Most British Columbians have never seen a grizzly bear — but this lack of exposure takes nothing away from the enduring importance the animal holds in the collective consciousness of this province. Whether the massive creature is seen as peaceful or threatening, the grizzly stands as an icon of B.C.'s vast, natural beauty. Although contact with people brings inherent hazards, the survival of the species remains a vital part of maintaining the province's identity. For so many, B.C. just wouldn't be the same without these omnivores wandering about somewhere deep in the backcountry.
When ursus tarctos dominated
Brown bears (ursus arctos) — which in North America are known as grizzlies — are the widest ranging of the world's eight bear species. Typically growing up to 500 kilograms, grizzlies are distinguished from the smaller black bear by longer claws, shorter ears and their signature shoulder hump. While grizzlies will eat whatever is available, their common diet includes berries and salmon.
An estimated 25,000 grizzlies currently roam Canada's wilderness. Most of this population is in B.C., but grizzlies can also be found in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and the western edge of Alberta. In the states south of the border, grizzly numbers are slim, but to the northwest the large omnivores are far more prevalent in the thinly populated state of Alaska, where more than 30,000 brown bears roam.
Early ancestors of the grizzly reached North America 70,000 years ago, crossing a land bridge from Eurasia. Over the ages the animal spread across the continent, at one time ranging as far south as Mexico and across the Prairies to Ontario, Ohio and Kentucky.
Biologist Valerius Geist has studied large North American mammals for more than 50 years, producing dozens of books. At one time the grizzly dominated the landscape in California, terrorizing aboriginal tribes, says the professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.
"So severe was the grizzly problem that the only way they could go across the valley to another village was in large groups. The difficulties of going back and forth was so great that every village developed another language," says Geist. "There was a time when the natives met the Spaniards coming in and idolized the Spaniards because the Spaniards could kill grizzly bears at will, which the natives could not."
Grizzlies also populated the Prairies, but several thousand years ago the animals were scarce due to the advanced hunting of the plains tribes. Killing a grizzly bear became a symbol of high status.
"Not everybody could carry a necklace with grizzly bear claws," explains Geist. "Wildlife was distinctly suppressed — except deer and mountain sheep."
This changed after the decimation of First Nations by Europeans.
"In the beginning of the 1500s ,whole tribes vanished because of our European diseases and our European genocides," says Geist. "You have almost instantaneously cleared the heavy hand of humans on the landscape, and wildlife exploded. That's where the buffalo came in, that's where the passenger pigeon came in, that's were the bears came in."
An impoverished landscape without grizzlies
In the 21st century, the grizzly is limited to the northwestern portion of the continent. While returning the bears to the Prairies isn't currently conceivable, efforts have grown in recent years to improve existing populations.
In the southwestern part of B.C., the Coast to Cascades initiative focuses on five threatened grizzly bear population units, including the Squamish-Lillooet unit that encompasses Whistler. A variety of governments and organizations now support grizzly bear recovery, including the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the District of Squamish, the Village of Pemberton, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and the Pemberton Wildlife Association, which is affiliated with some hunters.
"To me, a landscape in North America without grizzly bears is essentially an impoverished landscape," says Johnny Mikes, Coast to Cascades' field coordinator.
But the southwestern portion of B.C. is also one of the more populated parts of the province, and having people nearby has not historically gone well for grizzly bears. Mikes believes that with careful land management, enough space can be left for bears to thrive. Females with cubs must be considered as they emerge from dens in the spring.
"It's really critical that when a female comes out of her den with cubs that she can get some food early on, and that they're not stressed out, forced away and having to run," explains Mikes, a Whistler resident who has guided in B.C and the Yukon for more than 20 years. "Those are the places where you can't be snowmobiling."
Roads are particularly problematic for grizzlies, as they restrict the large range that the animals need. Farmland near grizzly habitat can also lead to bears getting shot when they feed on livestock or food left out for animals. Restricting the ground the animals can cover limits their ability to reproduce, as seen in the Stein-Nahatlatch, a threatened population unit located directly east of Squamish-Lillooet.
