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Coastal First Nations say their ban on hunting is to protect the Kermode bear.

JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL

A First Nations group that announced a ban on trophy bear hunting on parts of British Columbia's coast last year is gearing up to enforce it during the fall hunting season.

"We basically want to send the message that bears are worth more alive than they are dead," Doug Neasloss, chief councillor with the Kitasoo Band Council, said on Monday. "We fully intend on implementing our ban again this year."

The Kitasoo, as part of the Coastal First Nations alliance, announced last September that it would ban trophy bear hunting on B.C.'s north and central coast. The organization – consisting of 10 First Nation groups that claim traditional territories along B.C.'s north and central coasts – said the issue had been brewing for several years and threatened an emerging eco-tourism sector.

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The area covered by the Kitasoo's action takes in the Great Bear Rainforest, a legally protected swath of the north and central coast that is home to the rare Kermode bear, a type of black bear that is white because of a recessive gene.

The province, however, said hunting is government jurisdiction, a position it still holds.

"As we did last fall, we would ask that [Coastal First Nations] respect the province's authority over the harvest," Steve Thomson, B.C.'s Minister of Forests and Lands, said on Tuesday. "It's a harvest that is based on best available science. … We believe we have a good management regime in place and we would ask that they respect that."

B.C. has provincially sanctioned hunts for both grizzly and black bears in the spring and fall.

The black bear population in B.C. is estimated at between 120,000 and 160,000, while there are an estimated 15,000 grizzly bears.

After the Coastal First Nations announced the ban last year, the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia (GOABC) said such a ban was not required to protect bears, saying that it was a "myth" that legal hunting is threatening Kermode bears.

"The black bear harvest is limited to a small percentage of the population," the outfitters group said in a statement at the time. "The population of white Kermode bears is directly proportionate to the larger population of black bears in the area, which is quite steady in B.C."

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The Coastal First Nations maintains a trophy bear hunt is incompatible with bear-watching and other eco-tourism ventures.

"One of the challenges is we could be in a B.C. protected area, viewing a bear, and some hunter could come in and shoot that very same bear," said Mr. Neasloss, who is a bear-watching guide. "There is nothing stopping them from doing that, and that's what their permits allow them to do, during the very same time our clients are trying to view them."

To enforce their ban, the First Nations group sends people out to patrol the forests. If they encounter bear hunters, they ask them to leave.

According to the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C., eco-tourism accounts for about $1.5-billion of B.C.'s $13.8-billion per year tourism sector.

In Klemtu, a seasonal bear-viewing business has expanded to 40 employees from two over the past decade, with most of the economic benefit staying in the community.

But hunting also generates millions of dollars worth of economic activity. GOABC estimates its members employ more than 2,000 people and generate about $116-million worth of economic activity each year.

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"We recognize that not everybody supports hunting. But a large number of British Columbians do," Mr. Thomson said. "And it's our position that as long as populations can be sustainably maintained, hunting will be allowed. The moment we believe populations are at risk, we won't allow it."

The province has implemented restrictions on bear hunting in response to population concerns, he added, including regulations that put more than half of the traditional territories claimed by Coastal First Nations off-limits to grizzly bear hunting.

Conservation officers in the province typically kill up to 1,000 black bears a year as a result of conflicts with humans, many of which occur in urban neighbourhoods near forested areas where bears live.

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