A bear is an intelligent and worthy opponent, so that killing one is often the pinnacle for a hunter.
—from Bear Hunting in Canada
To arrive at a place where death and redemption collide, one could descend—as I recently did—into B.C.’s remote, mid-coast Bella Coola Valley and turn right into Gary Shelton’s 15-hectare ranch. Above his house and barn rises snow-covered, 1,871-metre Saloompt Peak, whose ridges plunge toward the rushing Bella Coola River bordering Shelton’s pastures.
The problem for the 2,400 people who live in the wilderness-surrounded, 70-kilometre-long valley—and the problem as Shelton sees it—is that the valley’s populated floodplain and adjacent slopes have the highest density of grizzlies in Canada. They’re everywhere. And, on occasion, they’re dangerous.
“It’s not safe to be outside without protection,” he tells me. That’s why he never leaves his home unarmed: a dog, pepper spray, and a rifle loaded with his bear-stopping .358 Norma Magnum. As the walls of his home testify, he is—with a kill count somewhere between 15 and 18 bears—Canada’s foremost grizzly hunter.
One could proceed farther west—as I did—along Highway 20 to the Nuxalk First Nation village of Bella Coola and encounter 70-year-old Gail Moody walking her dog and hear a very different perspective on shooting grizzlies.
Moody stands by the riverbank and gestures toward the water: “Once, there were millions of oolichan here. You could scoop them with buckets. Now they’re gone. The steelhead are gone. There aren’t enough fish for the bears anymore, so they get into people’s fruit trees. People say, ‘We need to shoot them.’ Then the trophy hunters come—all dressed up in camouflage. They say it’s a sport, killing grizzlies.” She shakes her head, then punctuates her thoughts with a grunt: “Ugh!”
Between these opposing views, there exist, I’m beginning to understand, a lot of rhetoric and, on occasion, threats of vigilante justice in the Bella Coola Valley. In fact, before heading north, I was told by Megan Moody, a Nuxalk bear researcher who works with B.C.’s Raincoast Conservation Foundation, that the topic of grizzly-hunting was sufficiently divisive there that I would not be welcome in Bella Coola.
These words were echoed by the valley’s former tourism director, long-time bear-hunting guide-outfitter Leonard Ellis, who said bluntly: “Trophy hunting brings money to the community. Journalists make us look bad.” He, too, would not talk further.
This was all the incentive I needed to go.
The contentiousness of killing grizzlies for trophies extends far beyond Bella Coola and far beyond the 32,000-square-kilometre Great Bear Rainforest—in 2012, nine First Nations declared a unilateral ban on grizzly-hunting in their traditional territories. (This ban has no legal standing.)
Research shows—in the time of the 100-mile diet and eating organic—that few people oppose the killing of game for meat. But no one kills grizzlies or black bears for food. The meat is virtually inedible.
Yet each year the B.C. government sells about 1,800 trophy-hunting licences ($80 for residents; $1,030 for nonresidents) for the annual spring and fall “harvest” of bears. And each year, on average, 300 grizzlies—the province’s largest and most iconic terrestrial creature—are killed for their heads, paws, and fur. The skinned carcasses—looking strangely humanoid—are left to rot.
Missing from this provincial “harvest” data is the number of grizzlies declared “problem bears” and dispatched by conservation officers. There are dozens annually. Missing, too, from the data are the scores of bears discreetly shot in rural back yards—like the four or five grizzlies that are estimated to be illegally killed in the Bella Coola Valley annually, far beyond the purview of the nearest conservation officers, located 450 kilometres distant in Williams Lake.
The Bella Coola protocol when there’s a hungry bear in an unfenced plum tree is, I’m widely told: “Shoot, shovel, and shut up.” A local critic of bear-hunting (who was understandably unwilling to attract attention to himself) said to me: “A bullet’s a lot cheaper than an electric fence.”
In an age when most people are horrified by the legal hunting of lions in South Africa or whales by the Japanese, the B.C. government approves these grizzly killings. And this despite the following fact: two recent B.C. public-opinion polls indicate that 80 to 90 percent of people oppose grizzly trophy hunting in the province. (Scott Ellis, the executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., informed me that these numbers are influenced by pollsters’ biases and that only 15 percent of the province’s population opposes grizzly-hunting.)
Wide discrepancies in numbers and opinions exist every time the issue of grizzly trophy hunting comes up. But this much is certain: the grizzly bear once occupied all of western North America; today, its range is limited to the continent’s northwesternmost corner. Beyond this fact lie provincial-government self-interest, scientific duplicity, and a lot of dead bears.
According to government estimates, 15,000 grizzlies live in B.C. There are 30,000 more in Alaska. Each year in these two jurisdictions, about 2,200 grizzlies are killed for their trophy heads.
B.C.’s government biologists claim that their research shows the grizzly population—after a long decline—is now increasing, spreading eastward into the Kootenays and southward toward Whistler. This allows the biologists to assert that the current grizzly “harvest” is sustainable, and that the death of 300 or so grizzlies in B.C. each year doesn’t threaten the overall bear population.
