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B.C.’s grizzly bear hunt is on, but maybe not for long

British Columbia's spring grizzly bear hunt opened on the weekend. If the BC New Democratic Party wins the May 9 election, this will be the last time the bears will face trophy hunters as they emerge from hibernation, groggy and hungry.

The BC Liberals maintain the hunt is sustainable, while both the NDP and the Greens have promised to end trophy hunting of this species, which plays an essential role in the ecosystem.

Bryce Casavant is determined to make this an election issue – it is a prime reason he signed on as a candidate for the BC NDP in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. To make sure no one forgets it, his party campaign signs have been customized to include a logo of a bear.

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Read more: Data reveal more than 300 B.C. grizzlies killed by hunters yearly

A Canadian Forces veteran who served in Afghanistan, Mr. Casavant was working as a Ministry of Environment conservation officer on Vancouver Island in 2015 when he was disciplined for refusing to kill two healthy bear cubs. (He was suspended and then shifted to another ministry. The cubs were raised at a wildlife sanctuary and released into the wild last summer.)

Mr. Casavant says the province's claim of a science-based hunt is founded on "junk data," because not enough conservation officers are in the field to monitor grizzly populations or the number being killed. The province estimates it has 15,000 grizzlies, and last year hunters killed 235.

"I advocate for the precautionary principle," Mr. Casavant said in an interview. British Columbia's grizzly bears are listed as a species of concern, and without a solid understanding of how many are left, he argues, allowing the trophy hunt to continue is a dangerous gamble.

The precipitous decline in the South Rockies grizzly population is a good example. A drop of about 40 per cent in the numbers prompted the ministry responsible for hunting permits to close the grizzly hunt for two years. It reopened the hunt in 2013 with lower quotas. However, the area has had to be closed to hunting again this year.

"We do get it wrong," Mr. Casavant noted. He has made submissions to the B.C. Auditor-General, who is conducting a review of the hunt, but the report will not be issued until after the provincial election.

The NDP has promised only to end trophy hunting, which would still allow grizzlies to be killed as long as the meat is harvested. (A scan of local hunting forums suggests coastal grizzly meat is an acquired taste. "So stinky you could not get the smell off you with gasoline," one hunter warned.)

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Mr. Casavant's arguments against the hunt are based on his concerns about the science, but his interactions with bears during his time as a conservation officer left him with a deep respect for them. "Bears are eerily a lot like humans," he said. "They have personalities and they are intelligent. I swear there are black bears on the north island who know who I am."

While the NDP policy would leave the door open for bear hunting for food, Mr. Casavant is blunt that it is not a sustenance hunt. "People kill grizzly bears because they like to get the trophy."

As an election issue, the BC Liberals are the party of choice for those who support trophy hunting.

"We manage the hunt based on the best available science," Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said in an interview. "In our view, the population is healthy and the hunting community provides significant economic benefits to the province."

But the Liberals have room to soften their stand. The government has reaped international accolades for completing an agreement to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest, but to date, a deal to end bear hunting in the region remains elusive. The GBR has half a dozen guide outfitters, each with an allocation. In addition, the government has offered up 79 grizzly hunting licences for resident hunters this spring, through a lottery system, within the boundaries of the protected region.

Ian McAllister, executive director of Pacific Wild and an influential force behind the GBR deal, says the opportunity is still there for the government to enact a ban. He said it is long overdue. "There are residential hunters in Bella Coola right now, out scouting for the hunt. There will still be blood on the hands of the Liberals for allowing the hunt to open this spring."

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