Several days ago, periodic Gristmill contributor Eric de Place of Northwest Environment Watch wrote a post assessing the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s purchase of hunting rights along a broad swath of coastal forest in British Columbia.

What follows is a response from Chris Genovali, Executive Director of the Raincoast Conservation Society.

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While the rest of the global conservation community applauded Raincoast Conservation Society’s purchase of commercial trophy-hunting rights throughout a vast region of British Columbia’s central coast, Eric de Place of Northwest Environment Watch (NEW) chose to produce an opportunistic hit piece targeting this cutting edge initiative. The article was extremely uninformed and exhibited a significant lack of understanding of grizzly-bear biology, as well as the ecological, political, and cultural context in which Raincoast’s initiative has occurred. But it is easy for an armchair critic like de Place to take pot shots from his ivory tower "think tank" when his criticism is based on such superficial arguments.

de Place’s views are particularly uninformed when it comes to the conservation rationale behind Raincoast’s initiative. To make a sweeping statement such as "I’m not sure that hunting is bad for the species being hunted" is not only glib, it echoes the anti-scientific dogma that is at the core of the BC trophy-hunting lobby’s agenda. In addition, de Place naively ascribes the BC trophy-hunting lobby a conservation ethic based on his American experience with what he terms "the hook and bullet crowd." If de Place had done even a modicum of research he would have been made aware that trophy-hunting special interest groups have actually been hostile to protecting sufficient habitat for grizzlies throughout the Great Bear Rainforest and in some cases have even advocated for increased logging.

Proposed land-use plans for the central and north coasts would allow grizzly (and other carnivore) hunting across the majority of the landscape, as well as trophy hunting within most protected areas. Equally troubling is that the kill quotas are based on the province’s wildly inflated grizzly population estimates in which virtual bears predominate and statistical uncertainty is conveniently ignored.

Given that the land-use plans will likely leave more than 70 percent of grizzly habitat on the central and north coasts unprotected from logging and other industrial activity, the lack of protection for the bears themselves from the unnatural mortality represented by trophy hunting becomes even more problematic. In light of this, Raincoast’s initiative becomes even more important.

Habitat protection and species protection are inextricably linked; artificially separating these issues is an old-school approach to conservation that is scientifically outdated and ignores the ecological impacts associated with the direct killing of top predators. Here are a few points de Place would have done well to take under consideration before penning his article:

In an exhaustive scientific review of the BC government’s approach to grizzly management, wildlife scientists Dr. Brian Horejsi, Dr. Barrie Gilbert, and Dr. Lance Craighead concluded that "there is evidence to suggest that grizzly bear density estimates for coastal BC represent populations suffering from substantial decline." Grizzly bears have the lowest reproductive rate of any land mammal on the North American continent. One reason for this is the late sexual maturation of female grizzlies, as they do not start breeding until 5 to 8 years of age. If optimum conditions exist, breeding females will produce only one to three cubs at 2 to 3 year intervals. In addition, there is a relatively long two-to-three year attachment of young grizzlies to their mothers. Grizzly bear populations are especially susceptible to the impacts of sport hunting because of these reproductive limitations. Grizzlies do not have the biological characteristics of a prey species; they reproduce slowly and their populations recover slowly from human induced mortality.

Scientists are now learning that trophy hunting can change the very nature of the exploited species. Conservation biologist Chris Darimont of the University of Victoria points out that the evolutionary impacts from trophy hunting have been neglected for far too long. Darimont states:

… trophy hunting, which targets larger (and as a by-product reproductively mature individuals), selects for slower growth rates, and favours reproduction at earlier ages and smaller sizes. The implications are serious; these human imposed evolutionary changes can reduce population growth rates. We are now seeing this in everything from fishes to mammals. This has not been examined in hunted carnivore populations but could very much apply on First Principles.

