There is no question that two centuries of rapid expansion of human settlement and industrial development on this continent have been tough on grizzly bears. They continue to face declining habitat and the impacts of policy decisions that are polluted by human interest and partisan priorities. The British Columbia government made two announcements in 2017 concerning grizzly bear management in the province. In August 2017, the B.C. government announced that it would be ending the trophy hunt for grizzly bears. Following a public engagement process throughout the fall, the government announced that following the 2017 hunting season, it was ending all grizzly bear hunting in the province. There is an interesting discussion surrounding British Columbia’s decision and it is certainly connected to the larger context of the ecology and politics of grizzly bears throughout the Rocky Mountains (see the recent case of grizzly bear delisting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the responses in favour and opposition).
The decline of hunting opportunities is often a slow erosion. Particular aspects of hunting are chipped away and lost as a result of public momentum that often cites as its source emotion more than evidence. In other cases, reducing particular hunting opportunities is good management. Sometimes, the murkiness of social opinion and the realization that science can be just as much an art as a science makes the two situations difficult to distinguish. But wildlife management decisions should not be an opportunity to legislate moral statements, emotion, or anthropomorphism.
One of the Ministries responsible for the decision stated outright that this was “mostly a social values issue. When it comes down to it, this species is seen as an iconic species for B.C., and people just weren’t willing to accept the hunting of grizzly bears anymore in this province”. Opposition politicians in B.C. commented that it is unfortunate that the government has “abandoned scientific-based decision making in favour of political calculus designed to appease U.S.-based environmental groups”.
Yet, we should not disregard the possibility that the decision was correct simply because it was influenced by social values perhaps more than ecological wisdom. The issue of emotion aside, there is an important question about the scientific basis for the decision and this should be considered beyond shortcomings with the decision-making process. So in the social maelstrom of grizzly bear management: was B.C.’s decision to end the grizzly bear hunt the correct call for the species?
Grizzly bears are a subspecies of brown bear (Ursus arctos). To give an idea of how complicated and contentious bear genetics is, if I wanted to try my best to elicit feedback on this post, I wouldn’t say something provocative about hunting, I would come down definitively on the number of brown bear clades and subspecies, the best method for determining bear speciation, or the relationship between the various bears running around that fall under the larger brown bear umbrella. There are up to eight subspecies of brown bears throughout North America, including the grizz. Brown bears still range throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, comprising a worldwide population of approximately 200 000.
Prior to European settlement, grizzly bears once ranged from northern Mexico all the way up the continent to the Canadian Arctic and from the Pacific coast east across the plains (to Manitoba), with an eastern population that potentially existed on the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec and Labrador and stretched to the Atlantic Ocean. Grizzly bears require vast areas of land with strong connectivity, making them highly susceptible to habitat fragmentation and human development. Between roughly 1850 and 1950, grizzly bears were victim to the same campaigns that reduced much of the continent’s predator populations to a fraction of their former numbers (luckily, public sentiment towards predators is changing). Grizzlies were killed to reduce threats to human safety and agricultural expansion resulting in a 50% decline in their continental distribution.
Grizzly Bear Management in B.C.
British Columbia is one of the last places in North America with grizzly bears in their natural habitat, containing possibly half of Canada’s remaining grizzlies. The extent to which a species occupies what is referred to as its historic range is a useful way to quickly evaluate our conservation efforts towards that species. There are many ways to measure the health of a species and the success of conservation efforts, and current climate and habitat conditions may mean it is no longer possible for a species to occupy its entire historic range. Nevertheless, if we wish to see healthy wildlife across the landscape, measuring our efforts and results against a species’ historic range is helpful to estimate the potential success we could hope to achieve. In B.C., there are approximately 15 000 grizzly bears occupying roughly 800 000 square kilometres, an estimated 90% of their historic range.
