Open Season

Trophy Hunters are Wiping out British Columbia’s Grizzlies

Tourists jam Glendale Lodge in Knight Inlet, British Columbia, every fall to witness grizzlies feeding on pink salmon migrating upriver to spawn. They shoot the fearsome bears—with their cameras.

Are British Columbia"s grizzly bears being slaughtered by hunters, or managed sustainably?  It depends on who you ask.Ian Mcallister / 

But a different sort of visitor also comes to the coastal temperate rainforest to shoot some griz. 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 begins every 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 (B.C.). Disturbing new evidence suggests grizzlies are being systematically extinguished from the province. Last December, 68 professional biologists called for a hunting moratorium pending the completion of long term population studies throughout B.C.

“The B.C. 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. The group, based in Sidney, B.C., is fighting to protect the vast Great Bear Rainforest, which stretches almost the entire length of the B.C. 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 four years old. These creatures live to be 20 to 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 a powerful hunting lobby, the B.C. Wildlife Federation. This group, which recently brought National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston to speak at its annual convention, insists on 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 could come even quicker, he adds, unless the B.C. 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 B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, writes that the province has vastly overestimated the number of grizzlies still alive in B.C., and is allowing them to get shot at an unsustainable rate. “B.C. 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 B.C. 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 B.C. 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 B.C. Ministry of Environment’s grizzly population estimates. From 1972 to 1979 the province estimated a population of 6,660 grizzly bears. But in 1990, the Ministry estimated that the province was home to 13,160 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 B.C. by sport hunters, and the government would still allow hunting.

Jim Yardley, director of the Environment Ministry’s office in Smithers, a community on the Skeena River in north-central B.C., says that de Leeuw’s views “do not reflect the views of the ministry, which believes it is managing grizzly bears appropriately and conservatively.” de Leeuw was slapped with a gag order and an unpaid suspension when he attempted to circulate his findings among his ministry colleagues.

But even some hunters are getting the picture. Kolbjorn Eide, a former hunting guide in the Lower Skeena region, quit the business 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 B.C. 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.”

Numerous scientists interviewed for this article say 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.”

Environmentalists are fighting back. The Raincoast Conservation Society and the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA), a nonprofit based in London, have organized a protest among tourism companies in Europe, Canada and the U.S. “We’re jacking up pressure on the economic side,” says Martin Powell, an EIA operative. “The tourism industry is deeply concerned because people have put off coming to B.C. It’s only a matter of time when that trickle turns into a flood.”

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 go there to hunt in the first place.”