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A grizzly bear on the hunt for salmon in the Atnarko River which runs through the Bella Coola Valley near Tweedsmiur Park Lodge October 7, 2011.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 14,000 grizzly bears have been killed in B.C. since the government started tracking mortality records for the species in 1975, the vast majority by hunters, according to provincial data compiled by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Of those bears – an estimated 329 each year – 87 per cent have been killed by licensed hunters, with other kills attributed to causes including the shooting of problem bears by conservation officers, illegal poaching and collisions with cars and trains.

A total of 13,804 grizzly bears have been killed by humans from 1975 to 2016, the group says.

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The Suzuki foundation provided the data to The Globe and Mail ahead of the opening on Saturday of the province's controversial trophy grizzly-bear hunt. The governing Liberal party has defended the hunt and resisted calls to shut it down. With the Opposition NDP opposed to the hunt, the issue will likely arise during the spring election campaign.

The figures, compiled from the B.C. Compulsory Inspection Database, show a relatively consistent number of grizzly bears killed each year over the past four decades, with the exception of a dip in 2001, when there was a moratorium on the grizzly-bear hunt.

(The database consists of information submitted by hunters through required inspections for certain species, including grizzly bears.)

The figures also indicate that, on average, 34 per cent of grizzly bears killed each year are female – a percentage that worries some conservationists and is one element in a public debate over whether the hunt should be banned.

"Despite being a large, dominant animal, grizzlies are among the most threatened large species on the continent," Faisal Moola, director-general of the Suzuki foundation, said on Friday.

Because female grizzly bears reproduce later in life and have a small number of cubs that survive, the species is vulnerable to decline if too many female bears are taken out of the population, he said.

"The ability of a population to rebound, or bounce back, from a period of hunting, is wholly dependent on the success of those female bears to continue to reproduce and replenish the population," Dr. Moola said.

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The province estimates the grizzly population in B.C. at 15,000 – about one-quarter of the population in North America. Of 56 bear "population units" in B.C. – geographic areas based on habitat and natural boundaries – nine are classified as threatened.

But conservation groups say that figure overestimates the health of the grizzly population.

The Liberal government maintains that the grizzly-bear hunt is sustainable, based on sound science, and tightly regulated.

If hunters take more than 30 per cent of female bears, "hunting opportunities are reduced or that unit is closed to hunting," the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said on Friday in a statement.

There is significant opposition to the hunt, including from First Nations that see greater economic opportunity in bear-viewing.

There is also debate over whether sanctioned hunts could put further pressure on population units deemed to be threatened.

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The province refused to provide spatial data on individual grizzly kills unless the Suzuki foundation agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement, which it declined to do, Dr. Moola said.

Without that information, the group was unable to determine whether grizzly bears are being killed in parks or protected areas or in local populations where over-hunting has occurred in the past, he said in an e-mail.

Kill locations of grizzly bears are "considered sensitive information and not released publicly," the ministry said. "The province fully supports ensuring the long-term sustainability of Grizzly bear populations, and the protection of seasonally-critical habitats is a significant part of conservation efforts," the ministry added.

Grizzly-bear hunting is not allowed in areas where conservation is a concern. Last September, the B.C. Auditor-General's office included grizzly-bear management in its list of planned projects to determine "whether government is meeting its objective of ensuring healthy grizzly bear populations throughout B.C."

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