Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Fight to Save Big Momma

Her name is Big Momma, and she is a photo tour superstar. Each fall in the Chilcotin, when my clients and I arrive to photograph grizzly bears eating salmon, Big Momma gets some of the biggest gasps and stares -- and for good reason, for she is gentle, she is beautiful, and she is big. Very big.

The gorgeous grizzly bear we call Big Momma -- gentle, beautiful, and big.

In fact, Big Momma is so big that next spring, if the British Columbia government has its way, for the first time in her life, she will be at risk of being gunned down by legal bear hunters looking for the ultimate trophy as she emerges from hibernation and wanders her way down into the valley bottoms to graze on fresh vegetation.  After all, what self-respecting trophy hunter could resist the temptation to fire at a 700 lb. (320 kg) bear sporting a lush winter coat that would make a perfect rug? 

It is as ridiculous as it sounds: a gorgeous female grizzly that produces wonderfully well-behaved cubs every three years will be at risk of being shot next spring so that some loser with a giant truck and a tiny penis can brag about how he slayed a giant with his life hanging in the balance (in other words, he'll lie -- the truth is, he'll shoot a big speck on a distant horizon with his high-powered rifle and then somehow claim that it makes him a better man).

Now I'm not here to argue that these grizzly hunters do need to strive to be better men; I suspect that that's as clear as day to most you that have come to this blog to read about the fight to save Big Momma's life.  What I am here to get very, very angry about is the proposal by the dimwits in charge of mis-managing British Columbia's wildlife resources to re-open the grizzly bear hunt in the West Chilcotin this spring after it's been closed for the past thirteen years.

[Steaming mad, yet?  Go 'Register' before December 20th (this Friday) at http://a100.gov.bc.ca/pub/ahte/hunting/re-open-grizzly-bear-leh-hunts-mus-5-05-and-5-06 and leave your comments regarding why you are against this proposal to re-open the grizzly bear hunt in the West Chilcotin.  And keep reading if you want more ammunition to debate this proposal with....]

Want to know what happens in thirteen years without grizzly bear hunting and with a clamp-down on illegal grizzly killing by ranchers and poachers?  Strangely enough, wild grizzly bears start to show up on salmon streams and in distant fields, no longer afraid of being shot on sight. Bears like Big Momma start to show their faces in the day-time and shepherd their cubs along the banks of rivers and creeks where once they didn't dare go in the past for fear of being hunted.

And soon enough, ecotourism operations begin to sprout up, with tourists from around the world showing up to spend their hard-earned money to see and photograph wild grizzly bears in their natural habitat. In fact, bear viewing in B.C. provides as clear a financial argument as one could desire when it comes to putting an immediate end to the proposal to re-open the grizzly bear hunt in the West Chilcotin (or to even have a hunt at all).  Last year, one grizzly bear viewing operation (Knight Inlet Lodge on the west coast) in B.C. brought in more money than all of the grizzly bear hunting outfitters in the entire province combined.  One versus all, and one crushed all.

Want a financial argument just for the West Chilcotin?  Last year, my photo tours there brought in over $45,000 in direct revenue to the lodge I work with.  That was half of the grizzly bear viewing business they did last fall.  And they are one of just five bear viewing operations in the West Chilcotin last year.  Extrapolate my figures and it's not hard to see that bear viewing in the West Chilcotin is already worth up to $450,000 in direct revenue each and every year.  Couple that with the indirect revenue that gets spread throughout the Chilcotin, from the gas station at Anahim Lake to Safeway at Williams Lake to the charter planes flying out of Vancouver, and the direct and indirect financial impact of these five tiny bear viewing operations in the West Chilcotin is likely in excess of $1,000,000.

They are staggering numbers, particularly when compared to how much it would cost a resident of British Columbia to go hunt a grizzly bear in the West Chilcotin next spring: $32 gets you a hunting license, and another $80 gets you a grizzly bear tag (all grizzly bear hunting in BC is via Limited Entry Hunting).  So if you win the LEH lottery and get a tag, it costs you a whopping $112 in provincial licenses to go shoot Big Momma.  $112....

Big Momma in 2010 -- grizzly bear viewing revenues dwarf grizzly bear hunting revenues in B.C.

[The same officials that have proposed the re-opening of the grizzly bear hunt in the West Chilcotin have also proposed re-opening the hunt in two different parts of the Southern Rockies in the Kootenay region, please go 'Register' before December 20th (this Friday) at http://a100.gov.bc.ca/pub/ahte/hunting/re-open-grizzly-bear-leh-hunts-mus-4-20-and-4-23 and also leave your separate comments there regarding why you are against this proposal, too.  Keep reading if you want more facts to use in your arguments against both proposals.]

At this point, many of you may be wondering about the loud cries you often hear from the hunting community about how their licenses and fees go directly into conservation and into supporting wildlife management in British Columbia.  Their argument is that without hunting licenses and the money generated from them, we'd have no wildlife management and little conservation in the province.  So let's break that down quickly, because surely that has some merit, right?

Nope, not really.  What it boils down to is this: the government chooses to take the money from hunting licenses and invest that back into wildlife management instead of into health care and road building.  They take the much larger amount of revenue generated from tourism and tourism components like bear viewing and pump that into the general coffers into things like health care and road building.  But if they wanted to, they could put it into wildlife management instead and the argument that the hunting community fosters the province's wildlife conservation projects would be dead before it started.

