Grizzly ethics, conservation and social value in an age of rapid change

Compassionate Conservation

At the passenger arrival gate in Victoria airport I am greeted by a stunning poster of a large Grizzly Bear with a salmon in his/her mouth.  This is a majestic creature.  My first response is to gasp at the wonder of him.  My second is to hope he is still alive and makes it through the twice annual trophy hunts.  If the statement: ”..there’s plenty of grizzlies in BC, so it’s OK to kill them…” doesn’t strike you as painful, then compassionate conservation will be off the table for discussion.

The prevailing view, globally, is that our planet is in a bottleneck of rising populations, shrinking resources and disappearing species.  Quantum physics tells us what indigenous wisdom has always known: everything is connected.  Advances in technology are not a solution to somehow engineering natural ecologies that have taken thousands of years to evolve.  Nowhere is this more true than in British Columbia where there is still roughly 1/2 a province of wilderness available for naturally evolving ecosystem design.  How rare this is in the world.  In this bottleneck, B.C. could be a leader in forward thinking about conservation that honors rich abundance.

But we’re not.

Worldwide, biodiversity loss is no longer within safe limits and could start to threaten much of the planet’s ability to support humans.  It is considered the “sixth extinction” and it is at all levels of life, from plants to insects, to coral, salmon and large mammals.  Climate change places grave pressures on species and habitat.  But it is the dramatic influence of humans, in all corners of the planet, that has scientists redefining the current epoch as the Anthropocene, meaning the geological age in which human influence dominants climate and environment.  Loss of ecosystem function accelerates with ongoing species loss and we don’t know where those thresholds are until they are crossed.  This is not just about individual animals or species; this is about ecosystems that keep water quality high, control soil erosion, keep nutrients recycling and maintain the pollination of plants and food crops.  It is ecological roulette to keep picking off species in bits and pieces, such as BC is doing with Grizzly Bears, wolves, moose, forests, crop lands, etc.

Exploitation of earth systems has proliferated at breakneck speed over the past 300 years.  Anything that humans have assigned value to because of utility to us, has been exploited exponentially.   It may even be too late to cultivate forward thinking about conservation but if we cannot do so in British Columbia, where there is an enviable diversity of species and intact ecosystems, then we deserve what we inherit. 

Grizzlies have been put in place by natural evolutionary processes over thousands of years but are reduced by government policy to numbers for “biological sustainability”, essentially maintaining enough animals to have a breeding population.  This is a paltry ambition that could be achieved in a zoo.  It is not conservation that cultivates abundance upon which all species, including humans, grow and thrive. 

Human-grizzly co-existence

In the past 10 years, BC bear viewing ecotourism and First Nations research has greatly advanced knowledge of bear biology, habits and personalities.  Those of us who have viewed grizzlies on their home range can attest to their individualistic nature; personalities, character traits, intelligence, emotions, strategizing, parenting, mental mapping, humor ….  When I talk to people about Grizzly Bears they are very curious.  “Weren’t you scared?”  “What did they look like?”  “What were they doing?”  The mythology so long perpetrated by hunters wanting to impress us with their prowess at bringing down a highly dangerous predator is dashed by real-life observations.  These bears are largely calm, nonchalant and predominantly focused on food.

Nothing of this rich knowledge about grizzlies is communicated through population estimates.  Language such as “harvest”, “manage”, “cull”, “bag limits”, “wildlife inventories” and “big game populations” are sterile terms designed to keep us at arms length from relating to grizzly bears and other wildlife as intrinsically connected to us.  It is such a missed opportunity.  Ecotourists see this when they come to view grizzlies and are shocked to learn that the very bears they see may be killed in a trophy hunt.  A number of European travel agents won’t send clients to lodges that support the bear hunt.  It is a black eye for British Columbia.  We can do so much better.

