The way professional wildlife photographer John Marriott sees it, the British Columbia government has just hung a target on Big Momma, a grizzly bear so huge – and so photogenic – that he calls her "a photo tour superstar."
The female grizzly, who has silver-tipped dark brown fur and a perpetual pout that almost got her named Sad Face, lives in one of four wildlife management units the B.C. government is planning to reopen to bear hunting this year. Mr. Marriott fears the big bear – a top attraction for the photography safaris he leads in the Chilcotin Mountains in the Cariboo – will be tracked down by a trophy hunter once the area is reopened.
"Oh, she's huge. In all the years there I've only seen two males bigger than her," said Mr. Marriott, who leads photo safaris in B.C. and the Arctic. "For grizzly bear hunters who have been hunting in the Rockies, she would be a monster bear. Here in Banff, where I live, she would be, if not the largest in the national park, top three for sure."
Big Momma and other bears in the area will be easy kills, he said, because the two adjacent wildlife management units in which they live have been closed to hunting for 13 years – so long they may have learned not to fear humans.
"There's a real variety of bears that we see there. There are bears that are very wild and others that have been [getting used to humans] for years and years," he said. "We've got a bear we call Mom and … she's had two sets of triplets over the course of my time doing photo tours there. Literally, a hunter could walk up to within 20 feet and shoot her. She has absolutely no concern for human beings at all. Very much like Big Momma. There's a whole host of bears that we've named. It almost makes me sick to my stomach to think someone could go in there and shoot them."
Mr. Marriott said the Cariboo wildlife units should remain closed because the bears are so vulnerable, and because they support a growing wildlife-viewing business that makes them more valuable alive than dead.
"This is one of the most spectacular bear-viewing places in the world. It's on par with the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary," he said, referring to a provincial park on B.C.'s North Coast. "This whole area where they are trying to expand this hunt is … national-park-like stuff. It's stunningly beautiful."
In December, the government decided to open the four wildlife management units – two in the Cariboo and two in the Kootenays – to limited spring hunting, starting in April. Garth Mowat, head of the government's natural resource science and stewardship section in the Kootenay region, said the province routinely closes management units when game populations are threatened.
"The main reason they get closed is because we have a mortality limit that's based on a per cent of the population size. Four per cent [of grizzly bears can be killed in a given year], usually," he said.
Mr. Mowat said hunters are not to blame when a mortality limit is exceeded, because the government carefully regulates the number of licences issued. Other factors are usually to blame, such as poaching, or accidental road kills, or problem bears shot as threats to people or livestock. "I've never seen the hunting harvest exceed the [mortality] limit," he said.
Mr. Mowat said closed areas are reopened once a population has recovered, which often happens quickly. The two Kootenay units have been closed for only three years, for example. He said when an area is reopened, "usually the manager will be very conservative for the first two or three years," and only a few hunting permits will be issued.
In the reopened Cariboo units, the hunting limit has been set at five bears and in the Kootenay units it is six bears.
Mr. Mowat said he didn't know how to assess Mr. Marriott's concern that bears in the long-closed areas will be easy targets because they have lost their fear of humans. "I don't know how you'd plan for that," he said. "I suppose it's an issue, but without opening the hunt how do you soften that blow?"