Housty shook his head as he explained what happened at Kwatna: The two men hired to monitor the estuary, a bear hunting hot spot, heard the three shots that killed the 9-foot grizzly. One of the monitors, Robert Johnson, snapped photos of the hunters skinning the bear. The hunters departed with the bear’s hide and claws, leaving the carcass.
Housty tells me it was Stoner, his dad, and his brother, and that the hunt was likely legal, although an investigation is underway into whether Stoner still qualifies as a B.C. resident.
“He was quite open about it, he let our guys take hair samples and let them take pictures. He didn’t have anything to hide,” Housty said.
The Coastal First Nations erected signs at Kwatna Inlet warning hunters away. Like so many estuaries with salmon streams, Kwatna is a bear magnet. But the Heiltsuk can do little about resident hunters. “Kwatna isn’t the only area. It happens everywhere,” Housty said.
Hike along British Columbia’s coast, and bear tracks come with the territory, especially along rivers and in estuaries where bears feed on sedges and grasses and even herring roe in the early spring if they’re lucky enough to have timed their den exit with a spawn event. When the salmon run, estuaries are ursine dining halls, with bears intent on fattening up for winter. It’s prime bear viewing habitat as well.
“Tourism habituates bears and makes it very easy for hunters,” says Doug Neasloss, chief councilor of the Heiltuk’s northern neighbor, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, an indigenous community that runs a bear viewing operation, Spirit Bear Lodge. “I’ve spent so much time with bears, part of me feels guilty because of that—I spent six weeks with this black bear, and there was this hunter that came in and shot two bears, one of them being that black bear.”
An ecotourism operator, Randy Burke, of Bluewater Adventures and a founding director of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia, says the presence of hunters makes him ask a fundamental question: “Is bear viewing or ecotourism a positive or negative thing?”
Bluewater escorts ecotourists via sailboat on trips along the coast. The focus 25 years ago was whales. That began to change in 1993 when the U.S. Forest Service gave ecotouring companies operating in Alaska licenses to view salmon-eating bears. By 2003 a weeklong bear-viewing trip in the Great Bear Rainforest —close to a $5,000 investment—became a mainstay of Bluewater’s eco-offerings. “Whales are definitely a highlight, but people come expecting to see bears. They’re the main attraction. Bears are the new whales,” Burke says.
Images of Stoner and a dead Cheeky shot across Canada via social media earlier this year. In response to the criticism over his kill, the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia called attention to the flow of money that hunters bring to the province. In 2013 the government issued 3,786 tags, costing a nonresident $1,030; for a resident, a license to kill a grizzly is $80. Provincial biologists estimate that the number of grizzlies hunted and killed annually is 2 percent of the population, with guided expeditions recording higher rates of grizzly hunting success. It’s generally accepted that a grizzly bear population can withstand about a 6 percent mortality rate annually, although the figure varies across studies.
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation says grizzlies are worth more alive than dead. Ten years ago it calculated that grizzlies brought in $6.1 million in revenues from ecotourism but only $3.3 million from hunting.
If you calculate a bear’s value ecologically—beyond the borders of human desire—Cheeky’s death robbed the ecosystem. Salmon and bears redistribute nutrients to plants and animals throughout the rainforest. Killing one bear removes thousands of ecological acts of service: spreading berry bushes by dispersing seeds, excreting and distributing nutrients salmon brought inland from the ocean, aerating the soils, and so on. Their role in a balanced ecosystem is crucial.
David Mattson, a retired biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and visiting research scientist at Yale, has studied grizzlies and bear management for decades. He lauds the new paper for highlighting a syndrome of wildlife management in the United States and Canada: managers showing deference to the short-term interest of bear hunters and those who see bears as a problem. The result is wildlife management that is willing to gamble with bear populations. Scientists and others advocating a precautionary approach, Mattson says, are usually excluded.
As I was sitting at the Qqs Projects Society café with Jorgenson, founder of the society, Housty strolled in with his young son. Jorgenson handed Housty a video camera painted in camouflage. “Grizzly bears don’t like having their picture taken,” he said as Housty peered at the camera. I took a look: a grizzly bear’s teeth marks marred the camera case.
In September the Coastal First Nations screened a 20-minute documentary at the Science World festival in Vancouver, Bear Witness, about the killing of Cheeky. They also released a poll they commissioned in July finding that three out of four British Columbians oppose the grizzly hunt.
The video and images of Stoner with Cheeky’s hide prompted the hockey player to make a statement in support of hunting grizzlies for sport. But no matter what he said, the images—an NHL hockey player with a grizzly’s head in his hands—tell a different story to most people in B.C., that robbing an apex predator of its life is an odd sport. A grizzly’s life is worth the most to only one person, the one pulling the trigger.