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Grizzly Bears

.. onsultation by the Wildlife Branch, a step could usually be taken unilaterally be the Branch if it was determined to be in the best conservation interests. The creation of GBMAs through land use planning processes is an important step in conserving grizzlies according to the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, but due to the long-winded nature of the processes, as well as the possible lack of consensus amongst stakeholders, other management processes are identified as being necessary in order to better protect grizzlies (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks,1995). The Forest Practices Code contains a provision that gives special attention to Red and Blue listed species (identified as endangered/threatened and sensitive/vulnerable species, respectively. Special species ‘guides’ are in the process of being completed for 104 animal species (including grizzlies) that will contribute to a special Forest Practices Code field guide for grizzly bears. A provincial review of all Timber Supply Areas is also given as an avenue for the protection of sensitive grizzly bear populations, according to the Ministry’s Background Report (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks,1995).

A second key component of the 1995 Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is the establishment of an independent Grizzly Bear Scientific Advisory Committee (GBSAC ) to advise the MELP on conservation issues regarding grizzly bears. The GBSAC was charged with advising government on issues such as research priorities, inventory priorities, hunting regulations, population status and trends, new and emerging biological and ecological information, and international considerations (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks,1995). The Committee was formed in 1995 out of 12 members who were provincial, national, and international grizzly bear experts, as well as First Nations representatives, appointed by the Minister of Environment, Land, and Parks. This committee was to meet regularly to provide an objective, third party opinion on matters affecting grizzly bears, and then report to the Minister directly. On October 1 of this year the first Committee was dissolved, and a second committee has yet to have been appointed for the next five years. Since the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy was completed in 1995 a great deal of effort has been put into analysing the success of the measures taken by the provincial government to stabilise its grizzly bear populations.

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Establishment of conservation areas has been occurring as part of the provincial government’s pledge to protect at least 12% of its total land base (which has occurred just recently). The Khutzeymateen Provincial Park was established in 1995 as Canada’s first park set aside specifically for grizzly bears and their habitat (www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore, 2000). It is located north of Prince Rupert on the North Coast, and is comprised of an intact old growth valley that holds a 443 sq. km Class A park, with additional no hunting zones surrounding the core park bringing the total protected area to 3850 sq. km (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks,1995). Further down the coast, the Kitlope River valley is a 3887 sq. km Protected Area that is co-managed with the Haisla First Nation.

This park encompasses the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest, but in the government’s Background Report, it states that “…grizzly bear populations are not high..” but that it “..represents a significant watershed that might serve as a grizzly bear conservation area.” (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks,1995, p. 35). The largest conservation area that has been established in British Columbia, and the one that shows the most promise for establishing a large enough area that does not isolate small populations of grizzly bears is the Muskwa-Kechika region of the Northern Rockies. In 1999, 1.1 million hectares of land were protected as a provincial park, with an additional 666, 000 hectares added through the Mackenzie LRMP this year (Pynn, 2000). The protected area of the Muskwa-Kechika prohibits mining activities that have threatened the area, as well as blocking a proposed mining access road from Fort Ware north to the Alaska highway.

This protected wilderness area has been trumpeted by the provincial government as a major step in linking protected areas for grizzly bears from the Rockies to the coast, although part of that corridor of protected area is very narrow areas along the Stikine River. Other areas identified as having potential to serve as GBMAs are the Mitchell Lake/Niagara PA (which connects Bowron and Wells Gray parks), Sustut-Babine, and Koeye-Namu. With the additions to protected areas in B.C. now at 12% of the total land base, it is possible that government and industry could stop creating new protected areas, yet for grizzly bears, the productive low elevation rainforest that they favor on the coast has less than 6% protected (Thomas, 1998). A great deal of the new protected areas were classified as high alpine rock and ice, which offers very little use to grizzly bears, or many other species for that matter. Land use decisions such as the creation of the Khutzeymateen sanctuary must be continued if the grizzly bear is not to be reduced to small, isolated populations which will be even more sensitive to encroachment and the so called ‘edge effect’ (Jeo, Sanjayan, and Sizemore,1999). Unfortunately, it appears that the 1995 Conservation Strategy could quite possibly do just that.

An independent report in 1998 by three American scientists concluded that the strategy was likely to “..reduce grizzly populations into islands of habitat or refugia from which large, wide-ranging carnivores like the grizzly are the first to disappear” (Hume, 2000). The government policy of establishing GBMAs will likely accomplish this unless the strategy is revised to explicitly provide adequate corridors between the protected ares, as well as concentrating on protecting areas of greater size that can provide the vast amounts of space required to sustain grizzly populations. The existing strategy relies too heavily on local land use planning processes to designate areas as GBMAs, when what is needed is an effective, independent committee that can report directly to the Minister of ELP in order to recommend the required areas to be protected. The Grizzly Bear Scientific Advisory Committee that was established in 1995 should have been a blueprint for the type of action needed, but due to powers beyond its control, it was largely ineffective. When the GBSAC was established, it was to provide objective advice on management issues regarding grizzly bears.

