Last month, John Buchanan was driving along the Squamish River when something caught his attention.
A group of tourists emerged from a tour bus and were taking photos of a bear and its cub located on the opposite side of the river.
At first, Buchannan thought they were black bears, but the sow's behaviour was odd. She was digging holes in the sand. Maybe buried fish, he thought.
Buchanan reached for his camera and zoomed in with a telephoto lens to get a better look at the mother bear. Quickly, he identified a large hump between her shoulder blades, a dished face, and, finally, what he considered the "real telltale sign" that this was no black bear.
"That thing had huge claws on it," he says over the phone following the sighting. "I'm like, 'OK. This is a grizzly I'm dealing with.'"
According to Buchanan, it was an ideal viewing scenario. He kept a safe distance, with the bears across the water. He didn't feel he was disturbing the animals, and if he needed to leave, he could. Quickly.
Buchanan watched the bears for about 10 minutes. A couple times, the sow looked up, appearing to stare directly at him. According to Buchanan, her message was clear: "I see you, and I can come over and tear you apart anytime I feel like it."
For Buchanan, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Having grown up in Squamish and explored the Upper Lillooet River for the past 40 years, he has seen many black bears, but never its cousin.
While still rare, grizzly-bear sightings like Buchanan's are becoming more and more common in the Sea to Sky. This fall, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) closed down several alpine trails on Rainbow and Sproatt mountains, west of the village, following several sightings and at least two reported encounters.
By most accounts, the rise in grizzly bear sightings and encounters is a trend that's going to continue going forward. People are heading into the Sea to Sky backcountry in unprecedented numbers, and the corridor's grizzly bear populations—all of which are considered threatened by the province—are making a slow recovery.
Yet, according to experts who have been working directly with grizzlies and pushing for actions to protect key habitat, it's no time to celebrate. They warn that, across the corridor, recovery efforts have been uneven. They are particularly concerned about one population to the east of Whistler, which they say is critically endangered and requires direct intervention from the province. Moreover, some are raising concerns about the competing interests of grizzly-bear management and recreational use, and our willingness to live in harmony with North America's apex predator.
A grizzly history
Within the last few hundred years, humans have decimated grizzly-bear populations, which were once found as far south as Mexico and as far east as Hudson Bay.
Considered vermin and highly dangerous at the time, the animal was persecuted throughout the 1800s, yet managed to survive, allbeit in precarious numbers, in the Sea to Sky. There are an estimated 15,000 grizzlies in B.C., though the bears have been wiped out of large swaths of the province, including the Sunshine Coast, Fraser Valley, and the Interior.
In order to better understand the province's overall grizzly-bear population, the province has segmented them into 56 individual grizzly bear population units (GBPUs). While relatively arbitrary—grizzly bears, particularly males, have large ranges and often move from one unit to another when there are safe corridors to pass through—the units provide insights into how populations in specific areas are doing.
According to the province, there are nine populations considered "threatened" in B.C.— meaning that the number of grizzlies in the individual GBPU is less than half of what scientists believe to be the area's carrying capacity—and four of them can be found in the Sea to Sky corridor.
According to provincial figures, there are an estimated 59 bears in the population unit to the west of Whistler (the Squamish-Lillooet GBPU), two to the south (the Garibaldi-Pitt GBPU), 203 in the South Chilcotin GBPU, and 24 in the Stein--Nahatlatch GBPU.
Those figures, however, do not paint an entirely accurate picture of the reality on the ground, as much of the information that researchers rely on is outdated. The province's grizzly-bear accounting—or lack thereof—was an area of focus in last year's auditor general's report on grizzly-bear management in B.C., which slammed the province's management of the species and lack of dedicated funding for it.
"The population information is from 2012, and although there is some discussion at MFLNRO (the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations) on updating the estimate, there is no policy requirement to do so," reads the report.
"Grizzly bear populations in some areas of B.C, are now increasing. Our report shows that this is likely happening independently from an adequate management framework."
The report also found that the government had yet to develop a Comprehensive Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy (despite publicly committing to do so), or follow through on the strategic direction of a 2010 high-level Wildlife Program Plan.
Auditor General Carol Bellringer pointed to bureaucratic mismanagement as hampering recovery goals, noting that the two ministries who have been charged with recovering the species, the Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Environment, have failed to fulfil one of their most basic mandates—delegating responsibility. The "overlapping roles and responsibilities ... creates a tension between the two ministries that is unresolved," she wrote.
According to Tony Hamilton, a recently retired government scientist who served as the province's large carnivore specialist, the province now has information that shows that the Squamish-Lillooet GBPU numbers were "probably an incorrect estimation from the get-go."
