One by one, trophy hunters are rubbing out British Columbia's grizzlies
by Paul Koberstein
KNIGHT INLET, British Columbia -- It seems truly amazing that grizzly bears still roam the wildlands of North America. You can still see lots of bears amassing in one place, Knight Inlet, on the central coast of British Columbia. Glendale Lodge there is booked solid this season with tourists who have come to witness grizzlies feeding on pink salmon migrating inland to spawn. They shoot the fearsome grizzly - with their cameras.
But a different sort of visitor also comes to the coastal temperate rainforest to shoot some grizzly. With a gun. Hundreds from Canada, the U.S. and Europe are paying upwards of $10,000 for the opportunity to join a hunt that began September 1. They hunt grizzlies for the trophy, never for the meat.
And now there's trouble. The grizzly, hunted to extinction throughout most of its range in North America, may be facing a similar fate here in British Columbia. Disturbing new evidence suggests grizzlies are being systematically extinguished from the province. No one knows for sure how many remain. Estimates vary wildly, ranging from 3,000 to 14,000. Last December, 68 professional biologists called for a hunting moratorium pending the completion of long term population studies throughout BC.
"The BC government denies that sport hunting is killing off its coastal grizzly bear population, yet has never done a credible study of grizzly populations," says Chris Genovali of the Raincoast Conservation Society, a group based in Sidney, B.C., that's fighting to protect the vast Great Bear Rainforest that stretches almost the entire length of the BC coast.
"As a professional biologist, ecotour operator and just being on this small globe of ours, I find it appalling that this is allowed to continue," says Richard Biel, of Canadian Wilderness Ecotours. "The oldest bears being killed now are around 4 years old. These creatures live to be 20-25 years old."
The government of British Columbia claims that's all nonsense. The official line is that the grizzly bear population is in no danger of extinction.
The government has the backing of the powerful hunting lobby in BC, the BC Wildlife Federation. This group, which recently brought NRA icon Charlton Heston to speak at its annual convention, insists that they have a right to hunt. As for the hunters, many of them are wealthy Americans eager to show friends back in the states their valor.
The government's grizzly policies are being challenged by conservation groups in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as the brutal slaughter of an endangered species for the benefit of a small but loud cadre of hunters. The policies are also being questioned from within. One government biologist, Dionys de Leeuw, warns that hunting is on pace to extinguish all grizzlies from British Columbia between 2020 and 2034. Extinction here could come even quicker for the grizzly, he adds, unless the BC government heeds its own warnings about the devastating effects of ongoing timber harvests in grizzly habitat.
Last November, in a celebrated report entitled "Grizzly Overkill in British Columbia Bear Management," de Leeuw, a senior habitat protection biologist with the BC Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, writes that the province has vastly overestimated the number of grizzlies still alive in BC, and is allowing them to get shot at an unsustainable rate. "BC grizzly bears are declining," de Leeuw says. "Exacerbating that decline by continuing the grizzly bear hunt is biologically irresponsible."
Official figures put the number of grizzly bears in BC at about 14,000, but de Leeuw says overhunting may have reduced the population to as few as 3,000. Hunters kill an estimated 300 each year, with another 300 killed for public safety purposes and by poachers. Over a 33-year period from 1965 to 1997, he estimates more than 6,000 female bears were slaughtered, far in excess of the number the BC government considers sustainable.
"These results are discouraging at best," de Leeuw writes. "They clearly indicate that rather than controlling the total kill of grizzly bears to what may well be an arbitrarily conservative level, for 33 years the province has allowed the kill to exceed its own standard of sustainable mortality."
Compounding matters is the dubious nature of the BC Ministry of Environment' s grizzly population estimates. From 1972 to 1979 the province estimated a population of 6660 grizzly bears. But in 1990, the Ministry estimated that the province was home to 13,160 grizzly bears using a "habitat suitability" model that assumes grizzlies occupy all suitable habitat.
De Leeuw contends the model is so flawed that virtually all grizzly bears could be exterminated in BC by sport hunters, and the government would still allow hunting.
Scientists Under Siege
Cascadia Times could not interview de Leeuw for this story. "I am not free to speak at all to anybody in the media," he told CT. "My government has told me I cannot speak about bears. I would suggest you phone Jim Yardley."
Jim Yardley is director of the Environment Ministry's office in Smithers, a community on the Skeena River in north-central BC.
"His views do not reflect the views of the ministry," Yardley said. "That's it. The ministry believes it is managing grizzly bears appropriately and conservatively. Mr. de Leeuw feels otherwise."