"Stein-Nahatlatch is the most genetically isolated population of mainland grizzly bears in North America," says Mikes, noting that genetic samples collected from the 24-bear unit indicate that all the grizzlies descended from one female. "When you see that sort of genetic isolation that means that bears are not moving across the landscape."
Geist has found grizzlies to be more wary of people than other large wildlife, as shown by the distance they keep from roads.
"Deer or elk are found within a quarter of a mile; grizzly bears, two kilometres. They are that afraid of us," notes the biologist, citing one particular study that illustrates this fear of traffic. "A female with cubs, she spent two weeks patrolling a highway before she crossed it."
Incomplete information on a 'species of special concern'
The provincial government divides mainland B.C. into 56 grizzly bear population units. Nine of those sections are listed as "threatened," while extinction has excluded four other sections from this monitoring. Grizzly populations in the other provincial units are considered "viable," with estimates reaching as high as the 840 in the Muskwa at the top of the province. Hunting licences are issued by the province annually for 42 of these population units.
Most grizzly population data in B.C. is based on models that estimate what the number of grizzlies in an area would be, considering the available habitat and threats. But a newly formed charity organization questions the reliability of the current bear management methods.
"The province keeps re-stating that they're quite confident that they have the appropriate science to be basing regulation off of, and that's just not true — we don't have complete information on the species," emphasizes Rachel Forbes, executive director for the Grizzly Bear Foundation, a newly formed non-profit dedicated to the welfare of Canadian grizzlies launched by philanthropist and Audain Art Museum atriarch, Michael Audain. "At the very least we should be putting a moratorium on the trophy hunt until we can figure out what it is that we're managing and what the factors are."
In February the Grizzly Bear Foundation released its Report of the Board of Inquiry, citing input from B.C. residents, ranchers, hunters, guides, conservation organizations, First Nations and businesses. Recommendations include banning all grizzly hunting in B.C., reducing attractants in public spaces, increased provincial funding for wildlife enforcement, exploring an expansion to the bear viewing industry and holding a forum with First Nations to better manage the future of grizzlies. The animal holds a special status in aboriginal traditions, and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations has passed a resolution to ban sport hunting.
By closely watching their territory, Forbes believes that more First Nations can help with the province's limited wildlife enforcement.
"Through the First Nations Guardian program it's been very successful to monitor their own territories and prevent poaching from happening," she says.
Threatened or in recovery?
The actual health of the species in B.C. is up for debate. Grizzlies are listed as a "species of special concern" by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and considered "vulnerable" by B.C.'s Conservation Data Centre. But the provincial government appears to think that, for the most part, the large bears are "stable and self-sustaining," according to a press statement issued in January.
That release describes a hunting industry that contributes up to $7.55 million to the provincial economy each year, and one third of this business comes from guide outfitters leading tourist hunters on treks through the wilderness. The Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. believes that grizzly populations are healthy and growing. According to the association's Grizzly Bear Management Program, members are "seeing bears in greater densities in areas where we have not seen them in generations."
There are indications that this could be happening in the Sea to Sky corridor, where the province estimates 59 grizzlies roam between Howe Sound and Pemberton Meadows. In 2016, conservation officers heard of at least a dozen grizzly sightings in the region, double the number received over the previous year.
Mikes heard of grizzly sightings at the Olympic park in the Callahan Valley last year, and even recalls an incident from a few years ago when a female was reported to have walked through Whistler.
"There was a bear called Power who was in her 20s and she didn't have cubs one year," he says. "She kind of crossed quietly in the night through Whistler and did a big loop through Garibaldi park, crossed back near Squamish and back to the west side of the Squamish River."
In 2016 the province published the Scientific Review of Grizzly Bear Harvest Management System in British Columbia, a study compiled by Mark Boyce and Andrew Derocher from the University of Alberta as well as David Garshelis from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Those experts conclude that "deteriorating habitat" is the biggest cause of declines, bringing a need for better population assessments. Although most of the population data in B.C. comes from habitat model estimates, the academic review examines a handful of southern units where more detailed information is available, thanks to DNA samples from grizzly hair left at baited sites, and bears who were monitored with collars.
