A century ago, 35,000 grizzly bears lived in British Columbia and also flourished from Alaska to Mexico, and east to Ontario. Today, only about 15,000 grizzly bears inhabit B.C., having disappeared from the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan and around Fort St. John.
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Despite being large and ferocious, grizzlies are highly sensitive to human impacts such as loss and fragmentation of their forest and mountain habitats by clearcuts, roads, oil and gas pipelines and other industrial infrastructure. Female bears reproduce later in life and often produce only a small number of cubs that survive into adulthood. Grizzlies travel long distances to find food, putting them at risk of coming into contact with hunters, roads, towns and other human encroachments into their habitat.
Bear experts have long known that if we want to keep grizzlies on the landscape, we must protect their habitat and ensure that the animals are not needlessly killed by humans. These two strategies are at the core of British Columbia's official policy, the Grizzly Bear Strategy, which has guided management practices in the province since 1995. The ambitious strategy outlines steps to sustain the province's bears with healthy populations and recover those with declining populations. It requires the government to protect bear habitat in a network of "grizzly bear management areas" where resource development is prevented and/or strictly managed, hunting is prohibited and risk-related recreational activities — such as off-highway vehicle use — are controlled. The plan also recognizes that human-caused mortality must be reduced and kept below sustainable thresholds by conservatively managing the grizzly bear sport hunt.
Our peer-reviewed study found that the government has not delivered on the plan's goals because it has failed to implement it. The study includes a report card, which found that although progress has been made in developing more accurate population estimates (grade: C), increasing scientific knowledge about grizzly bears (grade: B) and improving public awareness of the species (grade: C), little has been done to implement the Grizzly Bear Strategy to protect grizzly bear habitat (grade: D-) or prevent overkilling of bears, including in the province's controversial trophy hunt (grade: D). The government was also given a D grade for its inability to maintain the abundance and diversity of grizzly bears.
The B.C. government's failure to manage grizzly bears effectively under its own policies is having disastrous consequences for the health of the species. Nine sub-populations are now on the verge of extinction, and scientists maintain that the government's controversial trophy hunt is leading to widespread overkilling of bears.
Despite these alarming findings, government leaders continue to claim that the species is well-managed. This is a tired refrain we've heard before with government sanctioned overharvesting responsible for the cod collapse off the East Coast. Other species, such as woodland caribou in the north, have lost habitat to industrial development. By the time government took action, both species were well on their way to disappearing in some areas.
Today's study is a wake-up call for the B.C government to adopt a precautionary approach to managing bear populations. The good news is that in places such as the U.S., where plans protected and managed the species, grizzly populations have become self-sustaining in places where only a few decades ago they had been written off.
You can help by sending a message to our political leaders that they must protect this iconic species before it's too late.