A decades-old fight to ban bear hunting on British Columbia’s central coast has taken on a new sense of urgency with the release of a film that features the shooting of a grizzly affectionately known as Cheeky.
Members of the Coastal First Nations, a coalition of native groups, have identified the shooter as Clayton Stoner, an NHL defenceman with the Minnesota Wild who says he “grew up hunting and fishing” in B.C. and doesn’t intend to stop doing activities he loves.
Mr. Stoner said Wednesday in a statement that he “shot a grizzly bear with my licence while hunting with my father, uncle and a friend in May.”
In a brief statement, the government’s Conservation Officer Service said it “is gathering information to determine if there was a violation of the Wildlife Act in this case.”
The Coastal First Nations say the hunt should not have been allowed, because ecotourism is hugely popular throughout the region and bears have become so accustomed to people with cameras that they don’t fear those with guns.
“My grandmother could shoot a grizzly,” bear viewing guide Doug Neasloss of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation said when asked how hard it would be for a hunter to get close to a bear like Cheeky.
Mr. Neasloss said bear viewing and bear hunting are activities that shouldn’t happen in the same area.
“This is totally wrong … allowing this sport to happen,” agreed William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella.
Robert Johnson, a Heiltsuk member who is one of those featured in the film, said he was near the Kwatna River estuary when he heard three shots and rushed to investigate. When he arrived, the hunting party was loading the hide, head and paws of a bear in their boat.
He recognized the bear by its coat, saying he’d seen Cheeky many times before. He and his brother named the bear because of the way it would “crawl in the grass and pop his head up,” to watch them.
The film, Bear Witness, shows grizzlies, including Cheeky, roaming in the Great Bear Rainforest, an area that lies along the central coast north of Vancouver Island. The movie, which is being streamed on the Internet, depicts how Mr. Johnson and Jason Moody, both from Bella Coola, raced towards the Kwatna estuary after getting reports that bear hunters were in the area.
“I was devastated. I hoped to save his life,” Mr. Moody says of arriving too late to stop the hunt.
In one moving sequence, Mr. Johnson faces the camera and recounts the death of Cheeky and of later finding the bear’s carcass rotting in the estuary.
“The documentary was just gut wrenching,” said Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who attended the film’s release Wednesday. “And it’s absolutely barbaric we allow rich people to come in and slaughter [bears].”
He said bears are important to First Nations culture and should not be hunted for sport.
Mr. Neasloss said the Coastal First Nations are opposed to trophy hunting but not to hunting for food.
Last year, the Coastal First Nations unilaterally declared the Great Bear Rainforest was closed to bear hunting, but the declaration has no legal force. The B.C. government has continued to issue permits for hunting both black and grizzly bears.
Since at least the mid-90s, environmental and First Nations groups in B.C. have been pushing for a bear-hunting ban. But the B.C. government and the powerful B.C. Wildlife Federation, which has 40,000 members in the province, argue that hunting should be based on science and allowed where bear populations are stable. The government estimates there are 15,000 grizzlies in the province and 120,000 to 160,000 black bears.
Chris Darimont, a conservation scientist at the University of Victoria, said the government’s population estimates can’t be scientifically defended. “We know how many bears are getting taken from the system. What we don’t know is how many there are,” he said.