More than 300 shipments of grizzly bear products – including skins, skulls and rugs – have moved from Canada to the United States through U.S. ports over the past three years.
Those transactions are among nearly 17,000 imports of North American bear parts – mostly black and brown, but including grizzlies – from Canada to the United States over the same period, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The United States has no restrictions on the legal import of grizzly bear parts and products. The European Union, however, suspended imports of grizzly hunting trophies from British Columbia in 2004 over conservation concerns.
The shipments reflect a key factor in British Columbia's controversial grizzly hunt – American trophy hunters, who pay thousands of dollars to come to the province to hunt a species protected in parts of the United States.
Faisal Moola, director-general for Ontario and Northern Canada with the David Suzuki Foundation, estimates "the vast majority" of grizzly imports to the United States over the past three years came from B.C., based on previous research he conducted and export data he recently obtained from the provincial government.
"About 40 per cent of grizzly bears being killed in B.C. are being killed by foreign trophy hunters," Dr. Moola said.
"The reason Americans are coming to Canada to shoot grizzly bears in B.C. is because there are no more grizzly bears in places like Washington State or California – or they are legally protected and you can't shoot them, in places like Montana or Wyoming," he added.
According to B.C. government figures, 29 per cent of bears were killed by "non-resident" hunters – those who don't live in British Columbia and must be accompanied by a registered guide-outfitter – in 2013. The rate was 38 per cent in 2014 and 29 per cent last year.
The average number of grizzly bears killed in each of the last three years, province-wide, was 242, with the majority of those killed by B.C. residents.
According to documents obtained through a freedom of information request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thousands of bear products – sorted into three-letter categories that include TRO, or trophy, which means "all the parts of one animal," and SKU, for skull – have been shipped to the United States through dozens of ports since the beginning of 2013.
The U.S. import data obtained by The Globe and Mail do not distinguish between bears killed in recent hunting seasons and trophies that may be years or even decades old. The data also do not say whether the imports came from British Columbia or elsewhere in Canada, including Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which also have legal grizzly hunts. (Alberta suspended its hunt in 2006.)
British Columbia's grizzly hunt draws impassioned debate. Opponents decry the killing of animals for sport. Supporters maintain that a regulated grizzly hunt can help protect stocks of other animals, such as moose and caribou, while generating significant economic benefits.
There is also debate over whether British Columbia's hunting regulations, which keep about 35 per cent of the province off-limits to grizzly hunting, do enough to protect grizzly bears.
Both the provincial government, which oversees the grizzly hunt, and an industry group that represents guide outfitters who depend on the hunt for part of their livelihoods say the number of bears "harvested" do not pose a conservation concern.
"Research completed by highly qualified experts over the past 20 years has consistently indicated that there are between 14,000 and 16,000 grizzly bears in B.C.," the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia said in an April statement about the hunt. "Hunters only take 250 to 350 bears per year – a sustainable level that poses no conservation threat, especially considering that harvest is heavily biased towards mature males."
Regulations prohibit hunters from killing bears that are less than two years old.
Conservation groups, including the Suzuki Foundation, challenge those claims, maintaining that the hunt is unsustainable and aggravates threats to grizzlies from other factors, including habitat loss.
Hunt opponents also worry that bears killed in British Columbia could be from threatened grizzly populations – either from parts of the province where hunting is restricted because of conservation concerns, or from Alaska or other states where some grizzly populations have been deemed at risk.
Grizzlies are not officially "endangered." The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, lists grizzly bears as a species of "special concern" – one that may become threatened or endangered. Grizzly bears are also listed in Appendix II of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora, as a species that is "not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March proposed "delisting" grizzly bears from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – which would open the door to a grizzly hunt in the area, although not in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks – after conservation measures resulted in bear numbers rebounding from as few as 136 in 1975 to about 700.
A comment period that closed in May resulted in more than 100,000 submissions, both for and against the proposal.