The fight over Haida Gwaii’s bear hunt

From the archives: Bear hunting, a lucrative business for outfitters, is one of those past times that perpetuates despite vehement opposition. From 2008, our profile of the bear hunters, and the men and women trying to stop them, in one of the most idyllic parts of the province. 

The man who introduces himself as Casey Bear is pacing quickly, flustered, having just experienced what he calls one of the most violent altercations of his life. He laughs hysterically and nervously pulls a bear mask on and off his face as he describes how a man snuck up behind him on this empty stretch of the only highway on Haida Gwaii and attempted to pull down the Stop Killing Bears banner that now hangs scrunched to one side.

A cape of faux black fur swings from his wiry frame as he straightens the banner, a task likely performed dozens of times since he launched his full-time protest of trophy bear hunting when the spring season opened on April 1. A hand-painted plywood sign nearby reads Taan Gan Yahgudang, which means “respect for bears” in Xaayda Kil – the language of the Haida people of B.C.’s most remote islands. Still interrupting himself with fits of high-pitched giggles, Casey (who is not Haida) repeats the licence plate number over and over and points down the road to where the truck carrying his adversary retreated. Although he is concerned about conservation, Casey, like most protestors I spoke to, is mainly opposed to trophy bear hunting for ethical reasons. “I think the killing for fun, for recreation, is abhorrent,” he says.

Her dismissal of the protest echoes that of her father-in-law Kevin Olmstead, who, with his wife Victoria, owns both of the commercial bear hunting licences for the Charlottes, as well as the lodge. “Most of these people who protest are radicals. And most of them are hypocrites,” he says. “Some people say it’s okay to fish but not to hunt. I think all of us are hunters. [Some just] pay somebody to kill their cows or kill their chickens.”Two evenings earlier, less than a kilometre from the site of Casey’s protest, Brandie Olmstead held a glass of white wine in one hand and balanced her blond baby on her hip with the other. Brandie, a meticulous host and engaging storyteller, shrugged off the ongoing protest as she showed me around the Tlell River House – located in a former Haida fishing camp called Tlell (population 375) – which serves as a base for recreational bear hunters. “Some people just don’t have enough to do with their time.”

The Olmsteads don’t think the opponents of the hunt are any threat to their 22-year-old outfitting company, Prophet Muskwa – though powerless radicals aren’t the only protestors. The Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) – which is part interest group, part de facto regional government – passed a resolution in 1995 to halt recreational bear hunting and in 2005 persuaded the provincial government to investigate how to stop it. Aside from an April demonstration attended by approximately 125 activists and Casey Bear’s ongoing antics, there has been little movement since then. But CHN president Guujaaw now pledges to end the hunt before the season resumes this month: “One way or another, there will be no fall hunt.”

Guujaaw isn’t forthcoming about how he plans to stop the hunt. But one should not underestimate the man who once orchestrated land and sea barricades that paralyzed two lumber sorting yards and seized millions of dollars of logs from pulp and paper superpower Weyerhaeuser. This is the same man who led the Haida to a 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that requires governments to consult and accommodate First Nations about development of disputed lands – a ruling that resulted in a recent land use agreement with the provincial government that ensures the protection of roughly half of the land area of Haida Gwaii.

Now that the provincial government seems to be honouring its legal obligation to consult and accommodate the Haida, Guujaaw plans to reclaim control of both land and water resources and build the islands’ economy – on what remains after decades of logging, fishing and mining – so that it benefits locals, not just off-island companies. But balancing short-term economic gains with the sustainability of the economy and the environmental integrity of the Haida’s ancestral home is not an easy task. And as the CHN challenges the province on its right to issue permits to harvest resources, most sectors are facing uncertainty and political instability, including fishing, logging, tourism and, most importantly to the Olmsteads, bear hunting.

The remote group of 150 islands that constitute Haida Gwaii lies 120 kilometres off B.C.’s northwest coast, 240 kilometres north of Vancouver Island. A six- to eight-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert across the tumultuous Hecate Strait, the islands are perched on the edge of the continental shelf, with a rainforest of cedar, hemlock and huge Sitka spruce blanketing 1,000-metre mountains that rise from the ocean.

Because parts of Haida Gwaii were spared the glaciers of the last ice age, the islands are home to unique subspecies of flora and fauna and are sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of Canada.” One such subspecies peculiar to the islands is Ursus americanus carlottae, the biggest black bear in the world, coveted by trophy bear hunters for their enormous skulls.

