The Grizzly Business

Photo Credit: Michael Bednar

The Grizzly Business

👤Dan Mesec 🕔Feb 24, 2017

A couple of years ago, while filming a documentary deep in the wilderness of northern BC, I came face to face with one of British Columbia’s most iconic creatures: the grizzly bear. It was a profound experience that left an immense impression. These lumbering beasts embody the sheer power and grace of a great wilderness that can barely contain them. Although their dominance of the wild commands respect, they are simple, humble creatures. Emperors of the forest.

Bear economics

This high status in the animal kingdom comes with a cost. The majestic grizzly is so iconic to the Pacific Northwest that droves of people flock here each year, and pay tens of thousands of dollars to view them for pleasure and hunt them for sport.

In the fall of 2016, BC NDP leader John Horgan pledged to the voters of BC that if his party were to form government in the upcoming provincial election, they would implement an all-out ban on the trophy hunt of grizzly bears. “It’s time for some leadership here,” Horgan said. “We can look after our natural environment, respect the outdoor traditions of this province and grow the economy if we make the right choices. That should start now with a change in how we treat the iconic grizzly bears of BC.”

Although several polls, including Insights West’s 2016 survey, suggest more than  90 percent of British Columbians oppose the killing of wildlife for sport, the grizzly bear trophy hunt continues to be one of the most coveted hunting adventures in the world.

A typical grizzly hunt for non-resident hunters can fetch more than $25,000, not including the $1,030 species permit. As a resident hunter, you can only acquire a grizzly species licence, which will cost you $80, after winning a limited entry draw. But bear viewing and bear hunting aren’t the most harmonious practices. It can cause conflict in the bush and in the halls of the Legislature. And, although it’s not a top priority for them, the BC NDP wants voters to ask, “what is more valuable, a live bear, or a dead one?”

It depends on where you look. The hunting industry in BC generates about $350 million in revenue for the government each year. The grizzly hunt accounts for about $7.5 million, most of which comes from resident hunters. However, in the Great Bear Rainforest, which encompasses about 6.4 million hectares, bear viewing adventures generate around 500 direct jobs for coastal communities and more than $7 million in government revenue, compared to the $660,000 that guided grizzly bear hunts bring in.

A 2014 report by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) concluded that visitor expenditures for bear viewing tourists top out at $15.1 million making it one of the most sustainable ecotourism industries in British Columbia. Douglas Neasloss, a chief councillor for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation in Klemtu, says bear viewing businesses are rapidly growing on the coast and Spirit Bear Lodge, located on the traditional territory of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, will soon be the largest employer in his community.

“Right now the Spirit Bear Lodge is the second biggest industry in my community and is the fastest growing,” Neasloss says. “Last year we employed about 50 people, everything from boat operators to hotel staff and guides. A number of years ago forestry was the largest employer up here and mostly dominated by males. But with the diversity tourism creates we’re hiring men, women, even youth. In the next year or two it will probably be the biggest industry in the community.”

Although more than 80 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest has been protected from large-scale logging, that protection doesn’t extend to trophy hunting. Neasloss says because hunting bears in the GBR is largely wide open, it can cause a lot of conflict with bear viewing operations, some of which have even come across bear carcasses that were left behind. “I had clients from all around the world out there; they paid for a bear viewing trip and as we walked along the estuary I saw something in the river,” Neasloss says. “I thought it was a seal. We walked over and it was a dead bear—his head and paws were chopped off, and those were the remains that were left behind.”

To ban or not to ban?

