By Ezra Black
In 2008, Elk Valley hunter Mario Rocca shot a grizzly bear.
It was the culmination of over two decades of effort. Permits to hunt grizzlies are hard to come by and that year only one was issued for the Elk Valley.
In next May’s provincial election, hunters like Rocca could be setting their sights on New Democrat John Horgan who has promised to end B.C.’s grizzly bear hunt if his party forms the next government.
They’ll be armed with votes and not rifles.
“I know a lot more about bears than the leader of the NDP. I don’t know if he’s ever seen a grizzly bear in the wild,” said Rocca, a past-president of the Fernie Rod and Gun Club. “He’s not a hunter. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to wildlife. He’s governed by emotion, not science. From the hunters’ perspective things are being managed. We’re not going to run out of grizzly bears.”
In 2000, the NDP banned the grizzly hunt. In 2001, the Liberals were elected and ended the ban.
Tom Shypitka, the Liberal candidate for East Kootenay, said the New Democrats lost several rural seats in 2001 in part because of their stance on grizzly bear hunting. He said their decision to go for another ban betrays an urban bias.
“My reaction to the NDP’s announcement was astonishment and disappointment,” he said. “They have rural members. They went through this in 2001. They have to know there are enough bears to hunt and that rural people believe in hunting. The only explanation for their decision to ban something that is supported in rural B.C. is that they have written off rural B.C. They must remember. Obviously they don’t care about rural seats.”
Shypitka accused the NDP of making “a wildlife management decision on the basis of emotion, politics and urban bias.”
“Wildlife management decisions should be made on the basis of what the science supports,” he said. “If there are enough bears in a unit to support a hunt, a hunt is allowed. If there are insufficient bears to support a hunt, no hunt is allowed. That is how wildlife should be managed.”
Further left on the political spectrum, Randal Macnair, the NDP’s candidate for East Kootenay, said he’s “always supported science-based wildlife management,” but that the Liberals have got it all wrong.
“I understand why a ban has been proposed,” he said. “It is in large part a result of the appalling mismanagement of wildlife and habitat by the BC Liberals.”
Macnair said that while the Liberals have been touting their environmental management system, the fact remains that grizzly bear populations in the East Kootenay are in trouble.
“Grizzly bears used to roam from Manitoba to Mexico all across western North America,” he said. “B.C. is now their last stronghold and they are no longer living in some areas in the southern portion of our province including the Rocky Mountain Trench. A BC NDP government will work to bring everyone together to protect this special, iconic animal.”
Horgan’s announcement is dividing politicians and hunters but recently published studies suggest the real losers in the Elk Valley are bears.
Corinne Hoetmer, project coordinator for The South Rockies Grizzly Bear Project in the Elk Valley, said that while hunting accounts for a number of grizzly bear deaths a much larger number are killed in other human-bear conflicts.
The South Rockies Grizzly Bear Project is a long term, ongoing population inventory of grizzly bears lead by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in the Kootenay Region.
Hoetmer said the Elk Valley has become an ecological trap for grizzly bears. The animals are drawn to the valley because of food and are then killed by humans.
“More grizzlies die from non-hunting related causes in this area than anywhere else in B.C.,” she said.
Citing a paper published by Mowatt and Lamb on the population of grizzly bears in the Southern Rockies and Flathead, Hoetmer said the South Rockies grizzly bear population declined by 40 per cent between 2006 and 2014. This decline was most likely due to a decade of poor foraging in combination with an increase in human-caused mortality.
There were 116 grizzly bear mortalities recorded in the South Rockies and 44 in the Flathead during this period.
Of the human-caused mortalities in the South Rockies, 38 per cent were hunter kills, 25 per cent were for animal control and other similar reasons, 28 per cent occurred on highways and railways and 8 per cent were illegal. In the Flathead, 91 per cent of recorded kills were by hunters and 9 per cent were control kills.
“This non-hunting mortality is much more difficult to mitigate than the regulatory changes involved with mitigating mortality due to hunting,” said Hoetmer.
Joe Caravetta, an inspector with the B.C. Conservation Service’s Kootenay-Boundary region, explained the number of grizzly bears hunted in the Elk Valley varies from year to year depending on population estimates.
“There are bears shot in self-defense, there are bears that are shot for protection of property, there are bears killed on the highway and there are bears killed by railways,” he said. “After taking those things into consideration we decide on what the population can handle.”
The Wildlife Act requires certain parts of an animal to be packed out of the bush once it’s been shot. While a hunter may choose to pack out its hide, paws or head, there is no requirement to pack out a grizzly bear’s meat, he said.
Grizzly bear meat is not generally eaten because it can carry the parasite that causes trichinosis, said Caravetta. The number of grizzly hunting permits issued in the Elk Valley is small. From 2013 to 2015, only one was given out.
“It’s probably the most intensely managed hunt in the province,” he said. “It’s the highest profile.”
Calling the practice “primarily a trophy hunt,” Wildsight, a Kootenay-based environmental group, has come out in favour of the ban.
“It is clear that hunting has a significant impact on grizzly bear populations in the region,” said John Bergenske, Wildsight’s conservation director. “Eliminating the hunt should significantly increase grizzly bear survival. Grizzly bears are very slow reproducers, so loss of any females in a population can significantly impact the long-term health of a population.”