By Jeff Gailus
Well, it's that time of year again. Grizzly bears, some with young cubs in tow, have emerged from their dens only to be exposed to a slew of threats that imperil their long-term survival in B.C.: Hunters, mines, growing rural towns and an expanding web of roads and pipelines. Starting April 1, the bears' greatest source of mortality — trophy hunters — will begin sighting their rifles with the hopes of catching a grizzly in the crosshairs. Without commenting on the ethics of this age-old custom, it's worth reflecting on the number of bears that die every year in B.C. at the hands of humans.
British Columbia's grizzly bears are among the most vulnerable large animals on the continent. The factors that threaten them are largely human-caused and include climate change, loss of habitat from industrial and recreational development, and unsustainable rates of mortality from trophy hunting, animal control kills and poaching. According to the David Suzuki Foundation's analysis of the government's Compulsory Inspection Database, an average of 339 grizzlies are killed each year in the province, the vast majority of which (87 per cent) is from trophy hunting in the spring and fall.
Last year, 317 bears died at the hands of humans in B.C. Most of this mortality (78 per cent) was a result of the legal trophy hunt, and about 15 per cent were the result of "control" kills of so-called problem bears. However, this may not the be whole story — research conducted by government biologists in B.C. indicates that people kill 50 to 100 per cent more bears than are reported, which suggests the mortality for 2010 could be as high as 634, or approximately four per cent of the total population.
While this mortality rate is within the range suggested by many biologists as sustainable (three to five per cent) for the province as a whole, scientists and the B.C. government knows that this is not the way to assess and manage grizzly bear mortality. Grizzly deaths must be managed at the subpopulation level, because from a sustainability perspective, a dead bear in northern B.C. (where bears are relatively numerous) is a lot different than a dead bear in, say, one of the threatened subpopulations in southern B.C. (where bears are fewer and farther between).
For example, according to the BC government, grizzly bear mortality between 2004 and 2009 was approximately 27 per cent higher in the hunted portion of the South Rockies grizzly bear population unit (GBPU) than the allowable five per cent limit for that area. In the hunted portion of the South Purcell GBPU during the same period, human-caused mortality of grizzly bears was 35 per cent higher than the same annual allowable rate. While the BC government reduced the number of grizzly hunting tags for these areas in 2009 and 2010, it is unclear whether this has adequately reduced the number of human-caused mortalities.
Many bear advocates and scientists believe we must reduce the number of bears killed by humans and human activity, especially in the small, isolated and highly threatened populations in southern B.C. One of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is for the government to fulfill its commitment to establish a network of grizzly bear management areas (GBMAs) that act as sanctuaries for bears, places where they can be safe from hunting, and where the human activities that harm them, such as roads and industrial activity, are strictly controlled.
We have the motivation and tools to protect grizzly bears, but it will take a renewed commitment to conservation by Premier Christy Clark's new government to ensure the long-term survival and health of one of the most cherished animals in Canada.
You can help us achieve this by asking the government to keep its promise to conserve B.C.'s grizzly bears.
Jeff Gailus is an award-winning writer and the author of The Grizzly Manifesto (Rocky Mountain Books 2010) and numerous magazine articles.