This was my Freedom of Information investigation into how the B.C. government made its controversial decision to re-open grizzly bear territories to hunting that were previously long closed over concerns about low-bear numbers. I pored over 1,600 pages of government memos (that’s like two novels of War and Peace!) that showed wildlife bureaucrats bristling against public critics, and maps that had not been updated in decades. The series resulted in questions in the B.C. legislature.
Story by Mychaylo Prystupa
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.
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 – 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.
Chronology of grizzly hunt emails
Jun. 25, 2013 – Provincial analyst Stephen MacIver asks a government biologist to prepare notes justifying the re-opening of the grizzly hunt: “We know the hunt is controversial, there will be opposition.”
Provincial biologist Pat Dielman replies: “I am tired of NGO’s [non-governmental organizations] always saying grizzly bears are threatened or vulnerable when the reality is the opposite.”
Sept. 25, 2013 — Dielman sends a proposal to re-open grizzly hunts.
Oct. 28, 2013 — An external non-government biologist asks if her data was being wildly misinterpreted by the province. Dielman replies: “We only treated your project’s data the same as anecdotal info because we are aware of its limitations.”
Oct. 28, 2013 — Provincial wildlife manager Mike Ramsay summarizes those supporting the hunt’s re-opening: “the forest industry, BC Wildlife Federation, Ranchers around Big Creek, and Guide Outfitters of BC.” (Strike outs in original.)
Oct.28, 2013 — a St’at’imc First Nation official says he’s “perplexed” by the province’s proposal to re-open the trophy hunt.
Oct.29, 2013 — David Williams, Friends of the Nemaiah Valley writes government: “We see absolutely no room in this area whatsoever for a legitimate grizzly bear [Limited Entry Hunt]….We are highly dubious of the ministry population counts in this area.”
Nov. 2013 — Alberta wildlife photographer: “I’ve made many trips to B.C. and spent my hard earned cash on accommodations, restaurants, car rentals and fuel purchases….I’ll be watching this issue very closely before deciding where to spend my future travel dollars.”
Nov. 2013 —German Tourist: “If I would want to see a stuffed grizzly bear, I could do so in a German museum at negligible cost. I am appalled by your proposal to re-open the trophy hunt for Grizzly bears in the Chilcotin…. Our tourist dollars benefit a large population of people across the region, while the trophy hunt satisfies the needs of a handful of individuals.”
Nov. 6, 2013 — A SFU / UVic study doubting the accuracy of the provincial government’s grizzly counts is picked up by the Canadian Press and the Globe and Mail.
Nov. 8, 2013 — a 40-year-veteran of the BC Forest Service urged the province to not ignore the science on grizzly bear numbers.
Nov. 11, 2013 — a U.S. biologist known for helping the “de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly” offers advice to government wildlife managers on how to handle negative media reports: “Reading this paper…will help you focus on what the criticisms are.”
Nov. 12, 2013 — Provincial scientist Bruce McLellan reacts to negative media reports: “The Canadian Press sure lapped it up, anything critical of the GB [grizzly bear] hunt gets top billing.”
Dec. 3, 2013 — Provincial biologist Pat Dielman, who sent a proposal to re-open the grizzly hunt, tells a bear biologist with a non-profit that he cannot provide grizzly data. “I don’t have a copy of full population model. Regions receive a summary of the model results…”
Dec. 4, 2013 — Wildlife director John Krebs asks colleagues for help responding to grizzly hunt critics: “Do you have some standard messaging about B.C.’s grizzly bear management that I can recycle in a response to the inquiry?”
Dec. 8, 2013 — Liberal Minister Steve Thomson: “We are getting some press over the proposed grizzly regs that have gone up on our website. Can some one make sure Minister Bill Bennett is fully briefed and aware of this. Thanks.”
Dec. 9, 2013 — Ray Morello, a provincial wildlife manager, advises that each guided grizzly kill brings in up to $30,000 to the local economy. He says he believes Minister Bill Bennett has been informed.
Dec. 10, 2013 — Wildlife manager Gerry MacDougall asks if a Bill Bennett briefing should explore the benefits of an uptick in grizzlies for mining:
“[By] all accounts there’s a few critters to spare, but my question is whether they might be kept handy to help mitigate a new mine.”
Dec. 17, 2013 – Dielman, provincial wildlife biologist, complains to an analyst that map boundaries for bear zones are not based on evidence:
“The problem is no one every updates anything in this ministry. We draw an arbitrary line based on our best guess and it remains fixed for 30 years.”
Dec. 17, 2013 — A St’at’timc biologist writes to the province, questioning “unexplained doubling of [bear] population estimates.”
Dec. 17, 2013 – Briefing note for Minister Steve Thomson shows the grizzly totals in the Cariboo region are a guess, not a count: “derived from modelling and professional opinion. There have been no DNA or other inventory studies conducted in this area.”
Dec. 19, 2013 — Wayne McCrory, a professional biologist with a non-profit, writes that the province’s method for estimating bears is “very flawed.” Among his complaints — an under appreciation of how new roads lead to increased bear kills:
“If you really studied the true human caused mortality of grizzly bear in the region you would likely find there is no ‘surplus’ left over for any hunt.”
Dec. 20, 2013 — Facing criticism, Dielman agrees to increase the unreported kill estimate to two per cent to demonstrate that “we listened and acted” on concerns. He says to colleagues the change would have almost no effect on the allowable kills.
Jan. 3, 2014 — Forestry staff discuss a briefing note for Bill Bennett: “Most [public] concerns have focused on the social acceptability of the grizzly hunt rather than the sustainability of the hunt.”
Jan. 7, 2014 — Energy and Mining Minister Bill Bennett was given a 22-minute phone briefing on the proposed grizzly hunt by forestry staff, says e-mail. Forestry Minister Steve Thomson “was not on the call.” Summary of conversation redacted.
Jan. 13, 2014 — Briefing note for Minister Thomson: “The Guide Outfitter Association of BC, the BC Wildlife Federation, and the BC Trappers Association support the opening of these areas to grizzly bear hunting.”
Jan. 24, 2014 —Notes show Minister Steve Thomson formally re-opened the grizzly hunt in the Cariboo and Kootenay regions.
March 3, 2014 — After the decision to re-open the hunts, director Gerry MacDougall asks a wildlife manager “to prepare an estimates notes on grizzly, regarding the opening of the hunt… [with] perhaps some numbers to justify the decision, etc.”
Story originally published in the Vancouver Observer.