Tourism on Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii’s natural beauty and the rich history of the Haida – world renowned for artists such as the late Bill Reid – make the islands (home to around 5,000 people) an obvious draw to visitors. Many islanders believe tourism could alleviate the economic effects of declines in logging and fishing. Currently, some 55,000 tourists (more than 80 per cent Canadian) visit the islands each year, but with the tens of thousands of tourists aboard passing Alaskan cruise ships, many think the potential is much greater. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site attracts kayakers and day trippers to its sea-lion-covered islands and deteriorating totem poles, while at the brand-new $26-million Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Unagaay in Skidegate tourists can watch canoes being carved. Those travelling independently spend an average of $130 per day, and travellers at the popular recreational fishing lodges – which account for 27 per cent of visitors – spend an average of $350.

Kevin and Victoria Olmstead certainly recognized the tourism potential when they purchased the two big-game hunting licences for Haida Gwaii in 1999 and 2002 from a local. (Kevin won’t disclose the purchase price, but a number of tourism insiders guess in the low six figures.) Originally from the Fresno area in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the couple was in estate planning in the 1980s before starting their outfitting company that, at its height, operated nine destinations in the Yukon and northern B.C. Now, with seven destinations and approximately 60 employees, Prophet Muskwa has evolved from a mom-and-pop operation to a high-end service catering to corporate America and grossing around $2.5 million annually.

Between the hunting lodges in Tlell, Sleeping Chief near Fort St. John and Devilhole in the southwestern corner of the Yukon, as well as two adjoining spas in Tlell and Sleeping Chief, Prophet Muskwa employs the whole Olmstead family. The couple’s oldest son, Brandie’s husband, is a commercial pilot (many hunting trips are fly-in); their other son manages marketing and sales and helps on the 300-horse ranch in Fort St. John; while their daughter does the accounting from her Seattle home. Tonight Brandie, on loan from Sleeping Chief, is front-desk clerk, bartender, cook and mother; tomorrow she’ll even be the spa aesthetician during a baby shower.

Kevin says the undeveloped wilderness and quality of game make the hunting in northern B.C. “second to none in the world.” The licences give Prophet Muskwa the exclusive right to hunt the unique subspecies of black bear commercially, meaning that anyone interested in hunting legally in the area must hire them. As part of the obligation to consult and accommodate the Haida, the CHN was given the first opportunity to buy the licences, but the council was unable to come up with the cash. Since then the Olmsteads have built up their Tlell destination steadily, including rebuilding the formerly rundown Tlell River House into a luxury log cabin and spa. According to Victoria Olmstead, that’s when the trouble began. “We think the controversy started at that point. We became high profile because of this lodge, and everybody on the island figured we were killing thousands of bears to be able to afford this type of lodge.”

In the context of the nearby Haida villages of Skidegate and Old Masset – where the unemployment rates are 13.7 and 33.8 per cent, respectively, and the median household incomes are $36,000 and $28,000 (compared to provincial averages of 6.0 per cent and $53,000 in the 2006 census) – it’s not surprising that the lodge attracted attention. The nearest real town to Tlell, Port Clements – a predominantly non-Haida logging town 22 kilometres up the road – fares better with an unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent. But when I visited, the talk of the town was Western Forest Products Inc. shutting down operations due to decreased demand for cedar in the slumping U.S. housing market.

As you enter the large stone and wood cabin in Tlell, plush purple velvet chairs, stained glass and a stone fireplace chimney that reaches the 16-foot peaked ceilings surround a black bear rug. Yet there is something about the place that suggests an experience is being manufactured; it’s trying a little too hard to be authentic. The walls are adorned with kitschy posters of island wildlife and Gone Fishing plaques. A slogan painted on a wall in the spa tells clients, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” The log and stone are veneer. This is a modern house dressed up as a log cabin. Why the hard sell? What could be more authentic than stalking and shooting a live black bear?

The Olmsteads’ all-inclusive bear hunting trips (prices range from $7,650 to more than $11,000, depending on how many bears are killed) are not a unique form of tourism on Haida Gwaii. More than a quarter of tourists visit the islands for all-inclusive fishing lodge trips, run by mostly off-island companies that provide everything from transportation to meals. One complaint often grumbled by longtime residents is that recreational fishing lodge operators move in only during the tourism season, buy groceries in Prince Rupert, hire employees from Vancouver and then take the profits back home, contributing little to the local economy. It’s the same problem that Guujaaw remembers in other industries. “With the amount of money that has gone off, this island should be a pretty wealthy place,” Guujaaw says. “But if you look around, there is no sports facility or anything from all the wealth that has been stripped from the land.”