But Kolbjorn Eide, a former hunting guide in the Lower Skeena region, says from his observation de Leeuw is correct. He quit guiding a few years ago because of declining bear numbers, and now supports a hunting moratorium. "In the last 30 years from 1970, I would say we have lost about 80 percent of our grizzly population in the Lower Skeena," Eide says. "The BC Ministry of Environment has never taken any interest in protecting grizzly bears, and they still don't. There is nothing to save them if they keep up their policies."
The BC government not only disagrees with de Leeuw's warnings, it has retaliated against him for voicing them.
When de Leeuw tried to circulate his findings last November among his colleagues at the BC Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, his superiors confiscated all copies, and then slapped de Leeuw with the gag order and an unpaid suspension. When asked to comment on this, Yardley said, "We don't engage in comment in the media on disciplinary matters regarding employees."
Numerous scientists interviewed for this article said de Leeuw's report has significant scientific merit. "It's pretty damning information," says Dr. Bryan Horejsi, a carnivore biologist in Calgary. "There are more than enough reasons to be suspicious about the government's numbers."
Wayne McCrory, another member of the government's grizzly science panel, says de Leeuw's work matches the results he's seen over 15 years of research. "It was quite refreshing to have someone within government produce similar findings," he told Cascadia Times. "When you step out of line with this government they go after you with big hatchets. It's like Mussolini days to me. It's a violation of (de Leeuw's) freedom as a scientist to do independent research and publish it."
In 1997, when de Leeuw published his first paper on grizzly bears, the government quashed it, too. "It got put in our forwarding boxes at the ministry office, but people from higher up came down and pulled it," McCrory says.
McCrory finds most disturbing de Leeuw's contention that the government is allowing hunters to kill 50 percent or more of female grizzlies. "How can anybody who claims to have principles for wildlife conservation justify a hunt that kills 30 to 50 percent or more of the breeding component of an already threatened species? It violates every conservation principle I've ever been taught. Anybody involved in supporting that shouldn't be called a conservationist. It is a systematic destruction of grizzly populations through legally sanctioned grizzly trophy hunting."
At the BC Ministry of Environment's Wildlife Branch, information about grizzly kills is kept under wraps as if it were a state secret. But then, as de Leeuw points out in one of his papers, "the institutionalization of the grizzly bear hunt was never subject to any kind of public discussion, referendum, or any other decision making process. Government bureaucrats instigated this policy."
The government's dealings with de Leeuw may sound cruel, but they're hardly unprecedented.
Dr. Paul Paquet, a member of the BC's grizzly bear science advisory panel, says the BC government has a history of intimidating its own grizzly bear biologists. "Our group was guaranteed to be allowed to be independent thinkers," he said in an interview with Cascadia Times. "That didn't happen. At various times we've been referred to as intemperate and inconsiderate. There's an unwillingness on the part of the government to pursue the conservation of bears based on the best science."
Paquet, a researcher associated with two major universities in Alberta, said the panel concluded that the grizzly population could not support hunting, particularly when its habitat is being decimated by logging and road building.
"That was our official recommendation," Paquet says. "The point was made over and over again. But publicly the government stated that the committee had no concern about hunting. I think they misrepresented our position pretty dramatically."
In late 1998, the panel presented Cathy McGregor, then minister of environment, with a "report card" on the province's implementation of its official grizzly bear recovery plan, three years after the plan was released in 1995. The card was full of D's and F's.
McGregor told the panel that the province couldn't afford to implement its grizzly plan, Paquet says. "They couldn't do it in the current economic atmosphere. It would threaten jobs, and there was tremendous opposition from forestry."
Instead, "they chose to cut our funding," Paquet says. "We never met again. Now they are going to disband our committee."
In another example of government intolerance of grizzly bear science, the BC government censored its own analysis of how a proposed ski resort would harm grizzlies - after the resort's developer threatened a lawsuit. The resort, still in the planning stages, would be built in the Jumbo Valley near Invermere in the BC Rockies. The government's official position now is that the resort would have "no net impact to the (grizzly bear) population."
"We were asked to assess the effects of Jumbo," Paquet says. "We wrote a review of that; it was never released. They suppressed that one too. One of the government's scientists did an internal review, and the review was not positive. That information was never released under a threat by the developer that he would sue."
