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Habitat loss, not hunting, main threat to grizzly bears, Auditor-General says

B.C.’s Auditor-General, Carol Bellringer, says the province has not done enough to conserve its threatened grizzly-bear populations, reporting that ‘limited recovery actions have been taken for these populations.’

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's program for managing its grizzly bear population is not working, the province's Auditor-General has concluded, citing loss of habitat, not hunting, as the animal's biggest threat.

Months after the new provincial government announced an end to trophy hunting of grizzlies after this year, Auditor-General Carol Bellringer says bigger threats remain, including oil and gas activity and an expansion of resource roads that increase opportunities for illegal hunting and human-bear conflicts.

"We found the greatest threat to grizzly bears is not hunting; rather, it's the human activities that degrade grizzly-bear habitat," Ms. Bellringer told a news conference after her report was released on Tuesday.

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The province says there are 15,000 grizzlies in British Columbia, one of the last areas in North America where grizzlies live in their natural habitat.

The former BC Liberal government maintained that the grizzly hunt of up to 300 bears each year is scientifically sustainable, but the Auditor-General's team concluded the population inventories are not reliable, and the government could not provide a definition of what a sustainable population is.

The audit, which began 16 months ago, found that the provincial government made a profit off grizzly-hunting licenses, but invested only a fraction into research. The government also touted the creation of a recovery plan for threatened grizzlies in the North Cascades, a southwest B.C. mountain range, that was described as the "highest conservation priority." However, she said, the government failed to publicly disclose that the plan was never implemented.

"Out of the 56 grizzly bear populations, nine are threatened," the Auditor-General's report states. "The government's primary objective for these is to recover them to sustainable levels. However, sustainable levels have not been defined and there have been limited recovery actions taken for these populations."

Ninety per cent of the funds raised through the sale of hunting licences went into general revenue, Ms. Bellringer said, and not enough was spent on management of the population. "There is no organized inventory and limited monitoring of grizzly bears. We found that one of the reasons this work is not being carried out is that there is no dedicated ministry funding."

Johnny Mikes, field director of the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, said there are maybe half a dozen grizzly bears left in the North Cascades, and that is just one of three threatened populations in southwest British Columbia.

"They need immediate resources to help those populations – they can't go any lower," he said in an interview. He said there are already recovery plans on the books, and urged the NDP government to dust them off and take action quickly before those bears are lost from the landscape.

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Although the NDP has promised to end trophy hunting after the season ends in November, Mr. Mikes said the greater issue in these regions is habitat loss. "If the government ended the hunt tomorrow, it would not help these populations recover," Mr. Mikes said.

Environment Minister George Heyman accepted the Auditor-General's recommendations, and promised to deliver a grizzly-bear habitat plan, more dedicated funding to provide for additional conservation officers, plus a new "Species at Risk" law in 2018.

He said there is no new funding to add conservation officers in the current fiscal year, but promised that his government will tailor its resources to regions where they are needed most.

"We want to restore and increase transparency and public confidence in our ability to protect our natural environment, starting with this iconic species, the grizzly bear, that is so important to so many British Columbians," he told reporters.

Video: An aerial view of wildfire damage in B.C.’s Kootenay National Park (The Canadian Press)
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