POLITICS

NHL player caught up in First Nation dispute over grizzly trophy hunt

09/04/2013 01:48 EDT | Updated 11/04/2013 05:12 EST
VANCOUVER - A Canadian-born NHL defenceman has found himself at the centre of a divisive debate over British Columbia's grizzly bear hunt after photos of him surfaced holding the head of an animal he killed — legally and with the required permit — in a remote area of the province's central coast.

Clayton Stoner, who was born in B.C. and plays for the Minnesota Wild, confirmed reports he was involved in killing a grizzly bear this past May while on a hunting trip with his father, an uncle and a family friend.

It was all perfectly legal, but photos of a professional athlete holding the head of a dead grizzly have helped fuel a perennial debate that sees environmentalists and First Nations groups fighting against a provincial government that steadfastly defends the hunt as an important part of the province's economic and cultural fabric.

The photos surfaced this week in the Vancouver Sun newspaper, a day before the Coastal First Nations screened a short film detailing the killing and renewing the group's calls for an end to the hunt.

The grizzly, which local residents had named "Cheeky," was killed in an area known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The Coastal First Nations have declared a ban on grizzly hunting in the area, though the ban has no legal force and is not recognized by the provincial government.

The group, which represents nine First Nations communities along coastal B.C., denied it was behind releasing the photos, which were captured by one of its field technicians after confronting Stoner immediately after the kill.

"Our technicians did encounter a hunting party in the field and we had a hunter in that party identify himself to our field technicians as Clayton Stoner," Jessie Housty, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Nation, said during a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film in Vancouver.

"It's been important to us to focus on the bigger issue of trophy hunting in B.C.," she added in an interview later. "We're not interested in vilifying anyone or naming names."

Stoner issued a written statement confirming he was involved in a grizzly bear hunt in May. The statement stressed he obtained the proper grizzly bear hunting licence from the provincial government.

"I grew up hunting and fishing in British Columbia and continue to enjoy spending time with my family outdoors," the statement said. "I love to hunt and fish and will continue to do so with my family and friends in British Columbia."

The provincial government hands out 300 licences each year to a combination of B.C. residents and to outfitter companies which take out-of-province hunters on guided trips.

The B.C. government has been a staunch defender of the grizzly hunt, arguing it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the local tourism industry and is a valuable part of the province's heritage.

That has pitted the province against a list of environmental activists, including the David Suzuki Foundation and even chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, as well as First Nations communities that live in the areas where the hunt is permitted.

The Coastal First Nations say the province has overestimated the health of the grizzly population, and the group also says bears are integral to their culture and must be protected in their territories.

The group announced a ban on hunting in its territories last September and says it has started a monitoring program to identify grizzly hunters and confront them.

"We have a number of ways we can look at to discourage hunting, whether that means scaring bears away or asking them (the hunters) to leave," said Doug Neasloss of the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation.

"The big part of this education process is that we want people to know that hunting is closed and don't waste your money coming to the Great Bear Rainforest."

Beyond that, there may be little the Coastal First Nations can do to stop bear hunting without the support of the provincial government.

The group hopes the film and a new opinion poll they released Wednesday, which suggested strong public opposition to the hunt, might help convince the government to rethink the hunt.

However, the government minister in charge of overseeing the hunt, Forests Minister Steve Thomson, was quick to defend the hunt while dismissing the Coastal First Nations' claim that grizzly hunting is banned in their territories.

"The province has the responsibility and authority to manage the grizzly bear hunt, and we would ask the Coastal First Nations to respect that authority," Thomson said in an interview.

"We manage the hunt on sound science. ... We support the economic contributions that the hunt provides for British Columbia, but with the caveat that it be managed on a sustainable basis."

The Coastal First Nations released a poll, conducted by McAllister Opinion Research, that asked about 800 respondents across the province whether they supported a ban, and 87 per cent responded they were either in favour or strongly in favour of ending the hunt.

The poll was conducted over 12 days in July and has a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

In 2001, the NDP government of the day implemented a moratorium on grizzly hunting, but that was overturned a few months later after the Liberals took power.

Alberta placed a moratorium on grizzly bear hunting in 2006, and is currently examining whether to keep the ban or revisit the issue.

In 2009, the Manitoba government added grizzly bears to a list of species protected under the provincial Wildlife Act.

On the web: http://bearsforever.ca