The Hockey Player vs. the Grizzly Bear, Scientists, and First Nations

Animals.
Nov. 11 2013 12:34 PM

Is Hunting Grizzlies Really Sporting?

A professional hockey player killed Cheeky.

A mother grizzly bear walks along a British Columbia beach with her cub.
A mother grizzly bear walks with her cub along a beach in British Columbia, where bear hunting is big business.

Photo courtesy Douglas Neasloss/Coastal First Nations Alliance

In Bella Bella, British Columbia, a First Nations community about 700 kilometers north of Vancouver, I met Larry Jorgensen, founder of the Qqs Projects Society, a program for Heiltsuk First Nation youth.

“Are you here about the kill?” he asked.

Someone shot a grizzly bear in Heiltsuk Territory, in Kwatna Inlet, part of the Great Bear Rainforest. The killer? Clayton Stoner, an NHL defenseman for the Minnesota Wild. The victim? A 5-year-old male named Cheeky.

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Stoner’s kill outraged the indigenous community. It outraged many other British Columbia residents. At the same time, hunters united around the hockey player’s right to hunt. Hunting is big business. But so is bear viewing, especially in an area stung by economic hardship and stripped of one natural resource after another—except bears. Living bears. Parts of the Great Bear Rainforest, 32,000 square kilometers of habitat along the B.C. coast, are protected and closed to hunting. Some parts are not—residents can still hunt grizzlies here, and in most of the other grizzly habitats in the province. It’s legal. So far it looks like Stoner is a legal resident who killed the bear in a non-restricted area, and therefore he didn’t break the law.

But he did violate the First Nations’ hunting policy. Last year, the Coastal First Nations, an alliance on B.C.’s central and north coasts and the islands of Haida Gwaii, announced a ban on hunting bears in their territories. The ban is for a number of reasons, including distaste for the practice, ecological considerations, and a growing bear viewing industry.

The province of British Columbia, however, did not ban hunting and has no plans to, and its laws govern where hunting is allowed in the Great Bear Rainforest. Hunters kill about 300 grizzlies a year in the province, harvesting the skin and paws, leaving the rest to rot in the bush.

Canadian opposition to the grizzly hunt centers here, in the Great Bear Rainforest, an ecotouring powerhouse where bears are shot with high-priced cameras wielded by ecotourists, some wealthy, some splurging their savings on the trip of a lifetime. The Raincoast Conservation Foundation, which is against hunting, came up with a clever strategy to limit the practice: It purchased two guided hunting territories, including Kwatna, where Stoner shot Cheeky. To hunt in British Columbia as a nonresident, hunters must hire a guide or accompany a resident with a special license. Raincoast’s purchase put the brakes on hunting by nonresidents, but not residents.

It took one professional hockey player to do in one day what Canadian scientists and the First Nations have struggled to do for the past decade: put British Columbia’s grizzly bear hunt in a media spotlight.

The attention should grow this month with a new study led by Kyle Artelle, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. It provides evidence that too little is known about the grizzly population to call the current hunt sustainable. The fate of grizzly bears in British Columbia, Artelle writes, is being determined by a management game of Russian roulette.

“By ignoring what they don’t know about British Columbia’s grizzly bears—their actual population sizes, how many are poached, and so on—managers are taking a considerable gamble with their current hunt management approach,” Artelle told me shortly after Stoner shot the bear.

Sifting through hunting data from between 2001 and 2011, Artelle and his co-authors found evidence of “overmortality”—more bear fatalities than a population could endure—in 26 of the 50 bear populations open to the hunt. Overmortality ranged from one to 24 bears. “Almost all, 94 percent, of total overmortalities could have been avoided by reducing or eliminating the hunt,” Artelle says.

To count bears is no simple task. Rugged terrain and their natural wariness usually cloak bears in invisibility. The best way to interpret bear populations is through DNA analysis of bear hair caught on barbed-wire hair traps. Analysis of the hairs can reveal population levels, health, and the movements of individual bears.

Doug Heard, a senior government biologist, devised the technique used for estimating bear populations with colleague Garth Mowat about 10 years ago. The model uses the ecological characteristics of a landscape—people, livestock, vegetation, and precipitation, for example—and the few areas that have DNA mark-recapture data. Biologists crunch the data and come up with a number.

The government does not allow hunting in 14 of the 56 population units, including the nine with threatened populations. Nor is hunting allowed in any national park, Grizzly Bear Management Areas, and some provincial parks. (Bears, however, do wander beyond human-made boundaries.)

But to Artelle and his colleagues, that’s not good enough. Aside from the uncertainties highlighted in the paper, there are other unknowns that remain beyond the scope of the study, for example the impact of declining food availability or the social lives of bears. (Not all bears are equal, and the removal of one individual might have more serious repercussions than another.) In light of the uncertainty, the bear hunt makes no sense, Artelle says.

Nor does it make sense to the Coastal First Nations that are monitoring the bear populations in their territory in partnership with Raincoast. William Housty keeps track of the bears in a number of Heiltsuk Territory watersheds, including Kwatna, as part of a grizzly-monitoring project that covers about two-thirds of the Great Bear Rainforest. “We have guys on the ground researching, and there’s guns going off in the same area. It doesn’t jive,” Housty told me a few days after Stoner’s kill.

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.

Jude Isabella is a writer based in Victoria, British Columbia. Her book Salmon, A Scientific Memoir will be released next year. Follow her on Twitter.