traditionally hunted for food, ceremonial purposes, and trade within their territories, but killing just for the sake of bagging a trophy is foreign to their culture. After years of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the issue with the province, First Nations on BC’s North and Central Coast have declared a ban on “senseless and brutal” trophy bear hunting in their traditional territories. The Coastal First Nations are an alliance of First Nations that includes the Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk, Gitga’at, Haisla, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation working together to create a sustainable economy on British Columbia’s North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii. In a September 2012 press release, Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation Chief Doug Neasloss clearly states, “We will protect bears from cruel and unsustainable trophy hunts by any and all means.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that in the Great Bear Rainforest all bears would flourish, he said. “Unfortunately, trophy hunting continues to be permitted in the majority of Great Bear Rainforest, including its protected areas and conservancies.”

William Housty, integrated resource manager for the Heiltsuk Nation, told the Globe and Mail that guides are tired of coming across bear carcasses. “Our people on the coast are leaning towards ecotourism, and we don’t see this as a good fit,” he said. “A lot of bears are shot in estuaries, in the fall when the salmon are running… the skin and head and claws are taken, but the carcasses are just left there. It’s gruesome.” Jessie Housty, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Nation, explains, “It’s not a part of our culture to kill an animal for sport and hang them on a wall. When we go hunting it’s for sustenance purposes, not trophy hunting.” Housty said bears are often gunned down by trophy hunters near shorelines as they forage for food. “Trophy hunting is a threat to the lucrative ecotourism industry that we are creating. Tourists often come back year after year to watch the same bears and their young grow.”

Mother Grizzly and Cub – Photograph by Ian McAllister

Coastal First Nations say only a total ban on trophy hunting will ensure that bear populations can support the tourism opportunities that add valuable income to our communities. Because the Province is negligent in their responsibility to monitor the trophy hunt the Coastal First Nations will now assume responsibility for bear management on the Coast, Chief Neasloss said. “We will now assume the authority to monitor and enforce a closure of this senseless trophy hunt.” Enforcing this authority without the backing of the province will not be easy. “That’s really a problem,” Housty told CBC News. “We can’t walk up to these hunters and say, `You can’t hunt here.’ We can’t write a ticket.” Housty feels First Nations “should have a voice in how these lands are managed, and this includes the bear hunt.”

BC Minister of Forests Steve Thomson told CBC News that First Nations need to respect the rules and hunting limits set by the province, expecting only “one or two bears harvested this fall.” He also considers the hunting industry an important part of BC heritage and the economy, contributing about $350 million to the province annually. On the other hand, Jessie Housty puts it plainly: “It goes against our cultural beliefs and values of management of our territories and bears in particular, and because we have an increasing presence on our land with research projects, with our people reconnecting to the land, it doesn’t make sense to have hunters in the same area.”

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation [] estimates 300-400 grizzlies are killed in BC by trophy hunters each year, and the organization has been campaigning to stop the grizzly hunt for over a decade. “The ‘recreational’ killing of grizzly bears throughout most of British Columbia occurs for two months every spring and fall. The trophy hunting of coastal grizzlies is not so much a sport as a search and destroy mission by trophy hunters with militia-style mindsets employing aircraft, electronic aids, and transport to arrive on a river, walk up to bears and shoot them while they feed.” In 2001, the group was successful in achieving a three-year moratorium on BC grizzly hunting; however, it was overturned when Gordon Campbell took office. “The BC government and the trophy hunting lobby claim that the coastal bear hunt is based on science. The reality is it’s more science fiction than science,” said Raincoast senior scientist Dr Paul Paquet. “In the face of climate change, habitat fragmentation, salmon declines, and threats of oil spills, the province’s faith-based wildlife management is unlikely to ensure the long term viability of coastal bear populations in the Great Bear Rainforest.”

The group recognized the need for a new conservation strategy, and in 2005, Raincoast purchased 24,000 square kilometres of hunting territory—about three times the size of Yellowstone National Park—saving dozens of grizzlies, black bears, and wolves from the commercial trophy hunt. By 2010, they were seeing river valleys come alive with bears and wolves, giving a boost to commercial wildlife viewing and local business opportunities. Brian Falconer, Guide Outfitter Coordinator for Raincoast explains, “As guide outfitting territory owners in the Great Bear Rainforest, our intention has been to support the economic initiatives based on bear viewing in these coastal First Nations communities.” The group manages territories in consultation with coastal First Nations, and Brian says, “No bears have been killed since the acquisition of these territories.”

On September 14, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation announced the purchase of an additional 3,500 sq km hunting area in the heart of Spirit Bear habitat. Chief Councillor Doug Neasloss serves as head guide at the beautiful Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu and was pleased to hear the news. “Raincoast’s purchase of this territory supports the Kitasoo/Xaixais investment in sustainable eco-tourism jobs,” he said. Kevin Smith, president of Maple Leaf Adventures, one of many ecotourism companies that offer bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest points out, “This region has some of the world’s best bear viewing, and bear viewing provides far more economic benefit than trophy hunting coastal bears. We applaud Raincoast for their vision and drive to make this happen.” Chris Genovali, Raincoast Executive Director, estimates the conservation group now controls more than 28,000 square kilometres of commercial hunting territory in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Special thanks to Ian McAllister and for the amazing photographs of Bear in the great Bear Rain Forest