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B.C. gov't approved grizzly hunt despite overwhelming public opposition, emails reveal

A Freedom of Information investigation of 1,600 pages of government memos shows wildlife bureaucrats bristling against public criticisms of the re-opening of two grizzly hunts in 2014.

grizzly bear trophy hunt bc emails government emails FOI investigation Prystupa
Hunter over top of his grizzly bear kill in a photo modified by the Vancouver Observer to protect hunter's privacy.

Hundreds of government emails opened through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests show the provincial government's management of the grizzly bear hunt under fire.

The memos show B.C. wildlife managers re-started the grizzly hunt last year without actual counts of the bears in one region — and with a government grizzly specialist complaining that “arbitrary” grizzly bear maps had not been updated in 30 years.

“The problem is no one [ever] updates anything in this ministry. We draw an arbitrary line based on our best guess and it remains fixed for 30 years,” wrote wildlife biologist Pat Dielman in December 2013.

The emails also show B.C. bureaucrats bristling at critics as they pushed through the controversial re-opening of the grizzly hunt in two territories, named the Cariboo and Kootenay hunting regions, in central and southeast B.C.

"If there is no biological harm, then why not? Hunters and guides are well aware of being out-numbered in the court of public opinion," said Tony Hamilton, the province’s large carnivore specialist in a 2013 e-mail.

"The opponents...will cite majority public opinion. By their logic, in our democracy, majority rules, so why are we (the hunt managers) so far out of line?” he asked.

The politician in charge — Forestry, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson Steve Thomson — re-opened the hunt on Jan.24, 2014, despite snarls from 88 per cent of written public comments, including from scientific experts, who opposed the hunt on moral, economic and ecological grounds. 

Many eco-tour operators and wildlife photographers also told government the grizzlies were worth more dollars alive than dead. 

But before the trigger was pulled to re-open the hunt, Thomson ensured his caucus colleague Mining Minister Bill Bennett was given a high-level briefing on January 7, 2014. Bennett is a long-time hunting advocate, and a former guide-outfitting investor still owed a shareholder's loan, he's admitted.

Around that same time, provincial staff mused that a calculated uptick in grizzly numbers "might be kept handy to help mitigate a new mine."

A full chronology of email snippets is shown on page two of this story.

The findings are the result of a Vancouver Observer investigation that pored over 1,600 pages of government e-mails and memos between bureaucrats, politicians and the public.

Steve Thomson Bill Bennett grizzly trophy hunt BC Vancouver Observer

Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson (center) and Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett (right) in 2014.  B.C. government photo.

What the emails show

Firstly, the re-opening of the grizzly hunts last year was deeply unpopular, and that the Liberals knew this.  

In a ministerial briefing, a bureaucrat showed that the vast majority of the hundreds of public comments submitted through a web portal for two proposed hunting zones — in central and southeast B.C. — were opposed.

  • Kootenays: 148 opposed, 27 in support
  • Cariboo: 170 opposed, 15 in support
  • Total: 318 opposed (88%), 42 in support (12%)

This 88 per cent opposed figure is close to recent province-wide polling showing 75 per cent of British Columbians are also against the trophy hunt of grizzlies for sport.  The opposition to rises to 87 per cent opposed for grizzly hunts in the Great Bear Rainforest.

A senior wildlife manager even said it was his obligation to propose the hunts, despite a chorus of scientific and moral concern. 

"If we chose not to forward the decision, we would in effect be impairing the social choice on a sensitive issue,” wrote Cariboo region executive director Gerry McDougall.

So who supported the hunt?  Big hunting lobbies and industry appear to have been the driving forces.

With strike-outs in the original e-mail, provincial wildlife managers wrote that "the forest industry, BC Wildlife Federation, Ranchers around Big Creek, and Guide Outfitters of BC” were in favour of the hunts.

The memos also show that provincial biologists are simply responding to the requirements of the "Grizzly Bear Harvest Management Procedure."

It spells out when a grizzly hunt can be proposed for re-opening. This occurs when government staff calculate that the number of grizzlies in a territory's exceeds 50 per cent of what the province believes that habitat area can naturally support.

Then the province vets the idea past B.C.'s hunters. "ENGOs" (environmental non-government organizations) are usually not allowed to contribute to the discussion, wrote one bureaucrat.

Notably, in the 1,600 pages of government records obtained, the e-mails show little sign bureaucrats worried the calculated uptick in grizzlies represented any safety threat to people.

"Human safety issues relate to so-called 'conflict bears' are not the driving factor in determining harvest levels," confirmed provincial spokesperson Grieg Bethel last week.

"The hunts were re-opened because grizzly population information and trends indicated that a limited hunt was sustainable," he added.

Guesses of bears, not counts

But in the case of the Cariboo region in central B.C., the grizzlies were not actually counted.  The decision to re-open the hunt was based on a theoretical number of bears.   

"These [bear] estimates are derived from modelling and professional opinion. There have been no DNA or other inventory studies conducted in this area,” Minister Thomson was told in briefing note.

Grizzly bear scientists say this is not a cautious approach for areas with previous over kills by hunters.  The territory was closed to grizzly hunts for 13 years to that point, to allow for the bears recovery.

"There is heightened need for direct inventory when stakes are high,” reacted University of Victoria grizzly scientist Chris Darimont last week.  

"Invoking 'professional opinion' does not constitute sound scientific wildlife management."

A provincial spreadsheet also shows the government's grand total of grizzlies for B.C. —15,000 – is also mostly professional hunches.  Eighty per cent of B.C.'s grizzly territories are also totalled with “expert opinion” and “models” — not counted inventories.  

grizzly bear trophy hunt wikicommons vancouver observer

Grizzly bear - Wiki Commons

The province routinely defends its totals as based on the “best possible" peer-reviewed science, and the best wildlife management system in North America.  It also disputes conservation groups that say grizzlies are facing extinction.

"The over-harvest hypothesis claimed by some groups has clearly been falsified with almost 40 years of data. All evidence, including an expanding distribution, a large portion of older males in the harvest, the numerous DNA-based mark/recapture estimates, and anecdotal evidence by people who spend a great deal of time in grizzly bear habitat suggest that across most of the province, robust populations remain," said the province in a statement.

Ultimately, seven grizzlies were shot dead in these two re-opened hunting areas.  The hunt was then doubled for 2015 to allow up to 16 grizzly kills.  About 300 grizzlies are shot annually.

On the next page is a sample of the emails.

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