I live near Chicago, and had never been near a bear. Now I had a licence to kill a grizzly bear, but the intention to save one.
I spent 11 days on a fall grizzly “hunt” in coastal British Columbia with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit working to protect grizzlies and their habitat.
On my trip, I shot bears only with my camera.
“We maintained our zero per cent success rate,” said Brian Falconer, Raincoast’s guide outfitter co-ordinator, about the bears killed on the foundation’s “hunts” since 2005.
My non-resident grizzly hunting licence was one of two that Raincoast obtained this fall. Raincoast has purchased exclusive commercial hunting rights for 28,000 square kilometres in the Great Bear Rainforest near the First Nations communities of Bella Bella, Klemtu and Bella Coola.
The B.C. government, which manages the hunts, requires non-residents to hire licensed guide outfitters with exclusive hunting rights. To maintain its tenure, Raincoast must take visitors on ostensible hunts.
John Erickson was my guide outfitter. Erickson opposes grizzly hunting, as do 91 per cent of British Columbians, according to a September Insights West poll. Erickson explained the hunting rules, then I was free to peacefully observe.
Eleven of us sailed between waterfall-laden cliffs diving dramatically into majestic fjords. Humpbacks cast bubble nets around herring then rose together, open-mouthed, in choreographed rhythms to gorge. Orcas, in frenzied leaps, taught the pod’s youngest to hunt a porpoise.
We went ashore into river estuaries that pulsed with the tide and teemed with spawning salmon. Vegetation created a rich, fertile scent. This was bear country.
Fourteen grizzlies ambled through Kitasoo/Xai’Xais First Nations traditional territory, feasting on salmon, berries and roots, swimming and napping. A grizzly cub caressed its mother’s face with a paw, the mother gently nuzzling it. Another grizzly encouraged three cubs into the water to fish. Two grizzlies swam and wrestled playfully.
Bear-viewing benefits both local economies and the province. We saw other tourists travelling with First Nations bear-viewing businesses. Compared with bear-hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest in 2012, bear-viewing brought 12 times more in visitor spending and more than 11 times more in direct revenue to the province, according to a 2014 Stanford University study.
Marven Robinson, Gitga’at Spirit Tours owner, took us to view black bears and the white spirit bear, a genetically anomalous black bear, in Gitga’at traditional territory. Robinson limits bear-viewing as his “commitment to the river and the bears.”
We watched eight black bears leisurely pulling out the salmon that broke the surfaces of brown and silver streams in their quest to spawn.
For four quiet hours, I sat mesmerized by a white spirit bear, a symbol of ancient strength. She walked close enough that I could see splashing from the salmon tail dangling in her mouth.
A black bear fished upstream. If I had purchased a black-bear tag, provincial law would have allowed me to kill it for only $180. Although hunting white-coated bears is illegal, some black bears carry the white recessive gene.
I would have had to shoot the black bear in front of 20 witnesses. The onlookers, coming from around the world to see the white bear, included film crews from Sweden and Alberta, and German and American photographers, carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of camera equipment.
Our Gitga’at guides certainly would have intervened. In 2012, nine Coastal First Nations banned killing bears for sport in their territories. Although the provincial government does not recognize the ban, First Nations guardian watchmen confront trophy hunters in their territories.
As I sat creekside with other hushed and reverent spirit-bear watchers, peace reigned over violence. The old-growth forest, draped with green mosses, seemed alive, moving as the light shifted. I was small in this magnificent place. I felt deeply that our human role is symbiosis with the wild.
Killing another being as a trophy is unconscionable. Even if B.C. bans grizzly hunting, other trophy animals would remain at risk: wolves, cougars, bobcats, lynx and wolverines. To protect these animals, Raincoast has spent almost $2 million acquiring hunting rights, and plans to buy the remaining rights in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Instead of a bear carcass, a memento of destruction, I have photographs of the awe-inspiring: the mother grizzly nuzzling her cub, the spirit bear quietly fishing, orcas catching a porpoise, humpbacks bubble-net feeding, and cliffs mystically appearing out of rainbows and shifting mist. These are my trophies.
Rebecca Boyd is an environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer in the Chicago area.