British Columbia appears to have borrowed some of its tactics from the United States, where several grizzly bear scientists have been harassed, intimidated and transferred after producing results that challenged American grizzly bear policies. These scientists worked either directly or indirectly for Chris Servheen, director of grizzly bear recovery programs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1982.
Servheen, interestingly, is an official advisor on grizzly bear management for the government of British Columbia.
The intimidation of de Leeuw is reminiscent of what happened to Dave Mattson, a bear biologist working for Servheen. Mattson had been an outspoken critic of plans to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the U.S. Endangered Species List. One day Mattson came to work to discover that his office had been ransacked by his superiors. Some 10 years of research had been taken, and his computer files erased, by one of Servheen's deputies.
In his 1998 book Science Under Siege, Todd Wilkinson writes, "Mattson was informed that all of his incoming and outgoing mail would be screened for signs of subversion, that his travel budget would be slashed to prevent him from conferring with other biologists. News of the raid sent tremors throughout the insular world of bear scientists."
Mattson's papers have been returned, but he has been shipped out - to Flagstaff, Ariz. "They got him out of grizzly bears," says Louisa Willcox, director of the Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Project in Bozeman, Mont. "It was really a tragedy for bears."
Several other scientists working for Servheen have faced similar intimidation. Willcox says the problem with grizzly bear research is that it produces answers politicians don't like. "Anybody who is at all honest with the science gets to the fundamental need for big expanses of habitat. The more you know, the more politically difficult the challenges are."
In both countries, Genovali says, the crackdown on scientists reflects the government's "increasing paranoia about potential public disclosure."
Enviros Strike Back
Raincoast recently filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the actual physical locations, watershed by watershed, of all grizzly bears killed by legal sport hunting in BC since the province began keeping such records. The government turned the request down.
In British Columbia, conservationists have few tools to force the government to take any action protecting the grizzly. There is no Endangered Species Act. The BC Environmental Assessment Act specifically excludes forest practices from environmental scrutiny. The minimal wildlife provisions under the Forest Practices Code have never been implemented.
"The Code is ultimately a death sentence for grizzlies," says Chris Genovali. "Yet the BC government continues to claim that the Code obviates the need for endangered species legislation in BC."
But environmentalists in Canada do have one tool: economic pressure, exercised at a global scale if need be. And they are expert at using it with great effect. In August, Lowe's Companies, a major lumber retailer, said it has already put into effect a ban on wood coming from the Great Bear Rainforest, joining Home Depot.
Raincoast has in mind a similar campaign to stop the grizzly hunt. It has enlisted the help of a private British conservation group, the Environmental Investigations Agency, to coordinate an international campaign that would hit the BC tourism industry, one of the largest industries in the province, employing some 235,000 workers.
EIA has organized more than 100 tourism-based businesses in BC who have signed an appeal to stop the hunting. Another 50 or more travel agencies in the U.K. have also signed the protest. "We're jacking up pressure on the economic side," says Martin Powell, an EIA operative who works out of London. "What we're saying is companies in the U.K. are already saying people are avoiding coming to BC over this. The tourism industry is deeply concerned because people have put off coming to BC. It's only a matter of time when that trickle turns into a flood."
"We hope there won't be any need to call for a boycott at a later date," Powell adds.
BC's Minister of Tourism, Ian Waddell, recently expressed his support for banning the legal sport hunting of grizzly bears and indicated he would be taking the issue to the Cabinet.
EIA has also launched an appeal with the United Nations, under the Convention on International Treaty in Endangered Species (CITES). The treaty bans the export and import of listed species, or their body parts. The U.S. and Canada are among the 152 nations that have signed the treaty.
"We want a ban on all exports of grizzly trophies," Powell says, "so foreign hunters won't be allowed to take their trophies out of the country with them, and so they won't come here to hunt in the first place."
More than three-quarters of British Columbians oppose the hunt, according to a provincewide poll taken in 1996. Opposition runs strong in the ecotourism industry.
"I am embarrassed to be a Canadian when I think that we still allow our locals and foreigners to hunt our most precious animals," says Joanne Johnson, innkeeper at the Abbey Rose Bed and Breakfast in Victoria. "I once experienced a mother grizzly bear teaching her two young cubs to find food in the wilds of Alberta. This experience was most magical, and I believe British Columbia needs to understand that there is much more advantage in allowing these wild animals to stay alive than to let them be terminated forever." n
More Information on Grizzlies on the Web
Raincoast Conservation Society
Environmental Investigations Agency
Western Canada Wilderness Committee
Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystem Project
British Columbia Grizzly Bear Strategy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service