Human-caused mortality has been excessive in the South Rockies at the bottom eastern part of the province, where grizzly populations declined by up to 50 per cent from 2006 to 2013.
"This unit has a number of outfitters and high demand by resident bear hunters," states the study, adding that "road and train-caused mortalities have been on the rise in recent years."
Directly south lies the Flathead, a grizzly unit that has benefitted from the best population monitoring since the late 1970s. Over the years, the number of grizzlies in this area has been closely tied to the availability of food.
"The density of hunter kills in this (grizzly bear population unit) is the highest in B.C. Despite this, the population doubled over a period of two decades, due to high reproductive rates driven by an abundance of food (huckleberries)," explains the study. "As the food supply diminished, the reproductive rate halved to the lowest known in North America, and the population declined precipitously. Continued monitoring of this population using DNA mark-recapture (2010-2014) indicated a population recovery."
The politics surrounding the trophy hunt
Without a doubt, hunting is the most divisive issue concerning the future of grizzly bears in B.C. Despite numerous surveys from environmental organizations showing that most British Columbians oppose the hunt, the practice is permitted each spring in 65 per cent of the province, including in provincial parks.
Under the governance of the BC Liberals, the province has long defended the practise, citing over $7.3 million in hunting licences collected annually, plus another $2.25 million from surcharges that go towards the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund.
The current allowable harvest is calculated to be 572 grizzlies a year, or 3.8 per cent of the estimated population in B.C. But the province argues that hunters aren't coming close to killing this many grizzlies.
"While more than 3,000 authorizations are issued each year, on average only about 250 bears are taken by hunters," states the January release on bear management.
Despite the widespread unpopularity of hunting, certain experts believe that the permit system actually helps with grizzly management.
"The social and economic benefits derived from such use provides incentives for people to conserve them," says the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as cited in the province's 2016 grizzly management study. "The grizzly bear hunt poses no conservation threat to populations, especially that it is heavily biased towards mature males."
Mikes believes that the real threat to grizzlies is encroachment onto their habitat from infrastructure and development.
"If the grizzly bear hunt was to end in B.C. tomorrow, the issues that the bears in the non-hunted, threatened population have would still exist," he says. "The grizzly bear hunt, fundamentally it's an ethical, moral choice that as a society we have to make."
This spring, politicians brought these ethics into the election campaign, particularly the NDP with its call to end the trophy hunt.
"B.C.'s grizzly bears are not trophies to hang on walls in Texas," states the party's official election platform.
But as the issue gained steam, confusion has grown over what exactly trophy hunting is and how a complete ban would affect the most respectful hunters. In the NDP's written response to questions from the BC Wildlife Federation, the party ensures that a ban wouldn't affect all grizzly hunting.
"This is not about being opposed to hunting," says the NDP. "B.C. hunters will continue to have the opportunity under the (limited entry hunting) system to harvest grizzly bear utilizing the entire bear."
But ensuring that the whole animal is used would require a significant funding boost to wildlife management in B.C.
"It comes down to one of the big problems we think there are with grizzly bear management in B.C., which is enforcement and managing of our laws and regulations," says Forbes.
Differing points of view
The hunting debate reveals a divide among British Columbians. The argument pits a rural lifestyle against distinctly urban values and opposing views around the real value of the grizzly harvest.
"(The Guide Outfitters of B.C.) appreciates that many people, especially those living in urban areas, have never been exposed to the vital role hunting plays in effective wildlife management," states the association's Grizzly bear Management Program. "Furthermore, we recognize that some people fail to see any value in hunting and dismiss it as irrelevant, an outdated and cruel anachronism in our modern world."
Forbes sees a greater value in the bear-viewing industry than continuing to permit hunters to use only part of a bear.
