A group adamantly opposed to trophy hunting of grizzly and black bears has bought the commercial hunting rights in a vast area of the Great Bear Rainforest.
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation now controls hunting in 28,000 square kilometres of the central coast and its latest acquisition of 3,500 square kilometres includes key areas around Princess Royal Island where there is the highest concentration of Kermode or spirit bears (black bears with white coats).
"This is the heart of spirit bear country," said Chris Genovali, Raincoast executive director.
The aim is to help First Nations and other groups pursue economic opportunities offered by bear viewing, Genovali said.
"Ecological issues aside, the coastal trophy bear hunt cannot be justified from either an ethical or economic perspective," he said.
The latest purchase of hunting rights from a guide outfitter comes on the heels of a declaration this week by coastal First Nations that they are banning trophy bear hunting in their traditional territories and that they plan to monitor and enforce that ban.
When those traditional territories, stretching from Haida Gwaii down the central coast, are added to the Raincoast tenures, it will put bear-hunting off limits on much of the coast.
"This is a powerful onetwo punch," Genovali said. "But certainly there are other parts of the Great Bear Rainforest that have active guide outfitter and resident hunting taking place."
The latest certificate purchase, which gives hunting rights in perpetuity, cost about $320,000 and the 2005 purchase of 25,000 square kilometres cost about $1.3 million.
People who feel strongly about the hunt donated the funds, Genovali said.
"This is part of the puzzle to get bear conservation put as a priority on the coast," he said.
Grizzly bear hunting provokes some of the strongest reactions among bear hunt opponents and there are disagreements about the number of bears remaining in B.C.
The province puts the number at about 15,000.
This year, 3,716 tags were issued for the spring and fall hunts.
About 300 grizzlies are shot annually by both legal hunters and poachers.
Paul Paquet, Raincoast senior scientist, said there is no certainty to the bears' population figures.
"How do you manage bear populations for hunting when you don't truly know how many there are," Paquet said.
"That's why [this purchase of hunting rights] is a precedent in setting a new ethic in how grizzly bears are viewed," he said.
Scott Ellis, Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. executive director, said his members support Raincoast's right to buy hunting rights and would like to see First Nations take the same route.
"We would rather the First Nations go into a willing buyer, willing seller situation and buy the guide outfitter out at fair market value," he said.
The price of a guideoutfitter territory can run from $200,000 to $4 million, depending on the business it generates, he said.
The Raincoast purchases will not make a great difference to members of the association, and shooting of spirit bears and blue bears, found near the Alaska border, is already prohibited, Ellis said.
"There are 1.9 million hectares of land protected in the central and north coasts. - We are doing a pretty good job of protecting key bear habitat," he said.