Environmental groups are hoping to launch a major fundraising campaign in the near future to raise millions of dollars to put bear-hunting guides out of business in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Opponents of hunting in the wilderness region on the British Columbia coast north of Vancouver Island have been trying for years to push hunting guides and outfitters out of the region.
They say it makes more sense to promote ecotourism.
Now their argument against trophy hunting for grizzly and black bears has gotten a boost from a study by the Center for Responsible Travel, based in Washington and affiliated with California's Stanford University.
The study shows bear viewing is worth more to the provincial economy than trophy hunting.
"The overwhelming conclusion is that bear viewing … generates far more value to the economy, both in terms of total visitor expenditures and GDP, and provides greater employment opportunities and returns to government than does bear hunting," states the report.
It found bear-viewing companies generated $15-million in expenditures.
Hunting guide operations generated $1.2-million.
The report says 53 bear-viewing companies in the region had 510 seasonal employees, while four hunting operations hired only 11 people. It says bear viewing is growing rapidly as a business in the Great Bear Rainforest while hunting is fading away.
It also notes that hunting guides in the region "have been quietly approaching conservation organizations to discuss selling their territories."
Brian Falconer of Raincoast Conservation Foundation confirmed his organization has been speaking with operators who hold guiding rights in the 35,000-hectare Great Bear Rainforest, which sprawls along the rugged mainland coast between the tip of northern Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle.
"We're talking to four right now and they are the major guides active in the area," Mr. Falconer said Wednesday. "Ultimately we'd like to buy out all the hunting guides in the Great Bear Rainforest." Mr. Falconer said it would cost "in the millions" to buy out the guides. "There's no question it will be a fundraising challenge … but we're optimistic," he said.
However, Mr. Falconer said Raincoast and affiliated organizations want to first see the provincial government change its policy so that the licensee for a guiding territory doesn't have to harvest a certain number of bears annually. "The policy is basically that you have to kill some bears, but there's an opportunity for the government to make an exception for this area and we are hoping to arrange a meeting with the minister to discuss that," he said.
The move to buy out hunting guides began in 2005 when Raincoast purchased the rights of one guide who was licensed in five territories for $1.35-million. In 2011 Raincoast bought a second guide's rights to a single territory for $400,000.
Mr. Falconer said the strategy has worked in cutting down on the number of bears killed by guided hunters, but resident bear hunters don't need guides and can still shoot bears in the region.
Al Martin, strategic initiatives director for the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said his organization is not opposed to the sale of hunting guide territories to conservation groups. "It's a free market … that's a business transaction," he said.
But Mr. Martin said resident hunters should still be allowed to continue hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest as long as the bear population there is healthy. Guided hunters kill about five grizzlies and 52 black bears in the region annually.
Mr. Martin pointed out that hunters in B.C. pay a conservation surcharge on their licences, contributing $3-million annually for wildlife management, while ecotourists pay no such fee.
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., said hunting and ecotourism businesses should find a way to co-exist. "We really need to find a way to share the resources," he said.
Provincial government officials were not available for comment.