Grizzlies are considered and managed in B.C. as an umbrella species. When landscapes are managed to maintain the requirements for umbrella species, they are also “adequate to maintain a host of other species with similar requirements for large landscapes” (though the concept is beginning to lose steam among conservationists). Grizzly bears also play an important role in maintaining their own habitats by dispersing seeds through their droppings and “maintaining forest health by transporting and depositing nutrients from salmon far from streams where the salmon had been consumed“.
Grizzly bears in British Columbia are somewhat jointly managed by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy (ENV) and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRO). Grizzlies are divided into 56 Grizzly Bear Population Units (GBPU), each of which can be classified as viable, threatened (less than 50% of its expected size), or extirpated. Nine of the 56 GBPUs are considered threatened, and the B.C. government only has a recovery plan for one of these, which has yet to see any kind of implementation.
“Ensuring healthy grizzly bear populations throughout B.C. is only possible if government is able to provide secure habitat for this species.” – B.C. Auditor General Report
In her 2017 report examining the success of the B.C. government’s approach to grizzly bear management, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer explained that grizzly bear management is guided by two primary strategy documents; however, “although management plans have been developed for other species, there is no grizzly bear management plan to provide priorities and clear accountabilities for implementing the direction provided in these two documents”.
The Auditor General’s report identified and examined four primary components to grizzly bear management in B.C.: inventory and monitoring of populations and habitats, managing human-related threats, recovering populations of concern, and providing secure habitat. There is no dedicated source of funding for population monitoring and inventory activities in B.C. Hunting licenses and fees provide the only ongoing source of this funding. The B.C. government collected $366 400 in hunting fees in 2015. Out of this total amount, $34 000 comprised a surcharge attached to every hunting fee that went directly into the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation for grizzly bear conservation. While I’m thrilled that hunters can take pride in contributing the most reliable source of grizzly conservation funding, this amount is not enough to implement an effective grizzly bear program.
Grizzly Bear Hunt: Sustainable or Overkill?
Grizzly bears were listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975, were recommended as a species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 2012 (though they are not officially listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in Canada), and European Union banned the import of grizzly bear products in 2002 over concerns about the sustainability of the hunt in British Columbia. Following the U.S. ESA listing in 1975, grizzly bears have only been hunted consistently in Canada and Alaska (with a limited hunt in Montana from 1975-1991). British Columbia introduced more stringent hunting regulations in 1977 and has been managing grizzlies under this system since then.
The B.C. Auditor General found that “the greatest threat to grizzly bears is not hunting; rather, it’s the human activities that degrade grizzly-bear habitat”. Nevertheless, her report expressed concerns about the sustainability of the hunt, primarily based on the government’s lack of reliable population monitoring.
Scientific estimates suggest that an annual hunting quota of up to 6% of the population is sustainable when there is strong and reliable biological data. In B.C., factors related to grizzly bear ecology, the methods used for population inventories, and inconsistencies in the government’s approach to conducting population studies have led to a great deal of uncertainty over grizzly bear population numbers. Despite this lack of certainty, the B.C. government has maintained a maximum mortality rate of 5-6%, amounting to an annual hunting take of 250-300 bears between 1997 and 2016. The B.C. Auditor General has suggested that the government should have taken a precautionary approach and that this high mortality rate may have contributed to the decline of the South Rockies population. Other scientific studies have suggested that the process to determine sustainable grizzly bear hunting levels in B.C. have failed to account for uncertainty in population data.
A 2017 study conducted by researchers from the B.C. government, published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, considered the “overkill hypothesis” of the hunt. The researchers looked at “available information on grizzly bears in British Columbia and beyond for evidence that the legal hunt has been unsustainable” in order to provide data to managers to refine kill rates to ensure that the hunt would not negatively affect populations. The researchers found evidence that “at least at broad spatial and temporal scales, the legal hunting of grizzly bears has been sustainable in British Columbia and the overkill hypothesis is not supported” and that after decades of hunting, estimates of bear densities over large areas had not notably decreased. Since 1976, hunters have been required to bring the skull and hide to inspection centres so that age and sex can be determined. In populations with strong recruitment, the study found that a target rate for all human-caused mortality of 4-6% of the population is sustainable and could even accommodate some of the uncertainty in population estimates; however, the authors acknowledge that using age and sex data derived primarily from hunter kills is not in itself enough to draw firm conclusions.
