Ecotourism Takes Swat at Grizzly Hunting

Grizzly Bear | BCBusiness
For both wildlife-viewing outfits and hunting-guide outfitters, the grizzly is the ultimate prize.

Adventure tourism outfitters are buying up hunting licences—and sitting on them 

The battle between those who view grizzlies through the crosshairs of a rifle and others who view them through cameras shows no sign of abating. Almost a decade ago, Great Bear Rainforest activist Ian McAllister, as co-founder of the Raincoast Conservation Society, was instrumental in devising a strategy to beat hunting-guide outfitters at their own game. In 2005, the society raised private money to buy out five guiding territories and push trophy hunters out of pristine coastal valleys; last year, it bought out another guide-outfitting certificate. That means more than 25,000 square kilometres of coastal hunting territory, at a purchase price of roughly $1.7 million, is now controlled by this Victoria-based environmental group. McAllister believes they’re on the right side of public opinion and doing what they must to protect grizzlies and promote a sustainable ecotourism sector.

“Success of this strategy still depends on government recognizing the value of wildlife in B.C. for cultural, ecological, tourism and sustenance purposes. The trophy hunt is at odds with all of these other values,” McAllister says.

A recent study by a UVic graduate student examined the bear-viewing sector and found 23 companies, employing 345 people, generated $16.5 million in revenues last year from activities related to grizzly bear viewing. Maureen Gordon, co-owner of Maple Leaf Adventures Corp., says she has noticed a direct relationship between the removal of hunting and an increase in bear-viewing opportunities. “In the valleys where grizzly hunting has stopped, bears that used to hide from humans now openly live their lives in full view of us,” Gordon says. “The difference in their behaviour is quite remarkable.”

Dean Wyatt owns Knight Inlet Lodge, an operation that in 1996 switched from sport fishing to strictly bear viewing, and has since hosted 26,000 visitors from more than 30 countries, each willing to pay as much as $1,000 per day to view grizzlies along the Glendale River. Knight Inlet Lodge is the biggest player among members of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of B.C., and does about $3 million worth of business annually. In order to keep his bear-viewing valley free of hunters, Wyatt has struck his own deal with a guide outfitter who has the rights to shoot one grizzly in the area each year, which costs Wyatt $20,000 in annual compensation fees. Tired of lobbying government for a no-hunt zone around his bread-and-butter bear-viewing business, Wyatt says he’s forced to cut private deals because the fish and wildlife branch is dominated by bureaucrats driven by an agenda that favours hunting and fishing over wildlife viewing.

The B.C. government stands by its grizzly-bear management, but doesn’t get involved in the buying and selling of guiding territories. Brennan Clarke, spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, says biologists set grizzly-bear harvesting quotas based on a current estimated B.C. population of 15,000 grizzlies. Over the past five years, government-sanctioned grizzly kills peaked in 2011 at 336; 124 were guided kills, while unguided licensed hunters shot the rest. Wildlife managers believe that about another 60 grizzlies die annually because of human-bear conflicts, poaching and vehicle traffic and train impacts.

There’s no doubt, the coast is getting less friendly for bear hunters. Coastal First Nations has made a declaration opposing the hunting of grizzly and black bears on their territories. A 2009 Ipsos Reid public-opinion poll found that 80 per cent of British Columbians oppose the grizzly hunt provincewide.

According to a government study dating back to 2000, guide outfitting generates $40 million in annual revenues from guided hunts that target not only grizzly but also black bears, mountain goats, sheep, elk and other trophy species. Scott Ellis, executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., which represents roughly 240 members, says a well-managed guide-outfitting sector can co-exist with bear viewing. He says he knows of only six guide outfitters who operate in coastal valleys, and that the Knight Inlet Lodge conflict is an exception to the rule, a case where a business-to-business clash on the ground was resolved through private negotiations. He doesn’t have a problem with this. “Our guide outfitters know where the bear-viewing operators are, they know the colour of their boats and what valleys they’re going into so they go out of their way to avoid conflicts,” he says.

Wyatt sees it differently; he believes ending the sport hunting of grizzly bears in B.C., by guide outfitters and residents alike, is an idea whose time has come: “Our guests can view the same bear year after year. Hunters will shoot that bear once for a trophy.”