Business on the Haida Gwaii

But tourism operators won’t accept all of the blame. Urs Thomas, a Port Clements hotel owner involved in sport fishing, doesn’t think that residents, including the Haida, are taking advantage of obvious opportunities. Exasperated, he points out that it’s often impossible to find an open restaurant and that the local gas station sometimes runs out of fuel. George Cuthbert, of Richmond-based West Coast Resorts, says he would use local businesses if he could. “Our phone rings off the hook with people who want to do business with us. They want to sell us staplers. They want to sell us fuel. But I can’t think of a single example of a call from a local business. The phone never rings.” Nevertheless, Cuthbert says that the process of consulting with and accommodating the Haida has been a great experience in developing meaningful relationships with the communities. “The people who work for us from the communities are often our most popular employees and our company’s best ambassadors. They are knowledgeable and interesting . . . If it wasn’t for [the legal obligation to] consult and accommodate, we would never meet the communities.”

Like bear hunting, recreational fishing is also on the CHN’s list of concerns. Guujaaw laments its contribution to the depletion of cod and salmon stocks, calling it “a tremendous waste of life” and “playing with fish.” Environmental concerns are, indeed, the crux of a quandary facing the Haida: an economy must be built to create opportunities for locals and young people, but preserving the land trumps jobs. Guujaaw’s unapologetic caution is likely the result of centuries of bad resource management, from the Haida’s part in hunting sea otters to extinction to more recent decades of intense logging by off-island companies.

The environment-versus-jobs struggle is no more clearly illustrated than in a pamphlet about the Cinola gold mine circulated to the residents of Haida Gwaii in the early 1980s. Mining company City Resources (Canada) Ltd. promised preferential hiring to locals and estimated contributions to the local economy of $9 million during construction and $263 million during operations. But the mine threatened to expose the nearby Yakoun River to extremely high levels of arsenic and mercury. So despite talk of cutting-edge research that would set “new standards in environmental design for mines,” the proposed plans were rejected and the gold stayed in the ground. Guujaaw is even reserving judgement about NaiKun Wind Development Inc.’s proposed wind farm off the east coast of Graham Island. “We are looking at it,” he says. “It has to first meet the environmental assessments, and then we would see if there is a business opportunity for us.” Yet the initiative would connect Haida Gwaii to B.C.’s grid and replace the islands’ costly diesel generators, which put more than 26,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Environment, there are now an estimated 3,800 bears on Haida Gwaii– though calling that number an “educated guess” would probably be a fair assessment. The province depends on the habitat-based method, which analyzes salmon stock, other food, watersheds and expansion of human settlements and roads to determine how much habitat is suitable for bears (though a provincial report published in August 2007 identifies shortcomings of this model, such as a lack of understanding of how Sitka deer, which are not native to the islands, have affected forage choice). Wayne McCrory, an independent coastal bear biologist opposed to the hunt, suspects the 3,800 figure is inflated. He points to what he calls alarming overestimates of grizzly populations in other parts of the province. “In the face of uncertainty, manage conservatively.”

Conservation concerns are also central to the CHN’s opposition. “The whole management system is goofy,” says Guujaaw. “It is predicated on some numbers that are basically pulled out of the sky to figure out a sustainable hunt. They don’t know how many bears are here.” Speaking to me in the bustling CHN offices in Skidegate (where as many non-Haida as Haida are working), he adds, “Our people have taken a position that it is not an acceptable form of economy for our islands. Killing bears for fun does not meet the moral tests of proper behaviour for human beings.”Kevin Olmstead, who has no such moral qualms, believes that the ministry’s numbers are conservative enough. In fact, because he is only harvesting around two per cent of the population annually (black bears can sustain an annual cull of six to eight per cent, according to the province), Olmstead says the resource is underutilized. Still, as for what he’ll do as the fall hunt approaches and a threatened confrontation looms, Olmstead says he’s open to selling the licences to the Haida – but at the right price.

It’s unlikely, though, that the CHN will raise the $2.5 million to $3 million the Olmsteads want for their business. “We’ll have to figure out something,” Guujaaw responds evasively when asked about the offer. “But you don’t tell people what the plan is and publish it.” Then, gesturing to a young Asian woman furiously typing at a table behind him, he adds, “I guess we’ll send Lynne Lee out to the blockade.” They laugh.