The economics and ethics of trophy hunting
By Judith Lavoie, March 2014
Studies call into question BC Liberals’ plans to expand bear hunting.
The magic of watching black bears overturning rocks and scooping up crabs on a Tofino beach, the once-in-a-lifetime excitement of seeing a Spirit Bear near Klemtu or witnessing the awe-inspiring power of grizzlies feeding on salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest are vignettes of BC that both tourists and residents carry close to their hearts.
So it is not surprising that a study by the Center for Responsible Travel at Stanford University in Washington concludes that live bears are worth more in cold, hard cash than dead bears. Not surprising, that is, to anyone except BC’s provincial government.
Instead of boosting the profitable business of bear viewing, the government is looking at extending the length of the spring black bear hunt and is re-opening the grizzly hunt in three areas of the Kootenays and one in the Cariboo—all formerly closed because of over-hunting.
Another indication of where provincial sympathies lie came during the first week of the spring sitting of the Legislature, when government introduced changes to the Wildlife Act—changes that will allow corporations, not just individuals, to hold guide outfitting areas, making it easier for a group of people to jointly purchase territories and reducing liability for individual owners. Assistant guides will no longer have to be licensed, allowing guide outfitters more flexibility during peak periods, something the industry says will reduce red tape.
Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson said in the Legislature, “Proposed amendments to the Wildlife Act will help provide the guide outfitting industry, an industry that generates $116 million in economic activity each year, with additional business certainty.”
What he didn’t note is that bear viewing is far more lucrative for BC. In 2012, the Center for Responsible Travel found that bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest generated 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting and 11 times more in direct revenue for the BC government than bear hunting by guide outfitters—$7.3 million for bear viewing and $660,500 for non-resident and resident hunting combined. As for jobs, bear-viewing companies in the Great Bear are estimated to seasonally employ 510 people while guide outfitters generate only 11 jobs.
Despite such statistics and a growing antipathy to allowing well-heeled hunters to slaughter top predators for the sake of a rug on the floor or head on the wall (a 2013 poll found 88 per cent of BC residents opposed trophy hunting, up from 73 per cent in 2008), the government seems determined to expand the hunt.
Russ Markel of Outer Shores Expeditions, a company that takes tourists to wild areas of BC’s coast on a wooden schooner, feels trophy hunting adversely affects bear tourism, so expanding hunting could adversely affect his—and government—revenues. Markel can’t keep up with the demand for trips now, but an incident near Bella Coola last May left tourists shaken. “It was a horrible situation. People used the area for bear viewing and so the bears got used to it and then some random guy with a rifle turned up and a bear was killed,” he said.
The Guide Outfitters Association of BC, however, states: “Guide outfitting and wildlife viewing have co-existed for two decades and can continue to do so…It is important we separate the emotion from the science.”
But the science is not settled and there is long-standing controversy over the accuracy of population estimates and veracity of kill numbers.
Grizzly bears are listed federally as a species of special concern. Yet in BC, between 2001 and 2011, out of an estimated population of 15,000 bears, more than 3500 animals were killed, including 1200 females, according to a Raincoast Conservation Foundation study. More than 2800 of those animals, including 900 females, were killed by trophy hunters. Others were killed by poachers, accidents or conservation officers.
A Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations spokesman said in an email that the decision to re-open hunts is based on the best available science and is focused on areas where increasing grizzly populations can sustain a conservative hunt. A recent peer-reviewed study, co-authored by two provincial wildlife biologists, re-affirmed that grizzly populations are being sustainably managed.
But Raincoast Conservation senior scientist Paul Paquet scoffs at such claims. “Regional kill rates for sub-populations that are being hunted are much higher and not sustainable,” said Paquet, who co-authored a paper showing that, over the last decade, kills frequently exceeded targets.
As for black bears, the province estimates there are 120,000 to 160,000 black bears in BC and the harvest in 2012 was 3876—a number based on a sample survey of hunters—which is well below the sustainability level, said the ministry spokesman.
Raincoast Conservation executive director Chris Genovali questions the numbers and said kill numbers could be much higher. “They shouldn’t be considering extending the season when they have no reliable or accurate estimate of the number of black bears in BC. That’s disturbing,” he said.
NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert is also uncomfortable with government numbers. “Government does not have the evidence to back up what it’s doing because it has cut about 25 percent of the folks who would be out counting bears, looking at habitat issues, and enforcing poaching laws,” he said. But Chandra Herbert stopped short of committing the NDP to ending the trophy hunt. “We would actually do the science,” he said.
Growing awareness of the trophy hunt is fuelled by media pictures of slain bears and anyone picking up a hunting magazine is bombarded by images of jubilant hunters trying to make the animal they have just blown out of existence appear lifelike.
Barb Murray of Bears Matter, a group spearheading a petition asking the province to end the hunt, said, “We have wealthy people from the US and Europe coming to BC to kill our biggest and best.”
As pressure mounts for a close look at the ethics and rationale of trophy hunting, many question government’s insistence on continuing and expanding the hunt. Is it a leftover from the Liberal’s 2001 decision to immediately scrap an NDP-imposed moratorium on grizzly hunting or pressure from interest groups?
“Given widespread public disapproval for this ethically and culturally unacceptable trophy hunt, current provincial management of grizzlies seems to be driven more by bad political science than good biological science,” said Genovali.
Change may lie in the hands of First Nations. In 2012, Coastal First Nations banned trophy hunting in the territories of nine member nations—an area covering most of the Great Bear Rainforest—but the province continues to claim jurisdiction.
Heiltsuk tribal councillor Jess Housty hopes the recent economic study will bring change. “Last fall we learned the science used to justify the bear hunt is deeply flawed. Now we see the economics are completely backwards,” she said.
Coastal First Nations are trying to educate hunters, including approaching them in the field. “If the Coastal First Nations’ Bears Forever campaign has taught trophy hunters anything, I hope it’s that 9 out of 10 British Columbians support the Nations on the front line and that their unethical and unsustainable practice of killing bears for sport will no longer happen in the shadows,” Housty said.
The First Nations campaign complements Raincoast Conservation’s effort to buy up guide-outfitting licences, which, so far, has eliminated trophy hunting in about 30,000 square kilometres of the BC coast.
Another tactic is pressure on other countries. In 2004, after intense lobbying from NGOs, the European Union banned importation of grizzly bear parts and the ban stands today, despite challenges by the federal and provincial governments.
Meanwhile, Barb Murray of Bears Matter is pinning her hopes on local pressure. “The senseless killing of grizzly bears is morally indefensible and has no place in modern wildlife management practices and policies. Killing these magnificent creatures for sport and bragging rights does not, in any way, contribute to the conservation of the species or increased safety for humans,” says the petition going to Premier Christy Clark.
Award-winning journalist Judith Lavoie was an environment and First Nations reporter for the Times Colonist for many years. Twitter @LavoieJudith
This story was edited on March 5, 2014. An earlier version quoted Barb Murray as saying “We have wealthy people from the US and China coming to BC to kill our biggest and best.” Murray actually said "... from the US and Europe...".