One of the loudest voices calling for a ban on the trophy hunting of grizzly bears is Ian McAllister. The world-renowned photographer and executive director of Pacific Wild, a non-profit conservation organization located on Denny Island, has lived and worked in the Great Bear Rainforest for more than two decades. Although he says there is room for the harvesting of bears for sustenance purposes, the ban on trophy hunting is the only option to ensure a sustainable future for such an iconic species. “It’s been a long time coming to get to this position politically in BC,” McAllister says. “This is really one of the most controversial wildlife/environmental issues and I absolutely believe this will be an election issue. It will change the voting dynamic in the province and it’s going to be very much a centre piece of debate in the run up to the spring election.” Over the last decade numerous polls have been conducted on this issue, maybe more than any other in BC. And although the majority of British Columbians have consistently opposed the trophy hunt of any animal, McAllister says most don’t feel the same way if wildlife is being harvested for consumption. “The grizzly bear trophy hunt is really seen as the most symbolic travesty or injustice when it comes to general wildlife management,” he says. “So people are opposed to the killing of animals for sport or for gratuitous pleasure. People are very supportive of subsistence hunting and properly managed food hunting, but when it comes to the trophy hunt, that’s when you see this huge jump in majority opposition.”

There are an estimated 15,000 grizzlies left in the province, which the government claims is a “stable, self-sustaining” population. However, some estimate that number could be as low as 6,000. And in certain parts of the province  grizzlies are more predominant.

Those numbers are still up for debate, according to Pacific Wild. A study conducted by researchers at Simon Fraser University found that not enough data was available to determine exactly how many grizzlies roam throughout BC. And, because of the uncertainty, current government hunting quotas are not sustainable. A more recent study conducted by BC government scientists, published in November 2016, concluded that the current grizzly populations are stable and grizzly hunt allocations are sustainable. But, to put this in perspective, if the growth rate of grizzly populations suddenly came to a halt (which is highly unlikely), it would take less than 50 years to wipe out all the grizzlies in the province at the present harvest rate of 300-400 a year.

Jim Glaicar, president of the BC Wildlife Federation, says his organization is dedicated to wildlife management but wouldn’t support an all-out ban on the grizzly hunt because the decision isn’t backed up by sound science. Glaicar has assurances from Horgan that the NDP will allow grizzly hunting to continue as long as the meat is harvested. “Our membership believes that we should manage our wildlife on science,” Glaicar says. “If there is science that dictates that any hunt of any species should not continue because of conservation concerns, then we’ll be the first ones to say, ‘let’s stop harvesting’. In this case, we have yet to see that science.” Glaicar admits BC’s funding model to manage wildlife is broken and that $2.4 million a year is not enough to support conservation efforts through the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF). “I would encourage our [political] parties to quit focusing on hot button political items and look after wildlife, which would mean proper funding models and then we can go get data and science to ensure that wildlife is there for everyone.”

Bill Jex, a wildlife biologist with the BC government in Smithers, says in terms of general wildlife management in the province, it’s unrealistic to exclude grizzly bears from those practices. “It would be odd for us, I think, to not have some aspect of management for grizzly bears going forward over the long-term,” Jex says, “when we manage moose and we manage caribou. The Skeena Region is really the last wild part of the province. We have areas here where you can still go and you don’t see a road, or a power line or a pipeline, but that’s not the reality in the majority of the province.”

Where the grizzlies roam

Along the Spatsizi Wilderness Plateau, about 450 km north of Terrace, long time guide outfitter and bush pilot, Ray Collingwood, says in his 45 years of guiding he’s never seen so many grizzlies in one place. The Collingwoods’ operation is legendary, offering some of the most sought-after wilderness adventures in the world. Collingwood ensures no part of any kill is wasted and he and his team strive to make sure animals are harvested in the most humane manner possible. Although he  originally landed in the Spatsizi to follow his passion of fly-fishing, guided hunts is what keeps the doors open.

“I started with fishing clients but realized after I paid all my bills I wasn’t paying myself, I was going broke,” says Collingwood. “So I had to look for a guiding area. Now, we probably have one of the biggest adventure tourism businesses than any other guide outfitter. We have fly-fishing, we do hunts and without those hunts there wouldn’t be a fly-fishing business because we would not be able to build that infrastructure that those fishermen expect. They want the comforts.”

