Former military official says poverty and anger in indigenous communities mean conditions for an “insurgency” are ripe.
Central Coast, Canada – Alex Chartrand Jr turns off his boat’s engines and reaches for his binoculars. As the vessel drifts he scans an old abandoned logging camp at the far shores of a lake deep in one of the world’s last remaining tracts of temperate rainforest.
“I don’t see anyone,” he says, lowering the binoculars and turning to his partner. “Let’s go in there just to make sure.”
Chartrand and his colleague, both members of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, are part of the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network – a coalition of indigenous environmental stewards who guard the remote shores of British Columbia’s Central and North Coasts.
On this routine patrol they are on the lookout for hunters.
This mountainous stretch of Pacific, also known as the Great Bear Rainforest, marks the front-lines of a bitter dispute.
In 2012, nine indigenous First Nations along this coast banned the trophy hunting of bears in their territories under tribal law – a seasonal practice that remains legal in the western province of British Columbia.
Every autumn, hundreds of resident and non-resident hunters flock to remote areas of the province for a chance to kill a grizzly bear. Though not endangered, these large mammals, which once ranged across all of western North America, are now confined to a pocket of habitat in the northwest of the continent.
It is estimated that about 250-300 grizzlies are killed every year in British Columbia out of an official estimated population of 14,000 to 16,000 bears. Most of those bears are hunted just for their hides, heads, and paws, as their meat is largely considered to be parasitic and less palatable than other game.
Controversy over the practice has raged on and off for decades, but has now reached an all-time high.
A coalition of environmentalists, First Nations and bear tourism operators in the Great Bear Rainforest has been waging a relentless public campaign against the hunt since the indigenous ban went into effect. They say killing grizzlies for trophy is an antiquated and ethically inhumane practice that erodes ecosystems and is based on lazy bureaucratic science.
Advocates for the trophy hunt, made up of a small demographic of hunters, guide outfitters, and the provincial government say it is a sustainable and revenue-generating tradition that helps to manage bear populations and is stringently regulated.
“I think the trophy hunt is absolutely crazy,” says Doug Neasloss, a councillor with the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation based in the village of Klemtu. “In our indigenous culture, you just don’t shoot something for sport. We’re taught as kids growing up that you respect everything. That you should only kill animals for food.”
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC, a pro-hunting organisation, insists the issue shouldn’t be dictated by sentiment.
Supporters of the hunt also say it generates jobs, and millions of dollars in revenue province-wide.
But residents in the Great Bear Rainforest, which has seen an explosion in bear eco-tourism over the last few years, maintain that bear viewing far surpasses hunting in their region in every sense.
“People are coming here from all over the world to see these magnificent animals,” says Tom Rivest, co-owner of Great Bear Nature Tours, a bear-viewing lodge on the Central Coast. “We don’t need to hunt bears. We don’t need to regulate their populations because they self-regulate. They’re smart animals and people would much prefer to view and photograph them.”
The vast majority of British Columbians seem to agree with that position. In September, an Insights West poll showed 91 percent of the province’s residents disapprove of trophy hunting. That figure includes both rural and urban residents, contradicting the perception that those opposed to the hunt are mostly city-goers with little or no bush experience.
“Society generally says it’s okay to take a life for food – that most basic of human necessities – but it’s not okay to take a life in order to boast about it,” says Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast professor at the University of Victoria and science director for Raincoast Conservation. “That’s why it’s referred to as ‘trophy’ hunting – because it allows someone to boast about it.”
A wave of bad press has further undermined the legitimacy of the sport hunters in the eyes of the public, most of whom insist they are being unjustly vilified.
The most high-profile case involves Clayton Stoner, a professional ice hockey player for the Anaheim Ducks, who was charged and is now being tried for illegally hunting a grizzly bear in British Columbia. In 2013, pictures were leaked to the media showing Stoner posing with the carcass of a mutilated grizzly bear, killed in the Great Bear Rainforest, sparking a public outcry.
In spite of the negative PR and widespread disapproval of the practice, BC’s provincial government continues to back the hunt.
Neither the premier’s office, nor the Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations responded to requests to speak with Al Jazeera. But when asked by reporters about the status of the bear hunt in September, Premier Christy Clark reiterated her unwavering support of it, adding there were no planned changes in policy on the way.
Some speculate the government fears by ending the trophy hunt it would trigger a backlash from important electoral districts in the province’s interior, where the culture of hunting is especially strong.
Al Martin, director of strategic initiatives for the BC Wildlife Federation, says such regional differences, even among First Nations, make a blanket change in hunting policy across the whole province difficult to implement.
“We recognise that the First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest are opposed to grizzly bear hunting,” says Martin. “But there are other First Nations, particularly on Vancouver Island and in northwestern BC, that are involved in the commercial aspects of guiding and outfitting. Because of this, the management of wildlife is not going to be as black and white going forward.”
But for indigenous residents and activists in the Great Bear Rainforest, there is no middle way. First Nations there say they will continue putting pressure on the government to change its stance, while enforcing the ban in their territories – at almost any cost.
“Confrontation, I hate to say, is what’s going to change this,” says Neasloss. “Nobody wants to be put in that role, or be placed in a dangerous situation. But we’re ready to do whatever it takes to make sure that this practice stops once and for all.”