VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s controversial annual grizzly bear hunt leaves more of the animals dead than even the province’s own wildlife guidelines allow, claims a new report by the David Suzuki Foundation that once again calls on the government to curb the trophy hunt.
The report was released Thursday — on the first day of this year’s grizzly hunt when hundreds of the bears will be killed by trophy hunters around the province, something critics have maintained is unsustainable and must stop.
“This is new science that really questions the sustainability of the hunt,” Faisal Moola of the foundation said in an interview.
“This is a disaster in the waiting. If we do not act to protect the species given what we know about its vulnerabilities, we may no longer have bears.”
The report uses provincial government records to examine the number of grizzly bears that were killed by humans between 2004 and 2008 and compares them with the province’s own limits for what it calls the allowable human-caused mortality rate.
B.C.’s grizzly bears are divided into 57 different population areas.
The report says in 20 of those areas, hunting alone accounted for more grizzly deaths than the province’s allowable mortality rates at least once during the five-year period of the study.
When combined with other human-caused grizzly deaths — including legal kills by wildlife management officials and illegal poaching — the mortality rates were exceeded at least once in 36 areas, or 63 per cent.
That higher number, said Moola, is the most important, because it shows that too many bears are killed even when the hunt doesn’t push the grizzly deaths over the limits.
“You can’t look at trophy hunting in isolation — you have to look at trophy hunting in addition to the other sources of human-caused mortality,” said Moola.
“What the study shows is that if you removed trophy hunting from the picture, you would actually drop the mortality rate below what the government thinks is sustainable.”
The report is accompanied by a letter to Premier Gordon Campbell, signed by eight grizzly bear experts from Canada and the United States, urging the provincial government to establish a provincewide network of no-hunting zones.
British Columbia is estimated to be home to half of all grizzlies in Canada, and a quarter of the North American grizzly population.
B.C.’s grizzlies are considered a species of “special concern” by both the federal and provincial governments because of their slow reproductive rates and susceptibility to human activities.
Grizzly hunting is restricted in parts of the province, but every year a trophy hunt opens up throughout much of British Columbia during the spring and fall. The David Suzuki Foundation report estimates that, since 2001, an average of 253 bears a year have been killed by hunters in B.C.
There have been perennial calls for the hunt to be scrapped, but the Liberal government has consistently rejected those calls, arguing the hunt is sustainable and properly managed.
In 2001, the NDP government of the day implemented a moratorium on grizzly hunting, but that was overturned a few months later after the Liberals took power.
Environment Minister Barry Penner issued a written statement defending the province’s grizzly management policies, insisting hunting wouldn’t be allowed if it jeopardized the bear population.
Penner, who acknowledged he hadn’t read the report and has told his ministry staff to review it, said the mortality rates set by the province are stricter than the standards recommended by peer-reviewed scientific studies of the region’s grizzly population.
“Our record on grizzly bear population management is strong,” he said.
“The independent Grizzly Bear Scientific Panel, comprised of independent bear experts appointed on the recommendation of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, confirmed that B.C.’s grizzly bear management approach is effective and that our population estimates are sound. ”
He also noted the province has closed almost two million hectares of land to grizzly hunting along the North and Central Coasts, and there are other strict no-kill zones elsewhere in the province.
Hunting and outfitting groups sent out their own news releases responding to the report, challenging the study’s conclusions and defending the hunt as sustainable and important to the province’s economy.
Mel Arnold of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, which represents hunters and anglers, said harvest rates are set over five-year periods, so it’s wrong to point to figures from a single year as evidence that too many bears were killed.
“They (the five-year averages) may fall above it in some areas, and if that is the case, we would support adjustments being made,” Arnold said in an interview.
“Hunting and trapping is part of the heritage that built this country, and it’s part of our culture.”
There are differing opinions on the health of bear populations in British Columbia, and conservation groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation suggest the government’s current methods to estimate how bears are actually roaming the wilderness are flawed.
Alberta placed a moratorium on grizzly bear hunting in 2006, and is currently examining whether to keep the ban or revisit the issue.
Last year, the Manitoba government added grizzly bears to a list of species protected under the provincial wildlife act.
Grizzly bears have been extinct from Manitoba for a century, but migrant bears from Nunavut have been spotted, raising hopes the species is making a return.