As time passed on, it became apparent that high level government interests within the Wildlife Branch were only interested in maintaining the status quo, and when the committee did attempt to make recommendations that were different than the government’s agenda, they were quashed. When the GBSAC opposed a ski resort development in critical grizzly habitat, the advice was ignored by the NDP government, and instead an internally drafted paper by a Wildlife Branch staff member supporting the development was issued (Hume, 2000). Government interference proved to be so intense that many of the panel members, including Wayne McCrory, who is one of B.C.’s leading grizzly biologists, are considering declining reappointment on the new committee due to frustrations from their ineffectiveness in enacting change. Wildlife Branch interests have had a history of taking actions that are seen as not being in the grizzly’s best interests for many years now. One of the most contentious issues affecting the grizzly bear hunt in British Columbia has been the accuracy of population estimates used in determining the total allowable annual kills.

In 1989, external pressures on the Wildlife Branch concerned about a chronic overkill of bears, a fact that was backed up in the government own Background Report in 1995 that stated that from 1984-1988, 52 of 118 Management Units had total kills over the maximum allowable annual harvest. A new guideline was adopted stating that the total provincial harvest level should be reduced from 5% to 4%, but at the same time the Wildlife Branch revised its population estimates for the grizzlies, nearly doubling on paper the population to between 10,000 and 13,000 grizzlies (Thornton, 1998). Instead of reducing the number of grizzlies harvested, it actually may have increased the total number of kills. Independent scientists continue to estimate the population at 4,000 to 7,000 bears province wide, and it seems likely the actual populations does in fact lie somewhere below the government estimates. The reason for government overestimating populations is due to the poor methodology used to determine populations. Local biologists from each region were left to assess the number of bears that each habitat could potentially support, and adjust estimates accordingly. No field checks are actually done for the majority of populations, and the Ministry itself even admits that population totals were based on ‘best guesses’ of local biologists (Thornton, 1998).

Since hunting regulations are based on population estimates, uncertainty over numbers has led to questions about the hunt that continues today. A manual count of the Limited Entry Hunting Regulations Synopsis for this hunting season shows that a total of 1151 LEH permits were available for fall and spring hunts. Without going into statistical models, this shows a lack of adherence being paid to following the precautionary principle. Even according to the top end of the Wildlife Branch’s estimates, this allows for permits to be issued for nearly 9% of the province’s bears to be legally killed, without accounting for non-hunting mortalities. Also, in MU 6-14 which encompasses the Ishkheenickh River valley which borders on the Khutzeymateen, 15 LEH permits are available. According to the Khutzeymateen Valley Grizzly Bear Study completed in 1993, this valley is easily accessible to the Khutzeymateen via a low elevation pass in the Khuzeymateen’s headwaters. Given the press that has been given to the creation of the Khutzeymateen as a grizzly bear sanctuary, it does not seem prudent to allow a hunt within such close proximity to the Khutzeymateen.

In order to effectively conserve grizzly bear populations into the next century, there are institutional barriers that must be overcome to effect any positive change. A shift from the current frame of thought of trying to meet the estimated minimum needs of the grizzly bears to a school of thinking that will provide hunting regulations and habitat protection that is more than enough to protect the bears. The current framework of the Wildlife Branch in MELP does not provide the opportunity for efficient regulation, as the Wildlife Branch does not have the authority required to compete against the many other interest groups that have a stake in grizzly bear habitat. There needs to be a better working relationship between the Ministry of Forests and the Wildlife Branch with regards to logging practices in order to provide adequate habitat in areas that are not within any officially protected area. Management of a species such as the grizzly bear that has requirements that are not compatible with most types of human activities provide a challenge for modern management institutions in that the multi stakeholder process that land use planning involves does not favor the protection of grizzlies.

If habitat is to be genuinely protected, it cannot be subject to compromise between groups such as resource extraction, road building, and to a lesser extent tourism. Other than in a few select instances such as the Khutzeymateen, it is unlikely that many land use decisions will be made to set aside large tracts of productive land exclusively for grizzly bear habitat, and more than likely the majority of grizzly bear habitat will continue to be subject to encroachment from commercial and recreational uses. If the provincial government is committed to keeping a relatively stable and widespread grizzly bear population throughout the province, it must work to ensure that the few protected areas large enough to protect grizzly bear ecosystems are added to and connected to ensure biodiversity and to avoid isolation of populations which will eventually lead to extirpation (see Fig. 1). An effective independent panel must be in place to advise the province on matters affecting grizzly bears, and the province must listen to suggestions that are in the interests of conserving bears if it is to have any chance of saving the grizzlies. Finally, the grizzly bear hunt in B.C., that is already the center of controversy, must be scaled back dramatically, so that there is no question that the hunt is not endangering the long term viability of grizzly bears in B.C.

This would also send a strong signal to the international community that B.C. is committed to conserving grizzly bears, instead of the current system that claims to be bear friendly but in reality pays only lip service to taking strong action. Most likely the only way that sweeping, effective changes will take place will be if the economy in B.C. eventually moves away from being so resource dependent, because if the government continues to have to choose between grizzly bears and logging, mining, and farming, the grizzlies don’t stand a chance. Grizzly Bear Management Institutions in B.C.

Environmental Issues.

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