Above the stone fireplace in the comfortable Saanich home, photos of grizzly bears are pinned in a casual collage.
Cubs are shown frolicking in the grass, a curious bear stands on his hind legs looking through a camera lens and, jarringly, at the top, is a massive grizzly lying lifeless in the grass, eyes closed, claws digging into the dirt, as two jubilant hunters smile into the camera.
The photo, typical of those found in hunting magazines that promote the chance to travel to Super, Natural B.C. to kill grizzles, provokes a visceral response among hunt opponents and a newly-formed group wants to harness that gut reaction.
Justice for B.C. Grizzlies is led by a small core of volunteers who, for years, have tried to end the trophy hunt by arguing the facts — such as the uncertainty of population numbers, studies that show bear viewing generates far more in visitor spending than bear hunting and — what should be the clincher for politicians, but, curiously seems to be ignored — polls clearly demonstrate that British Columbians are overwhelmingly against the hunt.
In the leadup to next spring’s provincial election, the group is aiming for hearts and minds by asking B.C. voters and political candidates to consider the hunt from a moral and ethical stance.
“We are the moral high ground. We are not the scientists,” said Barb Murray, who has fought against the hunt for more than a decade.
“We can speak with our hearts…We all have a heart and a brain and we know wrong from right. We just have to stand up and be counted and make our politicians be accountable to the majority on this ethical issue.”
The hunt is outdated and archaic, pointed out supporter Val Murray.
“It’s 2016, and stopping the hunt is morally and ethically right,” she said.
Justice for B.C Grizzlies will officially launch in September and members will then start the hard work of pinning down politicians and candidates and bending the ears of friends and neighbours.
Supporters will be asked to sign a pledge to actively lobby to end the hunt, and ask candidates in their riding where they stand.
The group will work alongside others fighting the same battle, such as Raincoast Conservation, the David Suzuki Foundation and Pacific Wild, but will take a different approach in hopes of attracting those who have not thought about the morality of killing an apex predator — listed as a species of special concern by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada — in order to put a head on a wall or rug on the floor.
In 2001, in the dying days of the NDP government, a moratorium was imposed on trophy hunting until more scientific data could be compiled, but, as soon as Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals were elected, the moratorium was rescinded.
That decision has stuck, despite the growing distaste of British Columbians and a 2004 European Union ban on imports of all B.C. grizzly parts after an analysis found the hunt was unsustainable.
Polls show the number of people who oppose the hunt is steadily growing, with an October 2015 Insights West poll finding that 91 per cent of British Columbians and 84 per cent of Albertans say they oppose hunting animals for sport. The margin of error for B.C. is plus or minus 3.1 per cent.
Along the way, hunt opponents have gathered some high profile support, including Martyn Brown, former chief of staff to Gordon Campbell and former deputy minister of tourism, trade and investment.
Brown agrees that putting pressure on politicians and political candidates is the way to “make the B.C. government bow to the wishes of the 91 per cent of British Columbians who say they don’t support it.”
So, why does the Christy Clark Liberal government insist on continuing the hunt?
The two main arguments are that the grizzly population is healthy, with an estimated 15,000 bears, and the hunt puts money into the economy.
But government estimates of population numbers are based on models and expert opinions, not a count of bears, and many researchers believe numbers are much lower — possibly in the 6,000 range — and kills much higher than the approximately 300 grizzlies killed by hunters each year that the province reports.
A study by Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute, which analyzed 35 years of grizzly mortality data, found kill limits are regularly exceeded.
At least nine sub-populations of grizzlies in B.C are on the verge of disappearing and, in addition to the hunt, grizzlies face disappearing habitat, poachers, and vehicle collisions.
“The current hunt subjects grizzly populations to considerable risk. Substantial overkills have occurred repeatedly and might be worse than thought because of the many unknowns in management,” Raincoast biologist Kyle Artelle said after the study was published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.
Following the Raincoast study the David Suzuki Foundation and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre requested an investigation by Auditor General Carol Bellringer, who agreed to look at whether the province is effectively managing the grizzly bear population.
Bellringer is expected to issue a report in the spring and hunt opponents are crossing their fingers it will be released before the election.
They are also hoping that the departure of Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, who has said he will not run in the election, will help their cause.
Bennett, a key member of Clark’s cabinet, has been a strong supporter of the hunt.
On the financial front, a study by the Center for Responsible Travel, in conjunction with Stanford University, found that, in 2012, bear-viewing groups in the Great Bear Rainforest generated “more than 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting.”
Bear-watching also directed $7.3-million to government coffers compared to $660,500 from hunters and created 510 jobs a year compared to 11 jobs created by guide outfitters.
“The overwhelming conclusion is that bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest generates far more value to the economy, both in terms of total visitor expenditures and gross domestic product and provides greater employment opportunities and returns to government than does bear hunting,” says the study.
However the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. is a powerful lobby and a generous contributor to the Liberal Party.
Between 2011 and May 2015 the association contributed almost $37,000 to the Liberal Party and a little over $6,000 to theNDP.
Jefferson Bray, owner of the Great Bear Chalet, in the Bella Coola Valley, in a letter to Bellringer, wrote “This global obscenity continues because it is lobbied, bought and paid for.”
Although the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. is the voice of those arguing to keep the grizzly hunt, the bulk of softer support comes from hunters who belong to the B.C. Wildlife Federation, who are afraid the end of the grizzly hunt would be the thin end of the wedge, said Barb Murray.
But Justice for B.C Grizzlies has no problem with those who hunt for food and the group has hunters among its’ supporters, she emphasized.
“I am a hunter and I have never shot a bear,” said David Lawrie, a former forests engineer with the B.C. government and an inaugural member of Justice for B.C. Grizzlies.
“And, when it comes to the government being capable of providing us with the number of bears, I don’t believe it. They can’t even provide us with the number of trees in the annual allowable cut and trees don’t walk,” Lawrie said.
This summer, the Wildlife Federation supported a call by Green Party leader Andrew Weaver to require trophy hunters to pack out edible meat from grizzly bears, but the support was immediately dismissed by hunt opponents.
“If Weaver’s bill is somehow approved, most of the muscles of the bears will be transported out of the bush and dumped into landfills in B.C. and beyond, while their heads and hides will continue to be transformed into rugs for living rooms and prizes for trophy rooms, “ Raincoast executive director Chris Genovali and Raincoast guide outfitter coordinator Brian Falconer wrote in an op-ed in the Times Colonist.
Weaver’s bill died when the session ended and a Green Party spokesman said Thursday that, ideally, Weaver wants to see a complete ban on grizzly trophy hunting in B.C.
“As the government made it clear that is not on the cards, Andrew tabled the bill as an interim measure with the goal of making trophy hunting more costly and regulated, especially for out-of-province hunters,” Mat Wright said in an email.
The major hope for reversing the legislation lies with the NDP and, so far, the party has not decided where it is going with the contentious issue.
Environment critic George Heyman said in an interview that discussions have taken place in caucus and will continue once summer vacation is over.
“We will be letting people know our decision before the election,” said Heyman.
“We understand that over 90 per cent of British Columbians oppose it and we are taking it very seriously,” he said.
It is obvious many British Columbians do not trust the government’s numbers and conservation is the first principle for theNDP, Heyman said.
“We understand the importance of conserving this iconic species and we will make a responsible decision,” he said.
Which is exactly what Justice for B.C. Grizzlies wants to see.
Image: Princess Lodges via Flickr