The Collingwoods have deep knowledge of the territory in which they operate. They’ve even provided vital information for SFU studies on wildlife populations in the area. He says the grizzly numbers in the Spatsizi have probably doubled in his 45 years of guiding and that BC can’t manage healthy ungulate populations without harvesting predators too. “Some of the most highly regarded biologists with years of experience in the field, and research fellows who have collared these bears and the ungulates, know the story,” Collingwood writes in an email. “How can we have a hunt for the ungulates and not hunt the predators? You have to manage both and at this stage the worst thing would be to stop the grizzly hunt as those bears will continue to reduce the ungulate population.”

Black-market bears

 Each year the provincial government issues about 3,000 grizzly permits, but on average only about 300 are killed annually. A David Suzuki Foundation report from 2010 found that between 1977 and 2009, 11,000 grizzly bears had been harvested. The majority, about 87 percent, were killed legally, but the report suggests 1,516 were illegally killed. Although it’s rare that authorities uncover black-market bear trafficking, trading and selling bear hides is perfectly legal in BC as long as you have the proper permits and tags.

Sarah Railton, a resident of Terrace, was somewhat shocked when she walked into a store last spring and saw a grizzly claw in the jewellery case selling for nearly $1,200. “I happened to come across a grizzly bear claw that was for sale,” Railton said. “I went through the appropriate avenues and talked with the conservation officers and they informed me that it was legal and that [the store] had all the appropriate paperwork.”

Kevin Nixon, a conservation officer stationed in Smithers, has spent the last 27 years patrolling the northwest region. He says, under the Wildlife Act there are provisions to legally sell the complete hide of a grizzly. But separating parts of the bear for sale is illegal. “Some of the provisions are they cannot remove the paws or the claws and sell those as a separate item and they cannot export those items,” Nixon says. “Things like the gallbladder are sought-after items from bears and the Wildlife Act covers that. Meaning you cannot posses a bear gall separate from the carcass. Period.”

Nixon says the northwest is a popular destination for grizzly hunters because the population is fairly healthy so they haven’t experienced a decline in grizzly harvests. Although it’s not that common, throughout his career Nixon has had to deal with illegal trafficking and killings of grizzlies. “We’ve had lots of grizzlies that were harvested without limited entries over the years. My staff probably deal with at least half a dozen cases a year. Not all of those are going to come to a conclusion and a conviction. But, definitely we have a lot of unsolved files as well.”

Guns vs. cameras

It remains to be seen whether or not the ban on the trophy hunt of grizzlies will be enough of a political issue to warrant a significant number of new votes for the NDP. Even the NDP’s spokesperson for tourism, Spencer Chandra Herbert, admits this isn’t a top priority, but that they’ve heard from the tourism industry and recognize there are more economic benefits from a living grizzly than from a dead one. “This is not the issue you’d run a campaign on, this is one issue we know folks in the tourism sector are pretty supportive of, but it’s not the hot button issue,” Chandra Herbert says. “But we support this and we’re proud to support this because we think it will increase tourism dollars and jobs in every part of the province.”

That belief is echoed by Jamie Hahn, founder and lead guide of the Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge, just north of Prince Rupert. Hahn is heading into his second year of operation at the lodge and says he already has twice as many bookings as last year. “We had roughly 240 people last year, both day tours and overnight,” Hahn says. “We weren’t at capacity so there’s room to grow. It definitely has potential to be a financially successful business but it will take three to five years to reach that.”

The Khutzeymateen sees thousands of people every year coming to view bears in one of the most pristine ecosystems on the coast. After more than 20 years managing parks for BC Parks, Hahn decided to take over the Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge because of his love for such an amazing environment. What keeps him going is knowing there are life changing moments when his clients see a wild grizzly for the first time. “It’s like you’re seeing another part of life again but through someone else’s eyes,” he says. “I’ve had people in tears watching cubs play and nurse. People are just left with a great appreciation for nature and what’s being protected in the Khutzeymateen—it’s an incredible experience.”