Why are we still killing for sport?

Simon Jackson on the trophy hunting of B.C.'s Great Bears.

The Great Bear Rainforest on Canada's West Coast is one of the most pristine, spectacular and ecologically important areas of the world — home to a remarkable diversity of life. 

It is also home to an ongoing controversy.

The management of this wild space, which stretches up the coastal mainland of B.C. to the Alaska Panhandle, has been the source of some of the longest running environmental debates this province —indeed, this country — has ever seen.

And while the clashes have encompassed everything from oil drilling to logging practices to fish farms and First Nation rights, it has been most notably a battleground to determine the fate of its namesake, the Great Bear.

In this rainforest, there are, in fact, two Great Bears.

The vast tract of coastline is home to one of the healthiest populations of grizzly bears remaining on the planet, while one small portion is home to the genetically unique subspecies of black bear known as the kermode or "spirit bear."

Author Simon Jackson in April 2000, at 17, lauded by Time magazine for his crusade to save the endangered white spirit bear. (Canadian Press)

One out of every 10 black kermode bears gives birth to a white bear. And today there are fewer than 400 of these white bears remaining in the wild.

My bias

Through several successive land-use agreements involving the federal and provincial governments, as well as native groups and other stakeholders, a framework has taken shape that has helped reduce conflicts in the rainforest.

However, despite the remarkable progress that has been made, the unfinished debate over the trophy hunting of the Great Bears is quickly threatening to undo all of the good that has been accomplished so far.

I make a disclaimer at this point. As many of you have already realized, I'm not a disinterested observer in this debate, but a passionate advocate for a specific part of the B.C. coast — that 10 per cent of land in the Great Bear Rainforest that forms the last intact habitat for the white kermode bear.

Since the age of 13, I have been lobbying and campaigning to protect this corner of the coast and the remarkable bear that calls it home.

My efforts and those of the fully volunteer-run organization I founded, the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, have always been about balance, about seeking solutions that meets the needs of all parties.

For example, we never sought to protect the entire coast, just that critical ecosystem that houses these unique creatures.

And despite dedicating the majority of my life to date to trying to save the spirit bear, I don't consider myself an environmentalist, but rather a passionate British Columbian and a passionate Canadian standing up for what I believe is right.

I mention all of this because after all of the ink that has been spilled on this part of the world, after the B.C. government promised nearly eight years ago now to create a sanctuary for these spirit bears, I know many will groan at the thought of more grumbling and discontent.

Why are environmentalists — or passionate British Columbians, in my case — never satisfied, right?

Well, sometimes a good enough compromise is simply not good enough.

Trophy hunting

Many of you will be surprised to know that the spirit bear is not saved yet, though we've made great strides.

I'd argue that some of the land that has been protected on behalf of the kermodes is not as important as some of the land that wasn't saved. But that is almost beside the point.

The Great Bears remain endangered, along with all of the goodwill that has been created to date, because the B.C. government continues to support the trophy hunting of grizzly and black bears.

Now, I'm not anti-hunting, especially when it comes to sustenance. In fact, hunters are often  the environment's best friend.

A campaigning Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, shakes hands with a spirit bear statute in Prince Rupert, B.C., in 2005. Two years later, his Conservative government gave $30 million to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, but that has not stopped the annual trophy hunt in the region. (Canadian Press photo)

That said, I strongly believe that the trophy hunting of bears in this one area especially is not economically sound, is bad bear management and runs against the grain of public opinion.

A large body of independent scientific evidence suggests that the sport hunting of grizzly bears on the B.C. coast in unsustainable. (I won't lay out the entire case, but for those interested, visit the Pacific Wild website.)

Hunting black bears, of which the kermode subspecies is part, is even more dubious.

White is black

For example, it is illegal to shoot the rare, white kermode or spirit bear, but not illegal to hunt the black kermode bear, even though it is part of the same family and produces the unique gene that creates the white spirit bear.

Put another way, you can't save the white bear without the black bear and this oxymoronic policy — which applies in the so-called protected areas, too — undermines any attempt to safeguard the gene pool of the bear that is the Official Mammal of British Columbia and one of the three mascots for the 2010 Winter Olympic.

If the sport hunting of bears was a significant economic generator for coastal communities, this policy of the government might make more sense. But that is not the case.

One single eco-tourism lodge in one inlet alone generated $3 million in direct revenue from bear viewing last year, with over $12 million in spin-off money staying in the region.

That's more than the entire sport hunting industry generated on the entire coast.

For that reason, many guide/outfitters have been willing to sell their hunting licences for their territories to environmental groups, which means that if there were to be a bear hunt ban along the coast, only five remaining outfitters would be affected.

Now, environmental groups could continue to buy up the licences. But the problem is that the B.C. government enforces kill quotas.

That means that even if the hunting rights to a particular territory are purchased in full by an environmental organization, if a predetermined number of bears aren't killed that season then the government can, without compensation, award the licence to someone else.

Public opinion

Public opinion is decidedly on the side of stopping the hunt. In a recent poll in the Vancouver Sun, commissioned by Pacific Wild and the International Humane Society, 78 per cent of British Columbians opposed trophy hunting for bears along the coast.

So do the coastal First Nations, who are also overwhelmingly against it.

The B.C. government has staked considerable political capital on accommodating First Nations on land-use issues like this one, in the hopes of creating what it has trumpeted as a "New Relationship."

The fact that coastal First Nations have never been consulted in the past when the government set bear-hunt quotas or been asked permission to grant hunting licences on their territories is nothing short of shocking.

By not stopping the hunt, in this special area in particular, the Campbell government is running the real risk of hurting its signature policy, aboriginal recognition and reconciliation, before it is even officially tabled.

So, why is the BC government allowing the hunt to continue?

That is a question all Canadians need to ask.

After all, we have all invested in the protection of this region and we all deserve better, most especially the bears.