Bear viewing is now generating 10 times the amount of money that hunting brings in and supplies far more jobs, and the vast majority of British Columbians oppose trophy hunting. So where is the political will to protect the Great Bear Rainforest from trophy hunters and other threats?
When Raven made the world, he sought out Black Bear, the keeper of dreams and memory, and Black Bear agreed that every one in 10 Black Bears would be white, the Spirit Bears, to remind us of the times when the Earth was covered in nothing but ice and snow. They are a symbol of peace and harmony. In return for Black Bear’s help, Raven made the Great Bear Rainforest, where he promised the bears would live in peace for all time.
– Tshimshian Legend
I was recently lucky enough to attend a photo essay on the Great Bear Rainforest hosted by Raincoast, a charity dedicated to protecting the Great Bear. It was beyond moving to see so many ethereal pictures of Grizzlies, Black Bears, and Spirit Bears in their natural habitat – mothers and baby cubs swimming through estuaries, peacefully eating grass, or resourcefully catching salmon.
These majestic creatures seemed to completely ignore the interloping cameramen (and camerawomen) who floated in river crafts to watch them. The bears have gotten used to the boats, and seem to regard them as logs floating down the river, affording the viewers a life-changing experience of communion with the Great Bear.
Photo of Spirit Bear by Andrew S. Wright
Every year, patrons pay a handsome price for the experience of money to come for this experience. Bear viewing is now generating 10 times the amount of money that hunting brings in and supplies far more jobs, particularly in First Nations communities.
Threats faced by the Great Bear Rainforest
And yet, these otherworldly beings and their cousins, the grizzlies, are in grave danger from multiple angles, such as pipeline disasters and trophy hunting. Hunting and pollution cannot coincide with a bear viewing economy and, just or more importantly, a healthy ecosystem.
Each year approximately 300 bears, black and grizzly, are murdered for their heads and paws. The most sought after ‘prizes’ are the grand-daddy bears that father many cubs (Grizzlies reproduce later in life and produce few cubs), and when they are killed, new males may take over their territory and cull the cubs; the consort females of the killed older males and cubs avoid these new males and move off the territory to areas where conditions are more difficult for cub-rearing. Therefore, the population suffers the loss of more than just the human-killed bears; more heart breaking when one considers that. Even more upsetting is the notion that this is not hunting to feed one’s family. Instead, it’s killing for sport.
Black bear cubs. Photo by Andrew S. Wright
This sort of murder is against the traditional law of the Tsimshian and other First Nations, and 9 in 10 British Columbians are against it according to a 2013 Insights West poll. And yet, after it was banned for years, in 2001 the Liberal government reopened trophy hunting. This is often done under the guise of management, but recent articles in Science and Nature assert that the science does not back up the number of allowed kills – leaving the bears alone alone allows for the most effective conservation.
The photo essay also showed the evolution of relationships within the bear circles: flirting during spring, frolicking, and perhaps the most touching, grieving. One of the photos showed a beautiful black mother with her paws protectively around her white baby after she had lost her other cub to predation. While it is legal to hunt black bears, it is impossible to know if they harbour the recessive Spirit Bear gene -– it is possible to wipe out all the spirit bears without touching them. The mourning from both bears was palpable and as heart wrenching as any human mother.
Guides are hired to help hunters find these creatures, and while that pays the bills, the majority are tired of it, and are willing to sell their right to hunt to Raincoast and retire. This takes a great deal of money, but while people from all over the world are chipping in what they can to purchase the hunting territory in this area in order to protect the wildlife, the government still dragging its feet shamefully on an all-out ban. The economics and the social licence are there. Where is the political will to protect the sacred bears?
Shamefully, even if the hunting is banned, the provincial government has just allowed Bill C4 to pass, opening up our precious parks to exploration for natural gas and oil exploration and, along with the federal government,is debating letting Enbridge, a company with a horrendous history with oils spills, plow through the Spirit Bear Habitat.
Above-ground pipelines would threaten the area which is filled with streams natural food supplies for the Spirit Bears and the grizzlies. A spill from tankers that is proposed to go through some the most treacherous passages on earth would destroy the terrestrial and already endangered marine life near Haida Gwaii, covering the area with harmful bitumen (which is laced with benzene and other corrosive toxins to make it flow through the pipes) which it has been discovered sinks in the ocean, conveniently discovered after the National Energy Board hearings. Billion dollar clean-ups of oil spills are deemed successful if they recover even 20 per cent of the leaked oil.
The bear viewing and tourism industries are creating jobs and reliable tax revenues while ensuring the protection of these habitats – is that not more valuable than threatening the area with oil and mainly transient employment? Studies from Simon Fraser University show that a spill, likely caused by human error, has a 90 per cent chance of decimating our coasts and forests. If Raven meant to make the Great Bear Rainforest a haven for the Spirit Bears, a symbol for peace and harmony, and their cousins, is it not up to us, and our elected officials to protect it?
People concerned about protecting the habitat of wildlife in the Great Bear Rainforest can make their voices heard by taking part in the Defend Our Climate, Defend Our Communities event on May 10, in cities across Canada.