On Thursday, the United States began the process to delist the grizzly bear from the endangered species list – a process that, if successful, will lead to state “management” of the population or, in other words, the reinstatement of trophy hunting. If there was ever a decision that screamed for re-examination, it’s this one. Grizzly bears, no matter how you cut it, are still endangered.
Make no mistake, I’m not anti-hunting, especially when it comes to sustenance. In fact, hunters can be great environmentalists. And though I’ve long advocated for asymmetrical thinking when it comes to finding balanced and politically sustainable solutions to wildlife management debates, sometimes you just have to call it as it is: Wrong. And the decision to de-list the grizzly bear – an animal that is one of the slowest reproducing land mammals in the world, part of a genetically isolated population, and susceptible to the impacts of climate change – is clearly wrong.
For two decades I worked to advocate for the protection of the white Kermode or spirit bear on Canada’s west coast. I founded the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition at the age of 13 and as it grew into a network of more than six million supporters, we worked with diverse stakeholders to set aside more than 250,000 hectares of temperate rainforest to ensure this unique subspecies’ long term survival.
The threat to the spirit bear was habitat loss, but also the unknown consequences of human actions. In the last decade, salmon runs that the bears depend on have declined sharply due to the untested introduction of fish farms. Trophy hunting of grizzly bears forced an unpredicted, forced migration of the bruins out of their habitat and into that of the Kermode, creating an unnatural competitor for food. And climate change has already started to have impacts on denning, food and water supply for wildlife throughout the region. In other words, the goal of protecting the spirit bear wasn’t just to secure its key habitat, but was to equally ensure that all management decisions in the region allow for a large margin for error, ensuring that the bear can overcome additional known and unknown threats, now and in the future.
But while we have succeeded on behalf of the spirit bear, the trophy hunting of grizzlies remains a critical issue in the Great Bear Rainforest and across BC. Indeed, the grizzly population alone is a source of much controversy. While the BC government maintains that grizzlies number well over 10,000, independent scientists believe that the true population is well below 5000. Despite this discrepancy, the spring and fall trophy hunt is managed based on the higher number and, according to Freedom of Information requests, has consistently failed to take into account poaching, the killing of problem bears, road kill and mortality fluctuations based on impacts from external threats such as habitat loss and climate change. As such, many population units in BC are threatened, especially in areas close to the US border.
In Alberta, the province was over a decade late in closing their trophy hunt – a problem compounded by pressures from the oil and gas industry constantly building new roads into key wilderness areas and by the overuse of the land for recreation purposes. As a result, the grizzly population is in extreme peril on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Though efforts have been made to restore connectivity, too many population units are still effectively cut-off by highways and railway lines. In many ways, their best chance for survival is a connected, genetically diverse population of grizzlies south of the border.
And all of this brings me back to the plan to delist the grizzly in the United States. With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of the grizzly north of the border, there is even more uncertainty to the south of it.
There is no question that grizzlies have rebounded from record lows in the 1970s and are doing better today than in recent memory, but it would be a serious mistake, in my opinion, to assume that this means the population can sustain a trophy hunt. There are far too many known threats – let alone unknown concerns – to make the de-listing of the grizzly a sustainable decision.
Most obviously, the lack of a connective corridor between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Greater Glacier Ecosystem means that the Yellowstone population will always be a genetic island until these populations are reconnected. The loss of any bear – even if the population is currently healthy – could have untold consequences down the road.
Moreover, there are proven concerns surrounding critical food sources, such as whitebark pine and cutthroat trout. And as climate change continues its unchecked march toward increasing temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns, it’s impossible to predict the future impact on grizzly food sources, denning locations and reproduction cycles.
And then there is the potential economic consequences. One single eco-tourism lodge in one inlet in the Great Bear Rainforest generated $3 million in direct revenue from bear viewing last year, with over $12 million in spin-off money staying in the region. That’s more than the entire sport hunting industry generated on the entire coast. Now extrapolate this economic reality from the hard-to-reach Great Bear Rainforest and begin to imagine the possible impact of grizzly trophy hunting on the vast number of eco-tourism ventures built around bear viewing in Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. How many companies could go out of business? What would the trickle down effect be for the local economy? Indeed, how many visitors would stop travelling to the region if bears became too difficult to spot? And rest assured, bear watching in the parks will be impacted, for famed bears like Scarface, 399 and Raspberry all roam outside of the protected borders of Yellowstone.
When combined with the mismanagement of grizzlies in both BC and Alberta, there is simply far too much risk to allow for the de-listing of the grizzly in the Lower 48. Like the spirit bear, one unintended mistake could, over time, lead to the loss of this iconic species from this globally important wilderness.
In my experience, every voice must matter on an issue of this magnitude and no voice is more powerful than a people uniting as one. I hope you will join us and millions of others, including First Nations on both sides of the border, in taking a stand for the grizzly bear. In Yellowstone. In Glacier. In America. In Canada. This doesn’t have to be an issue that divides and it doesn’t need to be one that is anti-hunting or anti-progress or anti-development. Our message can and should be about being pro common sense.
I might not the smartest person in the world and I don’t pretend to be the holder of every right answer, but I do believe that when speaking of an animal that is as critical as it is threatened, we must yield to caution. Though political, economic and cultural concerns must always be heard in a debate such as this, they should not be the final word, especially when protecting the grizzly will not harm these aims, but enhance them. This is a bear that gives us so much – sustaining ecosystems that sustain us – and all it asks for in return is some place – any place – where it can come first. And while humanity has failed on this count, the least we can do is ensure that we don’t compound their problems by delisting the grizzly bear.
– D. Simon Jackson
Contact US Fish and Wildlife to voice your opposition of the delisting of the grizzly bear.
Sierra Club (Working to stop US delisting)
David Suzuki Foundation (Working to stop the BC trophy hunt)
National Geographic: What’s Next for Yellowstone’s Grizzlies?