Not only are Grizzly Bears deliberately killed twice a year, 1/3 of them females, with mortality rates higher than reported, but the federal government repeatedly resists advice from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to list them higher than the current Special Concern.  And provincially we have no stand-alone species-at-risk legislation.  The tools for human-bear co-existence have been researched and successfully used in BC communities such as Meadow Creek, but these are not publicized by government sources.  What we do hear from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is that “hunter recruitment and retention continues to be a ministry priority”.  It fosters a culture of disconnect and combative relations. 

Government is mostly interested in systems for counting bears.  Systems upon systems.  And nothing changes.  From 2002 to 2012, grizzly populations declined in southern BC, despite a warning from COSEWIC.  The numbers just kept declining, without restoration efforts.  What conservation means to government decision makers, is calculating how many bears there are so they can decide how many can be killed for sport each year.  Most bear deaths are at the hands of humans one way or another.

Nobody can count bears.  And no matter how good government scientists become at counting bears, no number justifies killing them for sport.  It is unethical at any number. 

Grizzly Bears are a “who”, not a “what”.  They don’t belong lumped in with oil, gas, mining and lumber.

British Columbians’ values

Willfully inflicting pain is considered aberrant behaviour.  A child that causes intentional harm to an animal would be referred for counseling.  This is a social value in BC.

Killing for sport does not align with British Columbians’ values.  The contradiction between Super Natural BC tourism ads, that beckon tourists to view iconic grizzlies, and a government that invites hunters to kill these same bears for sport, is a glaring disconnect. 

Under the collective umbrella of Justice for BC Grizzlies, 1100 people to date have pledged to help end the hunt.  These pledgers are not just people signing their names or donating money; they are taking action by talking to fellow voters and political candidates all over the province to keep this issue of grizzly hunting high on political radar.  Social media and pledge cards are reaching out to all parts of the province.  Add to that the petitions that have been submitted to government, this year alone, (5,000 submitted by Michelle Mungal from the Kootenay region and another over 39,000 on Pacific Wild petition to end the trophy hunt) and it becomes clear that the trophy bear hunt lacks social license.

The Environmental Appeal Board recently slammed wildlife officials for attempting to force wild animal rehabilitators into killing hundreds of healthy and treatable animals rather than releasing them back into the wild.  There is a social movement at work.

Government approach to Grizzly Bears is short-sighted, unethical and damaging to forward-thinking conservation.  The very least the government must do is to stop deliberately killing grizzlies in trophy bear hunts.  Assign at-risk designation to grizzlies, protect their range,  and place the bears at the center of discussion.  Save money invested in “managing” the bear hunt and put it into conservation that embodies ethical relationships with grizzlies and the ecosystems that support them.  Develop materials for compassionate conservation in which humans are biological beings in a biological world, rather than a superior species that assigns value based only on utility.  Fund conservation stewards who are educated in all response options to human-wildlife conflict and who resist lethal response unless absolutely necessary.  Step up and be part of a global consciousness that recognizes the way the world is in this age of climate realities, extinction rates and interconnectedness of species.

The next time I see that poster advertising our majestic grizzly with a salmon in his/her mouth, I want to feel pride, rather than shame, for how our province treats them. 

“In the end we will conserve only what we love;we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”(Baba Dioum, 1968.)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Marianne Lawrenson says:

    I am so weary of reading references of the lives of our grizzly bears as “sustainable numbers”. These animals are sentient beings and it behooves our government to LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE and stop the slaughter of these beautiful creatures. I watch the “Beautiful British Columbia” ad on TV which, among other stunning scenes, shows a stately grizzly bear and I, like the writer, am not only in awe but worried that that same bear has been shot for “sport”. Forget “numbers” and remember integrity and ethics for a change. Stop the killing. Please!


  2. YINGYAN ZHU says:

    If we are really about truth and reconciliation, then the truth is bears are not a threat to our safety, we are a threat to their existence. Time to reconcile our relationship with wildlife. They are our neighbors. All we need to do is set the boundary and co-exist.


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