"They are not issuing licences for food," she says. "What we've heard from British Columbians is actually eating grizzly bears is an extremely rare thing to do. It's not a desirable meat, it's quite different than black bears, my understanding."
As the resident priority program manager with the B.C. Wildlife Federation, Jesse Zeman disagrees.
"From my personal experience grizzly bear meat is great," he says. "I have hunted them and have eaten them. There's really no difference between grizzly bear and black bear meat." He believes that the trophy-hunt debate distracts the public from greater conservation issues, citing challenges bears have had near settlements and roads in the Elk Valley part of the Kootenay region. A 2016 study shows a 40-per-cent drop in the valley's grizzly population over the previous eight years, with 68 per cent of deaths caused by non-hunting incidents, such as collisions with vehicles and trains.
"Whether we had grizzly bear hunting or not, we would have experienced a significant decline," observes Zeman. "When you carve up the landscape with trains and cars and people, you cut off corridors, you create islands of populations.
The Elk Valley runs through the eastern parts of two grizzly population units, the Flathead and the South Rockies. Despite the rapid decline in the valley's grizzlies, hunting permits are still being issued for these two population units, which are classified as "viable" by the province. There are even guide outfitting organizations based in the Elk Valley that list grizzly bears among the species they can assist non-resident hunters in tracking.
Zeman contends that hunters are among the strongest advocates for grizzly preservation initiatives.
"Conservation organizations that are being paid for by hunters' dollars are funding those projects," he says. "Oppositely, I don't think you see organizations that are funding the anti-hunting movement are funding those kinds of projects. There is a disconnect there."
Lessons from distant shores
Beyond B.C.'s mountains, vastly different approaches are being taken to manage bears and other large wildlife. Botswana banned all sport hunting in 2014, citing the value of wildlife to ecotourism, which has grown to contribute 12 per cent of the country's annual gross domestic product. Elsewhere in Africa, wild game hunting was outlawed with Kenya's ban in 1977 — but in the 40 years since, poaching has grown while the country's wildlife has declined by a disturbing 70 per cent.
Directly northwest of B.C., an estimated 30,000 grizzlies roam Alaska, where the state's authorities believe the animal's numbers are growing. This is more than the estimated total for all of Canada, enough for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to now permit resident hunters to kill two grizzlies a year.
Off Alaska's southwest coast, healthy populations of a unique subspecies of the grizzly can be found on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. These bears are even larger than the grizzly, with males reaching up to 680 kg. Over 14,000 people live on Kodiak Island, but half of the archipelago is protected from development by being part of a wildlife refuge. Each year 4,500 people apply for 496 Kodiak bear permits. Every bear killed must be inspected by an Alaska Fish and Game biologist before being taken from the islands. Although the annual Kodiak harvest grew from 77 in 1969 to 173 in the early 2000s, the density of the bears is more than one per square kilometre.
For grizzly bears or any other large predator, a species cannot be sustained unless people stay far away, stresses Geist.
"The grizzly bear or the wolf do not belong in settled landscapes," he says. "Large carnivores can only be maintained in large areas of land that we dedicate to them."
The future of an icon
Although grizzly bears no longer dominate the West Coast like they did hundreds of years ago, the potential for fatal conflict with humans remains. From 1987 to 2016, six people in B.C. were killed by grizzlies, but during his numerous up-close encounters, Mikes has never been attacked.
"When the bear stands up on its back legs it's not to attack you, it's to look over the brush to figure out what you are," he says. "They're not out to get you... It's really part of the wild experience."
The grizzly is still California's official animal — despite being extinct in the state for nearly 100 years. Many fear that unchecked development will bring the same fate for B.C.'s grizzlies, thereby sacrificing part of the province's identity.
Zeman believes that the bear's future will rely on a focused combination of wildlife funding, accurate science and public support for conservation initiatives.
"What do we want this place to look like 50 years from now? Because if we have another 50 years like the last 50 years, none of us are going to like what it looks like," he says. "In the absence of objectives, we're failing fish and wildlife."