Speaking from his boat in Victoria, he says the province failed to fully get behind grizzly bear recovery despite signing off on the Sea-to-Sky Land and Resource Management Plan, a land-use strategy that received a broad base of stakeholder support. It calls on the province to "Achieve and maintain a Viable status for each of the four Grizzly Bear Population Units that overlap the Plan Area."
"The decisions are expensive," Hamilton explains. "It has to be politically driven to get any traction."
Hamilton adds that, while there are some hopeful signs for local grizzlies, one shouldn't draw too broad of a conclusion, as population density tends to be concentrated to certain areas. He also fears that an increase in population and recreation, around Squamish and the Sunshine Coast, is hampering recovery.
"There is an expectation that occupancy and recovery is GDPU-wide and I don't think it's there yet," Hamiton says.
Dwindling population in the Stein-Nahatlach
Since forming in 2012, the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative has advocated on behalf of the corridor's grizzly-bear population. The organization works with a wide range of stakeholders, including local government, First Nations, and industry, and has been instrumental in raising the profile of grizzly bears among policymakers and the public.
The group has helped push the province to act on a number of key conservation strategies, such as a seasonal closure of the Birkenhead and Upper Lillooet River areas (which boasts some of the best berry patches in the corridor) to recreational vehicles.
To get out its message—that grizzlies are here and we need to adapt our behaviour to facilitate their recovery—the organization has hosted presentations throughout the corridor, in which leading grizzly-bear scientists share their research with the public.
Around 20 residents sat in folding chairs in a town hall at one such presentation this summer in N'Quatqua, the St'át'imc Nation community that sits on the southern end of Anderson Lake. Two uniformed conservation officers stood in the back. A wilderness scene, complete with a grizzly bear and elk, was painted on one of the walls of the room.
N'Quatqua sits on the border of the South Chilcotin and Stein-Nahatlatch Grizzly GBPUs. Bounded by the Fraser River, Lillooet and Harrison Lakes, the Stein-Nahatlatch GBPU is considered a highly isolated population that is at risk of extirpation, its very existence teetering on the brink. Much of Coast to Cascades' ongoing work focuses on drawing attention to the challenges facing this GBPU, which they consider vital to B.C.'s overall grizzly population.
The presentation was led by one of the community's own, Jolene Patrick, conflict and education specialist with Coast to Cascades with a Bachelor of Science in animal biology and a lifelong (and infectious) passion for wildlife. A skilled speaker at ease in front of crowds (many were family), Patrick has helped facilitate an extensive signage program with Coast to Cascades. With her help, the organization has worked closely with the St'át'imc and Squamish Nations and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District to erect no-nonsense signage across the Sea to Sky aimed at raising awareness about grizzlies.
"YOU ARE IN GRIZZLY BEAR COUNTRY!" one reads. "IT IS ILLEGAL TO SHOOT THEM!"
In her presentation, Michelle McLellan, manager of the Southwest BC Grizzly Bear Project, explains how the fractures that separate the Stein-Nahatlatch GBPU from the far healthier grizzly bear population to its north, in the South Chilcotins, makes it difficult for bears to move between the two groups, contributing to the genetic isolation of the bears.
Daughter of Bruce McLellan, a world-renowned grizzly-bear scientist who lives in D'Arcy, McLellan has gotten to know the Stein-Nahatlach GBPU intimately over the years, allowing her to weave in anecdotes about specific bears.
At one point, McLellan shows a startling statistic on cub survival. It shows that, among collared bears, the cub survival rate (past the one-year mark) was 100 per cent for the South Chilcotin GBPU and only 30 per cent for the Stein Nahatlach GBPU.
While acknowledging that the Stein-Nahatlatch population is small, making it difficult to extrapolate significant statistical trends, McLellan theorizes that poorer habitat quality and the prevalence of inbreeding are likely contributing factors to the declining population.
But she also noted that there is a "skewed sex ratio"—read: lack of females—which can lead to infanticide. Male grizzlies will sometimes resort to killing offspring they have not fathered as a reproductive strategy. "There are very few, if any, females available to reproduce every year," she explains later. "You could see where the males would gain from killing a cub."
Following the presentation, a woman asked what the community could do to help, apart from the obvious of guarding against bear attractants. Like the others, she was hopeful that the population could recover.
"What do you want from us?" asks the woman. "What can we do to help this?"
