David Coutts’ Top 8 reasons to continue the grizzly hunt
There has been no shortage of attention on the grizzly bear hunt since Minister of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) Dave Coutts announced on February 1, 2005 that it would continue this year. The announcement came despite the recommendations of three government advisory committees (the Endangered Species Conservation Committee, its scientific subcommittee, and the Grizzly Bear Recovery Team) and a group of 19 independent scientists who published a public letter asking the minister to list the grizzly bear as a threatened species (which would in essence put the brakes on the hunt).
The question remains: Why continue to allow sportsmen to shoot grizzly bears for the purposes of fun and enjoyment when so many knowledgeable people suggest otherwise? Let’s see if the clear, lucid light of the facts can’t help us answer it.
The government’s website lists eight reasons why it “continues to provide grizzly hunting opportunity [sic]” as part of its self-proclaimed “science-based, proactive and conservative” approach to grizzly bear management. These reasons can be broken down into three main categories.
There are enough bears to sustain a limited hunt.
1. There is a small annual surplus of male bears available to support the season.
Hunting actually provides conservation benefits to grizzly bears.
2. Hunting helps reduce problem bears by killing those that are least wary and most likely to become nuisances.
3. The population growth rate is potentially increased by killing adult males that kill and eat young grizzlies.
4. Hunted populations are more wary of people and therefore more likely to avoid undesirable interactions with humans.
5. Hunting harvest provides information about bears (e.g., data on distribution and age).
6. Hunting maintains a knowledgeable group of people who are strong advocates for Alberta’s grizzly population.
7. Hunters, through licence fees, contribute financially to conservation and management of grizzlies.
Albertans enjoy and have a right to hunt bears.
8. There is a long-standing hunting tradition and a high demand.
Today we’ll consider number one, the “surplus of bears” argument. The best-available scientific research indicates Alberta provides relatively poor habitat for grizzly bears, which results in relatively low densities, extremely low reproductive rates, and, to the best of our knowledge, a relatively small population. (See, for instance, the out-of-date but still somewhat useful status report completed by the government in 2001.)
Despite being a “may be at risk species” for years, and despite a 1990 Grizzly Bear Management Plan that highlighted, 15 years ago, the need for an accurate population census, there isn’t one. The government has begun one, but it won’t be finished until 2011, at least. (I’d post a link to the management plan but the government hasn’t put it up on its website yet.)
In the meantime, grizzly bear experts in Alberta from both the government and academic institutions estimate there are approximately 700 grizzly bears in Alberta, including about 215 grizzly bears in Alberta’s national parks. That leaves less than 500 grizzly bears (to hunt) on provincial lands, a population 10 per cent the size of Alberta’s Woodland Caribou, which has been listed as a threatened species for 18 years (but still doesn’t have a recovery plan).
Given such uncertainty, the provincial government has explained that it dutifully uses “other sources” of information to make its decisions. Namely, anecdotal evidence of local experts who live and work in the field, which they share with grizzly bears.
Local knowledge and expertise can be valuable. The accumulated wisdom of First Nations people, often called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), has proven to be reasonably accurate. I once spoke with some Dene people in the Yukon who were very interested in the future of the caribou, because their livelihoods depend on it. They had made a video comparing the knowledge of their elders to the results of a 20-year research study about the caribou’s migration routes. Without ever seeing the research results, the quiet and wizened elders who still lived out on the land drew virtually the same lines on the map as the scientists who had spend two decades and God knows how many thousands of dollars studying the issue. So it can work. Sometimes.
On Wednesday, February 2, 2005, Donna McElligot devoted part of her Wild Rose Country noon-hour show to the grizzly bear hunt. Donna Babchishin, director of communications for SRD, told McElligot that grizzly bear experts weren’t the only people consulted during the decision-making process; “local experts” were also involved. To support her claim, she said there were more than 300 reported sightings of grizzly bears last year. She implied, if not stated, that the number alone means there are lots of bears in Alberta, or at least enough to hunt.
Sightings? She wasn’t clear as to whether that was 300 people who reported seeing the same bear, or 300 different bears seen by the same person at the same and place. Or a combination of the two. But given the shaky value of such poorly collected and analyzed anecdotal evidence, it is tough to understand how it can outweigh the insight of the numerous scientifically trained experts that populate the advisory committees that continually recommend the suspension of hunting a potentially threatened species.
In a recent article in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Ray Makowecki, a wildlife biologist, former regional wildlife director for the province, and past president of the Alberta Fish & Game Association, said the Alberta grizzly bear population was at least sable, and perhaps increasing. How does he know?
“There is [sic] some anecdotal, very important indicators of trends, and these are the people who are outdoors, the conservation officers, the biologists, outfitters and hunters,” Makowecki said. “If you talk to someone who’s spent 30 years in the bush, there’s no question but that there are more grizzlies.
Luckily, we are able to test the value of anecdotal evidence with respect to grizzly bear numbers, just as the Dene did with their caribou. Two weeks ago, on Feb. 24, 2005, Dr. Stephen Herrero released the results of a nine-year (1993-2002) study on grizzly bears in the Bow Valley watershed, which includes parts of Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country. In a nutshell, the results indicated that the population for this area was increasing at a rate of four per cent per year. However, during the two years following the study, 11 grizzly bears in that same area were killed, seven of them as a result of human causes, which suggests the population most likely has been stable over the last decade. (It’s important to point out here that this population is not hunted; had hunting been allowed, the population would assuredly have been declining.)
In contrast, the “anecdotal” evidence suggests grizzly bears are on the increase to the point of becoming a nuisance. Rick Guinn is an outspoken guide-outfitter whose family has lived in the Kananaskis Valley for at least three generations. He has hunted in K-Country for years and, on occasion, has had to shoot a grizzly bear in self-defence. He has maintained for as long as I can remember that there are so many grizzly bears in K-Country they are coming out of the woodwork. In response to the findings of Dr. Herrero’s study, the A-Channel, which describes Guinn only as a “farmer,” quotes him as saying:
“It’s obvious for anyone who spends time in the bush that the grizzly bear population is strongly increasing.”
What are you going to believe? The results of one of the longest-running and most diligently conducted grizzly bear research projects in the world? Or the back-of-the-envelope predictions of people who have a vested interest in the continuation of the hunt?
The more important question, of course, is which information should the government use to make policy decisions that will determine the future of the grizzly bear?
The troubling conclusion is that the government seems intent on using whatever information it needs to use to justify its decisions, which are made not in the interests of grizzly bears or the people of Alberta, but in the interests of adhering to a seventeenth century worldview (see John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government”) that will surely lead to the disappearance of the grizzly bear from the province of Alberta.
Stay tuned for a consideration of the rest of the government’s Top 8 list of reasons to continue hunting grizzly bears.