Compounding matters is the unsettling nature of the BC government’s ever-changing grizzly population estimates, from which the province crafts a " harvestable surplus." From 1972 to 1979 the province estimated a population of 6660 grizzly bears. The population estimate of 6660 was nearly doubled in 1990 to 13,160 grizzly bears using a questionable "habitat suitability" model. In 1995 the province "adjusted" the estimate to a range of 10,000 to 13,000 grizzlies. The province has arbitrarily upped their population estimate once again, claiming there are now 17,000 grizzlies in BC. None of the population estimates crafted by the province have been vetted by the hallmarks of scientific process such as peer reviewed publication. A few years ago a former BC government biologist revealed that the Ministry of Environment calculates "a theoretical potential huntable grizzly bear surplus based on inappropriately applied habitat suitability indices … virtually all grizzly bears could be exterminated in BC by sport hunters, while government habitat suitability measurements alone would continue to calculate a theoretical potential bear abundance and continue to establish a harvestable surplus."

Quoting from fellow American David Quammen, a celebrity devotee of the aforementioned old-school wildlife management approach, de Place implies that eco-tourism as an alternative economic activity on the BC central coast will somehow be untenable. But once again his opinion belies the facts. Three years ago Raincoast collaborated on a comparative economic study with the Centre for Integral Economics (ironically, a BC based affiliate of de Place’s organization, NEW) which showed that grizzly bear viewing generates twice the annual revenue as the grizzly hunt.

Large carnivore expert Dr. Paul Paquet has this to say about de Place’s invoking of David Quammen:

de Place suggests that the only way to conserve large carnivores is to allow the most magnificent individuals of these species to be hunted for big bucks, thus making extant populations commercially attractive. His thinking, which Quammen clearly influenced, is deeply flawed, ecologically and ethically. Like Quammen, de Place confuses economic hypotheses for facts, using new terms that describe old ideas, which history shows all failed on application. Both Quammen and de Place seem to lack the requisite ecological knowledge and background to understand the conservation implications of their proposals. Philosophically, both commit the fundamental ethical crime of justifying the means (killing of trophy animals for money) by the end (putative preservation of carnivore populations).

de Place clearly has no concept of what grizzly hunting entails on the BC coast as he facilely claims that trophy hunting and wildlife viewing are compatible. The sport hunting of coastal grizzly bears often resembles some sort of high-tech war effort. Drs. Horejsi, Gilbert, and Craighead state:

… outfitters and resident hunters charter float planes, fly along the coast, land at road staging areas, and drive roads or take jet boats up salmon spawning rivers; some use permanent, illegal, elevated stands overlooking salmon spawning sites. This type of hunting has been characterized, reflecting its dependence on technology, as a search and destroy mission, referring to the speed and efficiency with which a hunting party can arrive at a stand, shoot grizzly bears where they are known to aggregate and leave the area.

While uninformed statements in de Place’s article are myriad, his assertion that the funds which made Raincoast’s initiative possible could have been better spent on buying or restoring land on the central coast has to be the most egregious. The grizzly habitat in question on the central coast is exclusively crown land — it cannot be purchased. The exorbitant cost of attempting to "restore" watersheds trashed by clearcut logging in remote areas of coastal BC renders de Place’s suggestion irrelevant as well. de Place also fails to understand that this isn’t just about grizzly bears, as Raincoast’s initiative will have a positive impact on all carnivore species in this enormous guide-outfitting territory, which encompasses over 20,000 square kilometers.

de Place’s article also fails to acknowledge the perspective of First Nations vis-a-vis the trophy hunting of carnivores on the central coast. First Nations in the region strongly supported Raincoast’s initiative; their support was borne not only out of a desire to further carnivore conservation, but also as a result of deeply held cultural beliefs. At the press conference announcing the guide outfitting purchase, one First Nations representative stated that his people believe it is sacrilegious to hunt these animals for sport.

To paraphrase a recent Victoria Times Colonist editorial, Raincoast backed up its words with cash. Raincoast also developed a creative and precedent-setting solution that can serve as a template for future wildlife-conservation efforts. One would think that American NGO’s such as NEW would have their hands full dealing with the virulently anti-environment Bush administration as opposed to spending their time composing poorly researched screeds criticizing Canadian conservation organizations that are actually getting substantive things done on the ground.