Repercussions to Hit B.C. as Grizzly Season Closes

Repercussions to Hit B.C. as Grizzly Season Closes

Canada’s New Democrat Party made good on a campaign promise by ending the hunting season for grizzly bears in British Columbia (B.C.) effective tomorrow, Nov 30. This is a dreamy, detached-from-reality, Disney-inspired fantasy come real for those who live in an environmental bubble where bears are cuddly creatures and hunters are as cold and uncaring as they were in “Bambi.”

Only this is a real policy that will have actual consequences. Plenty of scientific studies on bear behavior show what will occur. It won’t be the media’s narrative of a cartoon-like harmony. If grizzlies are not managed to keep them wild (fearful of us) a lot of research shows that negative human-bear encounters will increase. 

Grizzlies are powerful, beautiful and important parts of the ecosystems they now live in and are expanding back into, but because they interact with hikers, hunters, homeowners and more they need to be hunted and, when necessary, negatively conditioned or killed to prevent them from becoming monsters.

No one on the political left in Canada or in the United States that I can find has looked into this side the wildlife management equation.

PBS wrote, “In a win for conservationists and environmental groups, British Columbia says it will no longer allow the trophy hunting of grizzly bears... .”

That’s the basic reaction feeding a misinformed public. Some have reported that of B.C.’s estimated population of 15,000 grizzlies, hunters have been killing about 250 each year. B.C.’s Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Minister Doug Donaldson said that level of hunting as “sustainable” and added this hunting ban is “not a matter of numbers; it’s a matter of society coming to the point in B.C. where they are no longer in favor of the grizzly bear trophy hunt.”

“Society” didn’t come to that conclusion by accident. They came to that conclusion because of one-sided and deaf reporting from journalists who put an agenda above reality and what is really best for humans and bears.

Anti-hunting groups are overjoyed. Joe Foy from the Wilderness Committee, for example, said she is thankful B.C. ended “this cruel and barbaric sport for good.”

Will Foy, and those who think like her, lose sleep when a grizzly that has clearly lost its fear of humans malls or even eats a person? Or will they blame the person, as so many anti-hunting activists do after a cougar, bear or alligator preys on people after wildlife managers’ hands were tied by politically correct wildlife policy?

After all, it is well documented that when anti-hunting environmentalists get what they want, people get killed. Here’s a case in point: The grizzly that killed Isabelle Dube, a professional mountain bike racer, in June 2005 grew up in a politically correct no-grizzly-hunting area in and around Alberta’s Banff National Park. The bear noted that people ran away like teenagers in a horror movie whenever it showed itself and so came to the conclusion that humans are just a bunch of wimps; as a result, the bear decided it was at the top of the food chain. So, like the grizzly that ate that intrepid environmentalist Timothy Treadwell in Alaska’s Katmai National Park in 2003, this four-year-old bear started to think of humans as prey.

Sure, there were warning signs. In May 2005 the grizzly approached a woman on a hiking trail near Canmore, located about 40 miles west of Calgary. She escaped unscathed. And the bear began frequenting a golf course, causing golfers to fear the back nine. In response, wildlife biologists darted the grizzly with a tranquilizer and moved it about a dozen miles away to Banff National Park.

Now, at the time, according to Dave Ealey, then a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, the bear was relocated not because of aggressive behavior, but simply to discourage it from approaching people. It’s not clear how waking up in a national park is supposed to teach a bear anything other than, “Whoa, I must’ve eaten some bad moose last night!” What we do know is the grizzly walked right back from Banff. And wildlife officials knew the bear was back, too. Its radio collar gave its precise location, yet they did nothing. The biologists decided that a grizzly that approaches people isn’t aggressive, and so hadn’t thought it necessary to warn the public.

A few weeks later, in early June 2005, when Dube and two friends went jogging on a hiking trail, they had no way of knowing that a grizzly that had lost its fear of people frequented the area. When the women jogged around a bend and saw the bear coming up the trail they moved away slowly. The grizzly kept coming. Dube panicked and climbed a tree. The other two women backed out of the area; however, before they were out of earshot, they heard Dube screaming desperate, bloodcurdling things.

About an hour later, one of the women made it back with a warden who shot and killed the grizzly, but it was too late for Isabelle Dube.

The appalling part of this tragedy is that Dube’s death was avoidable. After all, if grizzly hunting were allowed in the area, certainly any a bear brazen enough to approach people would have been shot quickly. You can almost hear a hunter gushing: “Yeah, the bear hunt was too easy. This bear just came right for me.”

Even if hunting wasn’t possible or palatable to Canada’s virulent anti-hunting movement, shouldn’t the biologists have, at the very least, used negative conditioning (such as shooting the bear with rubber bullets) to reinstall a fear of humans into the potential man-eater? Such tactics are hardly unprecedented.

There is plenty of research that can ground wildlife policy in sound science that’ll benefit bears and people. If the media would only report it, public opinion would be different.