"There's no plan in place to say how we are going to recover this (population)," Patrick responds. "So things like pressuring the government to try to develop a plan—to put a plan in place that says exactly what they're going to do to recover the populations—is one way you can contribute."
grizzly hunt a contributing factor
According to government statistics, between 1976 and 2011, an average of eight grizzlies a year were killed illegally. But experts believe that the actual number is likely much higher.
A recent study compared the number of bears killed legally by hunters to the number of bears killed for all other reasons for collared and uncollared bear populations in southeastern B.C.'s Flathead Valley. It estimates that about 88 per cent of uncollared grizzly bears that were killed between 1980 and 2016 were not recorded in the government mortality database. (The province ended the trophy hunt, in its historic form, last year.)
It concluded that the results "are likely indicative of other places that are road-accessed but far from settlements."
In some cases, people may kill habituated grizzlies because they feel they are problem bears, or hunters with black bear tags may inadvertantly kill them.
Yet another issue is hunters who kill grizzlies out of self-defense.
The issue is exacerbated by the proliferation of resource roads throughout the province. There are some 600,000 kilometres of resource roads in B.C., with roughly 10,000 km added each year. This continued expansion "allows greater human access into wilderness areas, which results in increased illegal killing of grizzly bears, and greater human-bear conflicts," wrote auditor general Bellringer in her report. "Yet, long-promised resource road legislation that could address this risk is not yet in place."
According to longtime Pemberton-based hunter Allen McEwan, who serves as Coast to Cascades' livestock conflict prevention program coordinator, the auditor general's observation was dead on. "Access is what drives all of this," he says. Some hunters choose to hunt from their vehicle for the added convenience factor. "They simply drive back and forth on the road."
When it comes to accidental grizzly kills, McEwan doesn't buy the self-defense argument. "It's panic. You couldn't call it self-defense."
Over the years, McEwan has had a hand in several Coast to Cascades presentations aimed at hunters. For some, the presentations were revelatory, he explains.
"As soon as a true conservationist sees those numbers they say, 'Hey, we've got to be more careful and part of the solution to this problem, not become part of the problem."
While McEwan feels that ongoing education is needed—particularly among new hunters long on enthusiasm but short on experience—he feels that the Coast to Cascades' messaging is finally getting through.
"I think the attitude has changed dramatically," he says, noting that communities in the region are doing a much better job managing bear attractants. "People view the grizzly bears as an important part of the ecosystem, and they're far less likely to reach for a firearm when they see one."
As a fourth-generation Pemberton Valley resident and passionate conservationist, McEwan grew up tagging along with his grandfather on hunts. His reverence for the iconic animal, which can grow to over 1,000 pounds, runs deeps. To see the "top predator in North America" in the wild is extraordinary, he says.
"There's nothing better than seeing that animal in its prime doing its thing. Even the sight of the grizzly-bear tracks on the snow makes my day."
For Johnny Mikes, field director for Coast to Cascades, the evidence is clear. Along with other prominent grizzly-bear scientists, including Michelle McLellan and her father, he feels that the province needs to develop a plan to relocate grizzlies into the Stein-Nahatlach, and needs to do so quickly.
"What we're hearing from the experts is that we absolutely need to see it happen," he says. "There is not a choice in that population, particularly given the genetics."
Mikes points out that in its response to last year's auditor general's report, the province committed to developing a comprehensive grizzly bear management plan that would include strategies to recover the most at-risk populations.
In his view, the Stein-Nahatlatch GBPU is a prime candidate for an augmentation program, which would see provincial wildlife biologists bring in one or two female grizzlies into the area, monitor the results over the long-term, and add bears as the need arises.
Mikes feels that the group has the ear of the province, and that there is broad-based support reflected in the previous Land-Resource Management Plan from 2008. "There is social licence from 10 years ago for a plan," he explains.
Mikes is also concerned with the timeline for the prospective plan. He's heard that a high-level grizzly bear management plan is still a year away, and he worries that it may be a year after that before a plan for the Stein-Nahatlatch is released.
The bear population, he feels, simply can't wait that long. "Coast to Cascades and our First Nations partners have been talking to government to make sure that interim measures take place before the grizzly-bear management plans come out," he explains.
Specifically, he wants to sees bears relocated to the area in 2019. Taking a long lens, Mikes feels that if recovered, the Stein-Nahatlach GBPU could eventually serve as an important linkage to grizzlies travelling between the North Cascades, another population in need of recovery, and the Coast Mountains. "New genes are critical for that inbred population and a couple additional breeding age females could help start to tip the balance in the right direction in terms of both genetics and population numbers," he explains.