That's not to say that the hunting industry doesn't play a role in conservation, because it often does. However, the larger truth is that wildlife management in British Columbia is geared almost entirely towards 'management for hunting', not towards actual conservation management.  And most hunting lobbies simply lobby to ensure they get more hunting opportunities.  Their lobbying often has little to do with conservation, as is clearly evidenced when one looks at the parks set aside in British Columbia: for the most part, the hunting industry had nothing to do with protecting any of the national park lands or the majority of the provincial park lands, and it definitely had nothing to do with preserving Canada's only grizzly bear bear sanctuary, the Khutzeymateen (in fact, in some of these cases, the hunting community lobbied strongly against protecting these areas).

So back to the issue at hand, why on earth is the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations proposing to re-open the grizzly bear hunt in the West Chilcotin after thirteen years of no grizzly hunting?  It's not a financial decision, so it must be a biological decision, right?  Maybe the bears are overpopulated, maybe they need thinning out?

Nope, not that either.  Though that's what you'd be led to believe if you read the government website with the proposal on it:

These two management units are part of the Klinaklini-Homathko Grizzly Bear population Unit (GBPU); This GBPU is classified as viable. The LEH in these MU’s was closed in 2000 due to a combination of hunter kills and conflict bear kills along the northern and eastern fringe of the MUs where ranching and other human development is more widespread. As a result the mortality exceeded the Annual Allowable Harvest (AAH).  A new population estimate has been developed (184 grizzly bears) and the Annual Allowable Mortality has been set at approximately 4% or 7.4 bears per year. After removing 1% for unreported and problem bears there are approximately 5 bears per year for hunter allocation.

Anecdotal information from various stakeholders suggests that the grizzly bear population has increased which corresponds with the recently updated population estimates. . DFO personnel who work [in the area] have also observed substantial increases in bear sightings and encounters over [the] last 10-15 years.

So lemme get this straight...you're telling me that after grizzly bear hunting stopped, the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) started seeing more bears on the rivers?  No SH*T!  Absolutely incredible information, truly ground-breaking stuff from the geniuses in charge of our wildlife management in B.C. [yes, that is sarcasm you can see dripping off of your screens].  And you're telling me that your various stakeholders (read: ranchers, hunters, guide-outfitters, trappers) are telling you that they, too, are seeing more bears?  Wow! No personal stake in that one, is there?

I think we all stopped believing most ranchers crying wolf long ago (Vancouver Sun article, October 1, 2012) and I'm pretty sure that we're not going to believe grizzly hunters, either.  So I decided to go straight to the source and ask Cedar Mueller, the grizzly bear researcher that knows more about the West Chilcotin grizzlies than anyone else on earth.  I wanted to know if the population estimate was accurate (nope), how it was determined (by manipulating her study data), and if she felt grizzly bears were stable enough in the region to hunt (putting aside the ethics of grizzly bear hunting for a second and speaking strictly from a biological standpoint, she unequivocally said NO).

Big Momma in 2012 without cubs -- why should this gentle bear be exposed to hunting?

Mueller forwarded me her draft Final Report for her study, which referred repeatedly to just how critically important this small population was to an enormous area around it in terms of grizzly bear population stability.  She found that grizzly bears were coming from as far as 115 kilometers away to get to the salmon spawning streams and rivers in the West Chilcotin and that many of these bears were from sub-populations that are severely threatened -- in fact, if you look at a map, the entire eastern edge of the area they are proposing to re-open to grizzly bear hunting is either considered to be a Threatened GBPU (grizzly bear population unit) or has had grizzly bears extirpated altogether.

Even if Mueller's report concluded that there were 184 individuals in the West Chilcotin (which it doesn't -- it only attempts to determine populations in grizzly bear migration areas at certain times of the year, like the number of grizzlies using a particular stream or river during spawning season), the fact that this grizzly bear population unit is bordered by threatened and non-existent grizzly bear populations on its eastern side should be reason enough not to fool around with bear numbers via a  bear hunt.  So the fact that Mueller believes the catchment area for the fall grizzlies congregating to feed on salmon is actually in the neighbourhood of 41,000 square kilometers (FOUR times the size of Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay national parks combined!) makes the number 184 look measly at best -- consider that the Banff-Jasper contiguous national park area has between 200-250 wild grizzly bears in a quarter the space, yet that population is considered to be threatened.  So how is the B.C. government determining that this small population of bears in the West Chilcotin is now viable enough to have bears hunted from it?

The sad truth is that this is a political play from ranchers, hunters, trappers, and guide-outfitters putting pressure on the Ministry to re-open the hunt despite a lack of financial, ethical, or biological reasoning.  So what I need each of you to do is to make your voice heard on behalf of Big Momma and the rest of the West Chilcotin bears and Register and submit Comments at http://a100.gov.bc.ca/pub/ahte/hunting/re-open-grizzly-bear-leh-hunts-mus-5-05-and-5-06 by this Friday, December 20th.

The government has purposefully made it as difficult as possible to voice your opposition to this, so please also contact the Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, the Honourable Steve Thomson, at FLNR.Minister@gov.bc.ca or on Twitter at @Steve4Kelowna or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Steve4Kelowna and let him know your feelings on this issue.

Thank you to you all for your help with this.  With any luck, next spring will be just like the past thirteen springs for Big Momma and the rest of the West Chilcotin grizzly bears.

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