But such assurances do little to alleviate public doubts. People remember the North Atlantic’s Grand Banks cod population was once “sustainable”. Until the cod were gone. Ditto B.C.’s oolichan. Ditto B.C.’s steelhead.
When 80 to 90 percent of people believe the B.C. grizzly trophy hunt should cease, they’re saying they suspect the government numbers are fixed in favour of an increasingly archaic frontier tradition. (Today, there are half the number of licensed B.C. hunters there were a decade ago.)
Critics of trophy hunting say the system is skewed by three linked forces: the political considerations of B.C. Liberals; lobby groups like Ellis’s pro-hunting GOABC; and vested managerial interests—read jobs—within the government’s pro-hunting Fish and Wildlife Branch.
Carnivore biologist Chris Darimont has spent the past 15 years studying the ecology of B.C.’s central coast and has come to believe that provincial wildlife biologists are regularly producing junk science. “You have people,” he says, “who don’t give a shit about grizzly bears. So you get hunt-management science that’s full of errors. The biologists seldom go into the field. Instead, they use ‘opinion modelling’. Making inferences. Guesstimates. Extrapolations. They manufacture data. They never use scientific peer review. You end up with ‘facts’ shaped by political considerations, not by good science.”
Darimont and other independent scientists maintain, in fact, there are no solid figures on the B.C. grizzly population—it could be as low as 6,000—and that provincial scientists inflate the numbers to justify a continuation of the trophy hunt.
For the past six years, Darimont has led the Central Coast Bear Working Group, a major study funded by, among others, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation (RCF) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Its objective is to insert solid scientific data into the volatile arguments about bear numbers, behaviour, and the effects of declining salmon populations in a 20,000-square-kilometre section of B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest. This $250,000-a-year study is based in four coastal First Nation villages: Klemtu, Wuikinuxv (formerly Rivers Inlet), Bella Bella, and Bella Coola.
Utilizing helicopters, boats, and a lot of bushwhacking, teams of researchers have established 300 seven-square-kilometre grids, each one containing a foul-smelling fish-
fertilizer bait station, and each station fenced with barbed wire. A third of them have remote cameras. A bear crawls in. A bear crawls out. It leaves on the wire tiny tufts of hair that are used to determine, via DNA analysis, the bear’s species, sex, family linkages, and individual identity. Further isotopic analysis of the hair reveals hormonal composition—the fluctuating cortisol and testosterone levels that indicate stress, diet, and reproductive capacity.
The goal of this project, its results to be published later this year, is to establish accurate population figures, movement patterns, and the consequences of seriously decreased salmon numbers in the river valleys along which the bears forage.
Almost 150 kilometres northwest of Bella Coola lies Klemtu, population 420. Dependent on fishing for centuries, the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais peoples of Klemtu have recently found themselves living amid one of B.C.’s newest tourist attractions: the 120 or so rare white Kermode bears of Princess Royal Island.
Thirty-one-year-old Doug Neasloss grew up there and, at age 17, hoping to become a Native bear-viewing guide, he took a course from Bella Coola’s trophy-hunting Shelton, the author of 1998’sBear Attacks: The Deadly Truth, a popular, blood-drenched book about the dangers of bear attacks.
As one of Shelton’s 6,000 students over the past 30 years, Neasloss learned that in any encounter with an aggressive bear, he should shoot first and ask questions later. This fearful attitude contradicted the respectful one with which he’d been raised in Klemtu: bears were humankind’s “brothers”. They were mythic protectors of the land. In fact, Neasloss’s Native name is, in his language, White Bear.
In the fall of 2005, while taking a group of bear-viewing tourists on a boat search for the Kermode “spirit bear”, he spotted a strange mass floating nearby. At first, he couldn’t identify it. Then he realized—as did his horrified clients—that what they were looking at was the half-submerged body of a grizzly with its head and paws chopped off.
“That turned me against trophy hunting,” he explained to me recently. “The fact the government issues licences for people to shoot grizzlies is wrong. Wrong, ethically. Wrong, economically. Wrong, in terms of conservation. You shoot a grizzly and it’s gone forever. You view a grizzly and a thousand people get to see it.”
Now, as chief councillor and resource-stewardship director of the Kitasoo band, Neasloss has the experience and statistics to back up his contention that provincial licensing of the grizzly hunt is indefensible. According to Neasloss, 11,369 visitors came to the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) last year to participate in bear-viewing. This produced more than $15 million in revenue there and supported 510 jobs.
In comparison, last year 186 bear hunters (112 residents and 74 nonresidents) came to the GBR to participate in the twice-annual trophy hunt. This produced $1.2 million in revenue there and supported 11 jobs. Put another way: bear-viewing produced 12 times the local revenue and 50 times the jobs as did trophy hunting.
In fact, operating within the GBR today are 53 bear-viewing companies and zero local guide-outfitters. (Virtually all the commercial bear-hunting that occurs there is led by outfitters based elsewhere in B.C. The average fee for a grizzly hunt is $22,500 and is paid almost exclusively by Americans.)