"B.C. has politicized wildlife policy, ignored the science and used emotion driven by a lack of real reporting to create a dangerous situation for bears and people."According to research by Steve Herrero, a professor emeritus for the University of Calgary, there were at least 131 verified human deaths from grizzly and black bears in North America during the 20th century, with 59 deaths—nearly half—occurring in the last two decades of the 20th century. By comparison, there were six fatal bear attacks in all of the 1940s and only one in the 1930s, says Herrero. But the most shocking thing found was that an increasing number of these attacks are occurring in areas where hunting is prohibited or isn’t being used effectively.

For example, grizzly attacks have been rising for years in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana as un-hunted bears lose their fear of humans. This is part of the reason many wildlife managers are talking about using hunters to control grizzly populations in certain areas of the American West.

An interesting caveat to having un-hunted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (where grizzly hunting hasn’t been allowed for decades) is that the bears have developed a surprising learned response: Gunshots sound like a dinner bell to them. It sounds counterintuitive, but some bears have learned that there are gutpiles at the end of rifle reports, and if they get there fast enough, maybe an entire elk or deer can be taken from a hunter. In 2004, a collaborative study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks in found that in September hundreds of grizzlies leave the protective boundaries of Yellowstone National Park to feed on gutpiles left by hunters field-dressing their kills. These bears are sometimes attracted to gunshots, said the study. These bears don’t remember being hunted; as a result, indicated the study, attacks are on the rise.

Another study done about a decade ago by Tom Smith, then a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Herrero looked at bear-human encounters in Alaska. When they summed up the number of attacks in five-year intervals, they found grizzly attacks on humans in Alaska have gone up from less than 10 per five-year period in the early 20th century to more than 100 between 2000 and 2005, meaning that there are 10 times more grizzly bear attacks today than there were in 1900.

Smith and Herrero concluded the biggest reason for this increase is there are nearly 10 times as many humans in Alaska today as there were in 1900, which is increasing surprise encounters and habituating some bears to people—some grizzlies, like the one that ate Dube, are losing their fear of people. At the same time, bear populations, which used to be considered vermin and were shot on sight in many parts of Alaska, are now thought to be at historic highs, though no reliable record of bear populations was available until late in the 20th century. So there are more people and bears out there running into each other, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Smith also said, “Many bear-human conflicts are occurring in Alaska’s parks and refuges where hunting isn’t allowed, which is resulting in area closures, property damage, human injury and loss of life. And to be fair, human activity in bear country has also resulted in injury and death to bears. We are currently doing studies to determine how to prevent attacks and bear-human conflicts in the areas where hunting can’t be used, such as in Glacier Bay National Park.”

As a result of his research, Herrero feels hunting is needed to keep bears fearful of humans. Where hunting is outlawed, such as in national parks, Herrero argues that aversive conditioning, such as shooting bears with rubber bullets, needs to be used. Good bear management, says Herrero, needs to “encourage shyness as the characteristic behavior of bears in the presence of humans.” He argues in his book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, that the European brown bear is a member of the same species as the American grizzly yet it attacks people much less often. He feels this is because hunters have been weeding aggressive bears out of the European gene pool for millennia. He argues hunters need to be allowed to do the same with North America’s bears.

According to Smith and Herrero’s research, about 33 percent of the bears attacked when they were startled. So a third of the attacks began when someone did surprise a bear. But get this: they found your chances of being attacked are twice as high if you camp alone in Glacier Bay National Park (where no hunting is allowed) as they are if you camp in an area with a grizzly hunting season.

Herrero found that 85 percent of bear-human incidents in the park occur in at night, while outside the parks, a majority of bear-human encounters occur in daylight. This leaves little doubt that many of the park bears have lost their fear of people and see humans as a source for food.

Smith also said, “The numbers in our database indicate that hunting has some effect on keeping bears wary of people, but to date there is no study conclusively proving that point. It’s just too hard to perform a controlled study to show how hunting affects bears—how do you measure caution or fear?

“What hunting bears definitely does,” said Smith, “is take the big males out of the population. When you do that the bear population goes up. This happens because big males kill cubs. They kill cubs because if a female is suddenly bereft of her cubs, then she’ll come into heat, which gives the big male an opportunity to breed her. We think the biological reason for this behavior is that this is a way for the strongest males to make sure their genes get into the gene pool, but that might just be rationalizing something that is distasteful to us. Regardless, by killing the big males, hunters are killing the most dangerous bears. So in this way hunters are reducing attacks.”

B.C. has ignorantly taken away an important wildlife management tool. They’ve also outlawed a real link between humans and grizzlies. They’ve politicized wildlife policy, ignored the science and used emotion driven by a lack of real reporting to create a dangerous situation for bears and people.

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Editor's Note: Frank Miniter is the author of "This Will Make a Man of You: One Man’s Search for Hemingway and Manhood in a Changing World." Miniter is also the author of the New York Times' Bestseller "The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide," as well as "The Future of the Gun" and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Hunting.”