A new reality
Located on the eastern flank of the Squamish Lillooet GBPU, Rainbow Lake is a stunning, Instagram-worthy, alpine setting now easily accessible through Whistler's new Alpine Trail Network.
In September, an encounter with a grizzly prowling around the lake drove four hikers into a tree, where they tossed rocks in an effort to distract it. A conservation officer later arrived at the scene, and escorted the frightened hikers to safety. Following the incident, the RMOW took swift action, closing the network of trails until mid November.
Reflecting on the incident, Conservation Officer Service Sgt. Simon Gravel told Pique in September that there is a need to mitigate the potential for conflict, as the trail network is bringing a lot of people into the area. "We have a lot more people using those trails," said Gravel. "We'll have to come up with some strategies to reach out to those visitors, make sure they're aware they're going into grizzly country and how to behave and how to avoid conflict. There's a bit of work to be done there."
For Mikes and other grizzly-bear advocates, the story illustrates a larger tension that is playing out throughout the Sea to Sky, between the interests of a booming recreational sector and the need to safeguard grizzly bear habitat.
When designing the Alpine Trail Network, the RMOW did not adequately consult with Coast to Cascades or the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, he says.
"I think historically the (RMOW's) Trails Planning Working group was very insular and closed," he says, adding that the planning therefore reflects the desires of mountain bikers and hikers and not the best interests of the area's grizzlies.
Hamilton shares Mikes' frustration. The provincial large-carnivore specialist recalls the "huge amount of hate mail" he got when he suggested that restrictions be put on mountain biking in South Chilcotin Park as part of a 2014 management plan. "I got opposition that I hadn't encountered since my early career from hunters in the Kooteneys where we were arguing about motorized access," he recalls.
In order for grizzly-bear numbers to truly recover, Mikes and others feel that we, as a society, must recognize that they are a vital element of our wilderness, and incorporate their interests during early stages of land-use planning. The dream is to forget about population units all together and for a healthy, genetically diverse and interconnected population to emerge.
Grizzly bears are an integral part of B.C.'s wilderness, one of the things that sets it apart from huge swaths of North America, where they have been wiped off the landscape, explains Mikes. They're something that makes us special, that we should fight for. "If we lose them, we lose a part of our heritage and a part of our ecosystem."
Population augmentation in Montana
If the province begins introducing bears to the Stein-Nahatlatch GBPU next year, it will be its first augmentation program aimed at grizzlies.
The recovery method has, however, been tested in Europe as well as in Montana's Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, a 6,700-square-kilometre area in the Cabinet Mountains.
For grizzly bear advocates, the Cabinet-Yaak initiative has been a resounding success. The area has gone from having an estimated 15 bears in the 1990s to now boasting an estimated 55 to 60 bears, with a projected growth rate of 2.1 per cent.
Yet according to Wayne Kasworm, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, it faced enormous opposition in its early stages, largely from the community of Libby, the area's largest town of around 2,700 people.
To get started, an environmental review process was initiated, which generated "a lot of negative feedback," Kasworm says.
"There was concern in our local community about the impact of grizzly bear recovery on the economy in the area, and there were concerns about human safety with a growing population as well."
To counter the negative perception, Kasworm helped form a citizens involvement group, which included stakeholders from industry, to discuss the nature of the species as well as the legal mandate to bring the species back under the Endangered Species Act.
"We spent probably a year and a half in monthly meetings with this citizens group," he explains.
Eventually the group agreed to a trial. They would move four bears into the area over five years, and monitor the bears to see if they would remain and reproduce.
It went well, and the project has continued ever since.
"Since 1990, when the test started, we've put a total of 20 different grizzlies into the Cabinet Mountains," says Kasworm, noting that the original four came from Southeastern B.C.
When discussing the danger that grizzlies pose, Kasworm says he has strived to be transparent.
"I think what we do is present some of the statistics, and we talk about how there are an awful lot of people who hike in the national forests where there are more grizzly bears," he explains.
"The chances of injuries, while they are there, are pretty small ... In all the years, we've only had one significant injury to a person here in the Cabinet Mountains."
That incident took place in May, when a field assistant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sustained serious injuries after surprising an adult male grizzly.
Over the years, Kasworm has gone out of his way to educate the public on the importance of recovery, and has even appeared regularly on a local radio show to update the public on the recovery project.
Over time, he says, he's noticed a welcome shift in public perception towards grizzly bears.
"I think I have seen public perceptions and attitudes improve here," he says. "But there are obviously a number of folks who aren't very supportive of bears and are very concerned about bears for the same reasons we talked about earlier—human safety and the economy."