For millennia, aboriginal people have hunted wildlife for food, traditional purposes, and trade. But coastal First Nations in British Columbia argue that killing a threatened animal simply for the thrill of it is foreign to their culture.
We call it sport, as if the animals had entered into a life and death game. At a recent news conference held by opponents of the grizzly and black bear hunts on the B.C. coast, Haida leader Guujaaw said, "It's not right that anyone should make a sport of killing."
I agree. Grizzlies are officially designated as a threatened species, and black bear subspecies on the B.C. coast are among the most diverse in North America, ranging from the spirit or kermode bear to the Haida black bear. Yet, the B.C. government has ignored pleas from First Nations and conservation groups and has continued to allow these majestic animals to be killed for sport, even in many parks and protected areas and in the Great Bear Rainforest.
The results are devastating. In the 30 years that the government has kept records, close to 11,000 grizzly bears have been killed in B.C., 88 per cent of them by sport hunters. Many are big-game hunters from the U.S. and Europe who pay thousands of dollars to kill a bear in B.C., since these marvellous bruins no longer exist in their own home countries.
First Nations have shared the land with bears for thousands of years. According to Guujaaw, "Bears are as much a part of the environment as we are." Indeed, the bears that feed, breed, and roam among the archipelago of islands and lush mainland valleys of British Columbia play important roles in the ecosystems they inhabit.
For example, bears, like other large predatory animals, help regulate prey populations such as deer, and so prevent overgrazing in forests. Bears feeding on salmon in streams also distribute the nutrients from the fish carcasses across the forest floor. It is a direct transfer of nutrients from the ocean to the forest, and one of the reasons why coastal forests are so rich in biodiversity and why the trees grow to such monstrous sizes.
The ethical and scientific reasons to end the sport hunt are compelling, but so too are the economic arguments. This is particularly true for aboriginal communities that see the non-consumptive use of bears, such as bear-viewing, as potential sources of employment and income for their struggling communities. In 2003, a study by the Centre for Integral Economics showed that grizzly-bear viewing brings in twice the income for coastal communities as the trophy hunt. One bear-watching operation in Knight Inlet alone grossed over $3 million in direct revenue in 2007 — more than all trophy-hunting revenue combined.
"Each bear killed is one less bear that tourists will pay top dollar to photograph," said Dean Wyatt of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association at the news conference. "Only a total ban on trophy hunting will ensure that bear populations can support the high-end viewing operations that add valuable income to coastal communities."
Protecting opportunities for aboriginal businesses to participate in the multi-million dollar eco-tourism industry in B.C. must be a priority for government. Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations Turning Point Initiative, argued that government must manage bears to promote sustainable tourism. "This is not a sustainable industry," Sterritt has said of trophy hunting. "It is jeopardizing the sustainable industries we are trying to create."
Killing bears for sport makes no sense scientifically, but it is also unethical and immoral to hunt these animals so they become a head on a wall or rug in front of a fireplace when tourists are willing to pay for the chance to photograph them alive and in the wild. Most British Columbians agree. A 2008 McAllister Research poll found that 79 per cent of B.C. residents believe that to kill a bear simply for the thrill of it is reprehensible and that the practice should end.
Today, the only place you'll find a grizzly bear south of Wyoming is on California's state flag. It would be more than a shame if all we had left to remember these magnificent animals in B.C. were a few films and First Nations carvings.