Chris Pecora

Return of the Grizzly Hunt

Killing bears for all the wrong reasons.

By Kevin Van Tighem

The first big November snowstorm means bedtime for Alberta’s grizzly bears. This was a good berry year, so most will go to bed fat and wake up next spring healthy. And then some may die. The UCP government appears to be signalling its intention to reopen the spring grizzly bear hunt. Why?

Annual deferrals of Alberta’s traditional spring grizzly hunt started in 2006. In 2011, when a detailed statistical analysis suggested Alberta had only 700 grizzlies, the government shut down the hunt for good. Scientists say there would need to be at least 1,000 grizzlies to sustain a hunt.

But those who live in terror of claws and teeth, or who lust after the chance to kill powerful animals, insist that Alberta now has too many grizzlies. In 2019 they helped elect a government sympathetic to their fantasies.

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon recently announced the launch of “the most comprehensive [popula-tion inventory] in North America. We’re testing grizzly DNA to see… how we can best mitigate human and bear conflict and determine the best management strategies for grizzlies going forward. Grizzly bear populations appear to be increasing, and it’s critical for us to call on science, not emotion, when it comes to managing such an impressive but sometimes aggressive species.”

That carefully framed statement suggests a grizzly hunt will soon return. “Science over emotion” is a coded message that the government will marginalize those opposing a grizzly hunt as hysterical Bambi-huggers. And Nixon appears to have conflated statistics with science. Estimating bear numbers—by applying statistical models to DNA hair-capture studies—doesn’t provide information on how to “mitigate human and bear conflict.” It simply answers the question of whether there’s enough to hunt.

But why hunt any at all?  Nixon implies that grizzly hunting would help address real management issues. Public safety, for one. Grizzlies have been known to attack humans. Agricultural predation is another; some bears kill livestock or raid grain bins. Once conditioned to human food, those bears can become costly and dangerous neighbours.

Would hunting help solve those challenges? Science suggests not. Other solutions already work well. That’s why we now have more grizzlies and far fewer grizzly problems than in the bad old days when they were hunted. With the advent of bear-proof garbage bins, bear deterrent sprays and better user education, hundreds of thousands of people now use grizzly habitat safely every year. Grizzlies have more to fear from us than we do from them.

Even so, those promoting a new grizzly hunt argue that hunting will make bears fear humans more. Not only is there no science behind that assertion, but were it true it would be an argument against a hunt. U of C’s Stephen Herrero and his colleagues have found that most grizzly attacks are caused by surprise close-range encounters where the bear sees the human as a threat. The late bear expert Charlie Russell pointed out that making bears more fearful increases the risk from encounters.  When I blundered into a mother grizzly with two tiny cubs one day, I was fortunate that no hunters tried to “save” me from her by instilling fear; she felt safe enough simply to watch me depart.

Grizzly bears, like humans, need to be managed. Emotional arguments notwithstanding, however, they don’t need to be hunted.

Some rural residents argue that recovering grizzly populations make it unsafe for kids to wait at school bus stops or play in the yard. But no child has ever been attacked at a bus stop or in their yard in Alberta. One study found only 29 grizzly bear attacks on humans over a span of 38 years (1960–1998) in this province. On the other hand, more than half a million dog bites are reported each year in Canada, and dogs actually kill one or two Albertans each year.  Should we hunt dogs?

Grizzly hunting doesn’t reduce agricultural conflicts either. Killing calves or raiding granaries is a problem with individual bears, not a general problem with all of them. And effective solutions already abound. Many ranchers and farmers use electric fences, bear-proof metal granaries and livestock-herding dogs to keep bears from learning bad habits. When that doesn’t work, getting a government wildlife officer (or deputizing the rancher) to kill the problem bear is more effective than issuing some hunting permits to nimrods from faraway cities to shoot random bears.

Bears, like humans, need to be managed. Emotional arguments notwithstanding, however, they don’t need to be hunted. If Minister Nixon is sincere in saying that science will determine whether to allow a grizzly hunt, those bears sleeping away another Alberta winter should be fine. They will wake up to a safe world where intelligent humans don’t let fear or hatred revitalize a hunt for which science offers no valid rationale.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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