Neasloss says: “We’ll do whatever it takes to end the trophy hunt. Our message is: don’t waste your money coming to hunt grizzly trophies here because it’s not going to happen.”
Such a resolution to B.C.’s trophy hunting cannot come soon enough for Bella Coola’s Gail Moody. She stands outdoors beneath a carved riverside figure that holds in its outstretched hands two wooden fish. The pole is there, she explains, as a gesture of friendship to the river’s missing oolichan, inviting them to return to the Bella Coola River and share their bounty with the Nuxalk people again.
“We’ve cohabited with the oolichan, with the bears—with all the animals here—forever,” Moody tells me. “If it’s not for food, I can’t understand how anyone would want to kill any animal. Life’s all we have…” A pause now. A river rushing past. A totemic figure asking for forgiveness. Then: “I think about what we’re leaving our children and grandchildren. They’re going to have to fix what we’ve messed up.”
In the days ahead, Darimont explains by phone that B.C.’s Raincoast Conservation Foundation has, during the past decade, spent $1.8 million of privately donated money to buy—and deliberately leave unused—tenured hunting rights from commercial trophy guides in the region. Mimicking an initiative of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, this program has removed 28,500 square kilometres of B.C.’s central coast from the predations of guided grizzly hunters.
Curiously, one of the men who sold his licence to the RCF is Bella Coola’s Leonard Ellis, the same man who’d told me earlier that journalists make trouble for trophy hunters. He didn’t mention that he’d decided to get out of the trophy-hunting business because the European Union, suspecting an overkill of B.C. bears due to suspicious government figures, in 2004 issued a Europe-wide ban on the importation of B.C. grizzly parts. This halved Ellis’s clientele. So he sold out. Ellis could see the writing on the wall.
B.C. wildlife officials, however, were more myopic. In a tit-for-tat battle meant to undermine the Raincoast tactic of halting trophy hunting by purchasing licensed guides’ hunting rights, provincial officials have recently increased the quota of grizzlies available to B.C. resident trophy hunters (who do not need to use a licensed guide). The B.C. government’s response to the RCF is this: if you don’t shoot grizzlies, we’ll let others shoot more.
Darimont half-jokingly calls this the “Raincoast Policy”, since it’s aimed directly at the organization’s antihunting strategy. “There’s a syndrome of collusion,” Darimont says, “between provincial wildlife managers and trophy hunters.”
To many people today, the continued B.C. government defence of trophy hunting seems economically shortsighted and ethically immoral. Hundreds of thousands of people come to B.C. annually to watch whales or eagles or bears. Few come anymore—except the Americans—to kill grizzlies for fun.
Millions go online each week to watch streaming video of Alaskan grizzlies fishing the McNeil River, or buffalo eating grass in Saskatchewan. Just to watch. Just to be reminded that the planet’s most fearsome predator hasn’t killed everything… yet.
In 2012, Alberta—yes, Alberta!—banned grizzly-hunting. In the same year, Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to prohibit trophy hunting. And Botswana instituted a total ban this year.
In 2013, in an effort to defend the grizzly trophy hunt, B.C.’s minister of forests, lands, and natural resources, Steve Thomson, made a remarkable blunder. His conflation of the $350-million value of the province’s entire hunting business with the provincial revenue generated by trophy hunting revealed, on sober second calculation, a fascinating anomaly. By best estimates, last year the B.C. government earned $414,000 from grizzly hunters’ licences and fees.
So what does B.C. spend administering this file? A solid figure is hard to calculate. But an unnamed provincial wildlife biologist told researchers for a 2013 study by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Responsible Travel: “We spend inordinate time and resources on grizzly management and regulations because it [trophy hunting] is so politically charged. I would say it’s a net loss.”
Which means: despite 80 to 90 percent of B.C. people opposing the grizzly hunt, provincial taxpayers apparently subsidize a policy that permits 300 hunters to put stuffed grizzly heads on their walls each year.
It is beneath just such a constellation of skins and paws and a solitary grizzly head that my conversation with famous Bella Coola trophy hunter Gary Shelton, 70, approaches an end. He has argued his case. He has shown me photos of kills. He has tried to convince me that ending the grizzly hunt will embolden the bears. For they are, to his mind, natural enemies of man.
I’ve listened. I’ve heard things one expects to hear from someone who kills bears. But I’m not the least prepared for his reply when, in my final question, I ask him—given all he’s said and all that the environmentalists say—what’s going to happen next.
“Hunting once played a role in keeping the grizzlies in check,” he tells me. “But that time has passed. The world has drastically changed in my lifetime. Killing animals for sport has become culturally unacceptable. There’s tremendous pressure on the B.C. government to stop it. If the environmentalists have the political clout to end it…”
“They probably do,” I interrupt.
He looks at me, nods, and says: “They do. They do.
“Someone my age is part of the past,” he continues. “I’m a dinosaur. The grizzly-bear trophy hunt will last for another five years, maybe. Maybe less. Trophy hunting’s on the way out.”
As I turn onto Highway 20 from Shelton’s beautiful, mountain-surrounded ranch, I notice a sign, there at the driveway’s end, that reads: For Sale.