Poor bears

Columnist Rob Brown continues his series on grizzly bears – this time looking at the numbers

In 2006 the government of Alberta banned grizzly bear hunting. Not a moment to soon, according to scientists who estimate there are 760 of the great bears left in that province.

In B.C., fewer than one hundred grizzlies are thought to exist in each of the Squamish-Lillooet, South Selkirk, Yahk, and Kettle-Granby regions. Only two dozen grizzlies are estimated to inhabit the Stein-Nahatlatch Valleys, half a dozen is the best estimate for the North Cascades, while only two grizzly have been documented in the Garibaldi-Pitt River area.

These alarmingly low numbers of a species that once ranged from Alaska to New Mexico, did not deter the Provincial Government from giving conditional approval to an IPP in the Squamish-Lillooet over the strong objections of wildlife biologists who say the construction attending this project would put serious stress on the recovering grizzly population there.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) –  the group that was established in 1977 and charged by the Federal Government to provide a single, scientifically sound classification of wildlife species at risk of extinction when the Species at Risk Act was brought down in 2001 – has issued a special warning concerning grizzly bear populations in southern B.C. and Alberta. The committee solemnly states that the fate of the southern bears turns on whether they can reconnect with more secure populations.  Presumably this means more northerly populations of grizzlies.

Tragically, those northerly populations of the big brown bears are under considerable pressure in their own right, as COSEWIC itself notes when it specifically cites the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal as a significant threat to grizzly populations since its proposed route would cut directly through medium to high density areas of grizzly habitat, most of which is currently inaccessible by road.

Since COSEWIC issued that warning there have been eight more pipeline proposals that will snake through the lands frequented by the northern grizzlies. The latest of these is a proposal by Pacific Northern Gas for a line they hope to run through the Class One section of the Zymoetz – important grizzly bear habitat and one of the most highly prized stretches of steelhead water on earth.

Grizzlies have to contend with habitat destruction due to mining, IPPs, pipelines, road building, logging, agriculture, urbanization and poaching. The bears suffer when stocks of salmon decline and climate change has a significant impact on them  – as it does us. With all these pressures working against their survival, they don’t need the additional impact of men who like to kill them for fun.

Estimating grizzly populations is a lot more difficult than estimating the number of seals or polar bears. Doing so with a high degree of accuracy is simply impossible. The confidence levels on past estimates of this province’s bear populations are so wide that the authors of such reports have admitted that they can’t be trusted.  What we do know with a high degree of accuracy is the number bears that are killed.

Six biologists from Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation examined the grizzly statistics on grizzly bear mortality in B.C. and published their findings recently. They found that the government targets in its management units were exceeded by two to 171 per cent (one to 24 bears) during three period over the decade studied. More than 3,500 grizzlies (including more than 1,200 females) were killed during the study period. Legally sanctioned trophy hunting took more than 2,800 of those bears (including more than 900 females), a whopping 80 per cent. Other sources of mortality included poaching, shooting of nuisance bears in defence of people or property, and road or rail accidents.

Putting the ethical and moral issues involved in the shooting of intelligent creatures that pose no significant threat to humans aside, removing three and half thousand long lived creatures that have a low rate of reproduction over a ten year period certainly doesn’t appear to be sustainable.

Andrew Wilson of FLNRO responded by saying the government sanctions the kill of 300 grizzlies a year out of a population of 15,000, which is two per cent. Mr. Wilson can be forgiven for defending some of his staff, but he knows as well as I do that the figure of 15,000 bears is sketchy at best and that 300 bears may well represent a much higher percentage of the total population. Ministry biologists and their peers agree that mining, IPPs, pipelines, road building, logging, agriculture, urbanization and poaching reduce bear populations. How can their bosses then argue that grizzly populations remain stable in the dramatic increase of all but one of these activities?

Biologists agree that the precautionary principle and biological diversity are fundamental to wise wildlife management. Current grizzly bear management runs counter to both those principles. Managers should err on the side of caution. Given the difficulties surrounding the estimating of grizzly bear populations, and the enormity of the other stresses the animals face, the only wise course is to halt all grizzly bear hunting and, in so doing eliminate one of the greatest threats to their survival.