The Right Decision?
The point has been well made that when people rail against “trophy hunting,” their arguments tend to overemphasize individual animals rather than the maintenance of healthy populations. In its initial August 2017 decision to focus on ending the trophy hunt for grizzly bears, Doug Donaldson, Minister of FLNRO, fully acknowledged his belief that the roughly 250 bears killed annually were sustainable and that the B.C. government had no idea how many of these were killed for the purpose of a “trophy”. Again, we find an issue with false distinctions between trophy hunting and non-trophy hunting. According to Donaldson, the government’s plan was simply to make it illegal for hunters to “possess the hide or the head or the paws of the grizzly bear”. Typically, when an animal is fully used and not wasted, there tends to be greater public acceptance of hunting. However, here is a government policy fully prepared to make it outright illegal for hunters to retain and use all parts of an animal. It should also be noted that other jurisdictions, such as Alaska, simply require hunters to remove all edible meat from the field prior to any trophy parts.
“We concluded that government does not have an adequate management framework for grizzly bears. This represents a significant deficiency in government’s ability to ensure healthy grizzly bear populations throughout British Columbia.” – B.C. Auditor General Report
The B.C. government should only be concerned about the sustainability of the grizzly bear population. It is clear, however, that the government was more interested in acquiescing to public emotion than developing well-reasoned hunting regulations that prioritised sustainability and zero-waste.
The authors of the 2017 study in The Journal of Wildlife Management acknowledge that biological sustainability is not the only factor that contributes to management decisions, but that public opinion played a big part in influencing the government’s decision. The researchers state that because of “this ethical question over grizzly bear hunting, we do not expect the public outcry over sustainability to end regardless of empirical information”. The authors are also careful to state that although some populations might be able to sustain a mortality rate of up to 10%, they do not advocate managing the hunt at these levels because difficulties in estimating grizzly bear populations with the necessary precision remain high and changes in habitat quality and food sources can also affect grizzly populations. Their final recommendation is to maintain the current maximum mortality target of 4-6%.
At the end of the day, I’m left with a few questions that I think are still important. First, and this is a point repeatedly raised by hunters, hunting licenses provide the only dedicated revenue for grizzly conservation. This is important. Ending hunting will not end human-caused mortality that occurs through the defense of life or property and it won’t help reduce illegal killing (which account for an estimated 10% and 3% of human-caused kills each year, respectively). So without the revenue generated from the sale of hunting licenses, where will the funding needed for grizzly conservation come from?
Second, the government was clearly not prepared to enforce its plan to end the “trophy hunt” while allowing “hunting for meat“. The Auditor General’s report also pointed out that the government has not been implementing all of its available tools for grizzly conservation and it certainly does not have the mechanisms in place to evaluate the effectiveness of these tools. My personal perspective is that wildlife always deserves the precautionary principle – in the face of too much uncertainty, we should err on the side of caution. Always better safe than sorry. So I am ok with ending the grizzly hunt provided that citizens of B.C. hold their government to dedicating funding and efforts to improving monitoring. But certainly, simply eliminating one management tool (hunting) to reduce the number of poorly managed options does not amount to a solution. So what is the government’s plan to improve and implement grizzly conservation programs?
Third, most philosophically but also important, what are we to do with the belief that an uninformed public should have an equal vote in wildlife management decisions as those who are informed and have dedicated their lives to the study of these animals? This question has no immediate answer but it needs to be considered. It’s a crude analogy, but if 78% of people voted for an airplane design (that percentage of B.C. residents called for an end to the grizzly hunt), would that be enough for you to take that flight? I’ve commented before on the need to trust wildlife researchers and managers and allow them to do their jobs with our support. Wildlife management cannot become conservation-by-favourite-animal. We should be asking what wildlife needs and how quickly can we implement policies that will provide those needs. We should also be asking, what needs to be done to convince governments to remain committed to evidence-based wildlife management?