A muddled mess of plans that were never implemented, unclear accountability, lack of organized monitoring and spotty oversight has been at the root of the provincial government’s management of grizzly bear populations for more than two decades, Auditor General Carol Bellringer found in a highly critical report released Tuesday.
The report confirms many of the concerns frequently raised by conservation groups. A lack of firm population numbers. Resource extraction in grizzly bear habitat. Lax regulation of the grizzly bear trophy hunt.
“This is a scathing indictment of the poor management of grizzly bears by successive B.C. governments, going back decades,” said Faisal Moola, director of the David Suzuki Foundation, which requested an audit in 2014 along with University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.
To understand where things went wrong, we’ve got to rewind to 1995 when the government committed to a “Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy” with a goal to maintain healthy grizzly bear populations and the ecosystems they depend on.
But the Environment Ministry and Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources never clarified responsibilities and priorities in terms of actually implementing the strategy.
“Currently, there is no organized inventory and limited monitoring of grizzly bears. We found that one of the reasons this work is not being carried out is that there is no dedicated ministry funding,” says the report.
In other cases, government created plans, such as the strategy for recovering the endangered North Cascades grizzly population, but plans were never implemented.
“In many cases they have not developed policies and procedures necessary to ensure the survival of grizzly bear populations and, when they have had plans, they have failed to effectively implement them,” Moola said.
Government figures estimate there are now 15,000 grizzly bears in B.C. — one of the last areas in North America where grizzly bears live in their natural habitat. But that figure is questioned by some scientists — and nine of the province’s grizzly bear populations are on the verge of elimination.
A century ago, 35,000 grizzly bears lived in B.C., while other populations flourished from Alaska to Mexico to Manitoba, according to the Suzuki Foundation.
Some populations of bears have increased, Bellringer noted, but that is not the result of management strategies.
Habitat Destruction Key Threat to Grizzly Bears
Despite the public controversy that has raged around the grizzly bear trophy hunt, with 250 to 300 bears killed every year, the greatest threat is not hunting, but human activities that degrade grizzly bear habitat, Bellringer wrote.
“For example, there are 600,000 kilometres of resource roads with, on the order of 10,000 kilometres more added each year. This expansion allows greater human access into wilderness areas, which results in illegal killing of grizzly bears and greater human-bear conflicts,” she wrote.
Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson and Environment Minister George Heyman said the government is accepting all 10 recommendations in the report and will develop a grizzly bear management plan with clear objectives, roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.
The recommendations include improvements in monitoring populations and threats, developing an adequately funded inventory of bears, increased transparency, ensuring the Conservation Officer Service has enough resources to respond to grizzly/human conflicts, developing clear policies and procedures for bear viewing, mitigating the effect of industry on bear habitat, adjusting tools needed to conserve habitat and reviewing wildlife management in B.C.
Some Areas Need to be 'Off Limits' To Industry to Protect Habitat
Moola is pleased the government has accepted the recommendations, but says more is needed.
“They have gone, far, far further than the previous government, but we definitely need to ensure that there is tangible action and that will mean there have to be some areas of the province that are put off limits to any industrial development whatsoever — off limits to any resource roads, mining, forestry, oil and gas development so the remaining habitat of grizzly bears is not further eviscerated,” he said.
Heyman said at a news conference that environmental assessments will be tightened to include habitat concerns and there will be public consultations on a new species at risk act for the province.
“Part of the purpose of a species at risk act is to identify areas where species are at risk of being extirpated or threatened and to take action to prevent it happening in the first place. That can come with a whole range of conditions that will work in concert with the environmental assessment,” he said.
After a decade of decreases in boots on the ground, the government will be adding new conservation officers next year and there will be a close look at the professional reliance model, which often sees industries policing themselves, Heyman said.
Donaldson added that new guidelines are being given to statutory decision makers to consider wildlife values.
Trophy Hunting Controversy Continues
However, Heyman and Donaldson skirted around questions about the newly revamped grizzly hunt.
Under the new rules, no grizzly hunting will be allowed in the Great Bear Rainforest and trophy hunting will be banned through the rest of the province, but a meat hunt will be allowed to continue, something that critics say will open a loophole that will allow the hunt to continue.
Guide outfitters in B.C. are continuing to advertise grizzly hunting to overseas hunters, but have eliminated the word trophy.
Trish Boyum, speaking for the Facebook group Stop The Grizzly Killing, said it is now up to all British Columbians to tell the government, before the Nov. 2 deadline, that a meat hunt is not acceptable.
Since the Auditor General’s report says there is not an adequate management framework in place, it is difficult to know how a meat hunt would be policed, Boyum said.
“How can the public now be expected to trust that the Conservation Officer Service will be able to police the government’s new proposed strategies?” she said.
The report does not take into account the ethics around killing grizzlies for the thrill of the kill, Boyum said.
“If a new grizzly bear management strategy is to succeed, it will require the backing of the majority of British Columbians … and British Columbians want a total ban on grizzly hunting across all of B.C.”
Green Party spokesman Adam Olsen agreed it is disturbing that the province has failed to properly manage the grizzly population and wants to see a moratorium on hunting “while we take the time to review our wildlife management practices and plan for a landscape altered by climate change.”
Image: Nathan Rupert via Flickr