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Louisa Willcox’s Blog

Hunting Grizzlies in Parks: No April Fool’s Joke

Louisa Willcox

Posted April 1, 2010

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No joke: today is opening day for grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia parks.  The idea of hunting grizzlies in parks would be unthinkable in the lower-48 states, where parks are considered safe refuges for wildlife, providing the public with an increasingly rare experience: naturally functioning ecosystems, with a suite of wildlife in their natural state, doing what they have been doing for millennia.  For many, parks provide a precious glimpse—as close as you can get—to the vast wildlands of North America, before Europeans entered the scene and swept the continent as clean as they could of carnivores like grizzlies, that they considered a threat to themselves and to their notion of progress.  In the lower-48 states, the idea of hunting in parks like Yellowstone—let alone hunting an increasingly rare and vulnerable animal like the grizzly—would cause an uproar that you would hear around the world.  The notion would be killed as fast as a mother grizzly kills an elk calf to feed her cubs.

But, in British Columbia (B.C.), our neighbor to the north, this is just what is happening—starting today.  And if the sheer fact that hunting grizzlies in parks weren’t bad enough, take a look at the tremendous excess of the killing.  In a report released today by the David Suzuki Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council, statistics show that the B.C. government’s limits on human-caused grizzly deaths were exceeded in 63 % of local grizzly bear populations (called Grizzly Bear Population Units) at least once over a five-year period. In some cases, the number of grizzlies – which no longer exist or are at risk of extinction in parts of the world – killed by humans was more than double the number deemed allowable by the government.

That means that government-sponsored hunting has been and continues to jeopardize the health of some B.C. populations.  And if that weren’t bad enough, some of these grizzly populations lie right along our border with Canada.  Of particular concern is the Flathead, where between 2004 and 2008, the period for which the most reliable population data is available, the allowable human-caused mortality rate was exceeded in four of the five years (once by 130 percent).  The annual grizzly bear hunt in the Flathead is not sustainable, and British Columbia’s hunting policies could harm the health of the federally protected Flathead grizzlies on our side of the border.

The Flathead has been called “one of the grizzliest places in the lower-48 states,” because it boasts the highest densities of any grizzly population remaining here.  And, because of the incredible ecological diversity in the Flathead—with the highest diversity of carnivores of any area in North America—U.S. and Canada have recently agreed to ban mining to protect this unique landscape and the grizzlies that call it home.  But, today, the same government that made a commitment to protecting habitat in the Flathead is undermining its own efforts by allowing grizzly bear hunting there.

We in the lower-48 states rely on Canada grizzly bears to sustain our own threatened populations.  Four out of the five remaining grizzly populations lie along the British Columbia border.  And, the 1992 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery plan was orginally built on the assumption that Canada’s more robust populations would continue to support and help maintain grizzly bear populations in the lower-48 states.  That may no longer be true, given what is going on in British Columbia (and Alberta too—but that is a separate story).  Indeed, the opportunity to recover the threatened grizzly bear in the lower-48 states may be undercut by excessive hunting right across our border.

Grizzly bear home ranges are enormous—some 200-400 square miles—because that is the size of landscapes they need to find the foods necessary to survive their long winter sleep, a time when female grizzlies bear and nurse their young without eating or drinking for months.  And, of course, bears can’t read maps.  But if they could, we should be posting signs today along the 49th Parallel in the Flathead saying, “I’d turn back if I were you”.

What is boggling about what is going on in British Columbia is that it is a repeat of the grizzly bear movie that has played out in the lower-48 states.  The same forces are at play in British Columbia as those that decimated grizzlies in the lower-48 states,  where grizzly bears have been reduced to 1% of their former numbers in just 200 years, as a result of excessive killing and habitat loss.   One of the reasons that the grizzly bears remain in their last strongholds here, such as Glacier and Yellowstone, is the fact that they could find refuge in parks, where they were not hunted, harassed, or poisoned.  With the sanctuary of the parks, as well as powerful legal protective tools such as the Endangered Species Act, we have made great strides toward improving the health of some of our grizzly bear populations.  For example, grizzlies numbered roughly 200 individuals in 1975, when they were listed under the Endangered Species Act; today, grizzlies number somewhere between 500-600 individuals.

Although today is April Fool’s day, it feels more like the movie “Groundhog Day”, where protagonist Bill Murray had to make the same mistakes over, and over, and over—until he finally figured out how to get it right.  In the case of the grizzly, that means not only banning the B.C. grizzly bear hunt in the parks, but redoubling efforts to protect core wildland habitat for an animal that is particularly sensitive to development.  It means crafting new transboundary strategies that reflect the fact that we in the U.S. and Canada need each other if we are going to have sustainable and healthy grizzly bears in the future.  If we in Canada and the U.S.—countries which have made much of their commitment to conservation of wildlife and wilderness—cannot do what is necessary to protect an icon of the wild and a symbol of our parks, where can we possibly do it?

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