In a region on the British Columbia coast known as the Great Bear Rainforest, a booming ecotourism industry is profoundly altering the relationship between humans and bears.
And it is fuelling a growing demand for a change to B.C.’s hunting laws, which allow bears to be shot in an area where bears have learned not to fear people.
So many bear-viewing tourists now visit estuaries in the Great Bear Rainforest that the animals typically continue to feed quietly when a tour boat idles up to the shore. Unfortunately for the bears, they can’t distinguish between those carrying cameras and those with guns, which means hunters in the Great Bear Rainforest can shoot bears more easily than rabbits, which at least will run.
The Coastal First Nations were trying to expose this reality last week when they released a short film, Bear Witness, which looked at the killing of a grizzly named Cheeky. The bear got its nickname because it would crawl through the grass and “pop its head up” to watch people. It must have been an easy kill for the hunter, Clayton Stoner, an NHL defenceman with the Minnesota Wild, who legally shot the bear near Bella Coola.
Doug Neasloss, a bear-viewing guide, was asked how hard it would be for a hunter to get close enough to shoot a grizzly like Cheeky. He said his grandmother could do it.
Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister, Steve Thomson, has defended B.C.’s hunting regulations, which allow about 100 grizzly and black bears to be shot in the Great Bear Rainforest region each year.
He says it is a science-based policy, which only allows hunting in regions where the grizzly population is stable.
“In our view, the current policy we have in place provides the appropriate balance,” he said.
Bear hunting is not allowed in about 50 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest.
“So we feel we are respecting the interests of both parties in terms of providing those opportunities both for resident hunters and the guide-outfitting industry and for the [eco] tourism component,” said Mr. Thomson.
Of course the bears, which roam widely, don’t know which areas are closed to hunting and which aren’t.
Nonetheless, Mr. Thomson says the government’s bear-hunting policy is sound and whether it’s popular (a poll shows 87 per cent favour a bear-hunting ban), he’s sticking with it.
Mr. Thomson, however, fails to recognize that the policy was put in place long before ecotourism exploded on the West Coast. And it does not take into consideration the changed relationship that exists there between bears and humans.
Not surprisingly, he acknowledges he has never been bear viewing himself. He hasn’t walked through an estuary and watched bears feeding with as little concern for people as elk have in a Banff parking lot. He hasn’t seen how exposed bears are when they gather in estuaries, in the spring and fall, or how vulnerable they are.
“I think it’s something that I need to put on my agenda,” he said when asked if he wanted to some day go out with a bear-viewing guide.
Mr. Thomson appears to have an open mind on the subject, but there are those in cabinet who don’t. Energy Minister Bill Bennett, the East Kootenay MLA and former hunting-lodge operator, last year ran a full page ad in the Daily Townsman promising to keep fighting for a “science-based” grizzly hunt. The ad featured a picture of a smiling hunter posing with a dead bear, an image Mr. Bennett was proud to associate himself with.
If Mr. Thomson does go bear viewing, and if he finds a way to take Premier Christy Clark with him, there’s a chance B.C.’s anachronistic bear-hunting policy could change.
But don’t count on it. For the moment, the image of grizzly bears as dangerous predators that need to be kept in check through hunting remains a powerful one. It is one hunters like to reinforce – and only those who have been bear viewing, who have seen a grizzly lying down to peak at them through the grass, know better.