Scientists from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Simon Fraser University, and University of Victoria recently authored the first peer-reviewed study of British Columbia's controversial grizzly bear management. Conclusions from the article, titled "Confronting Uncertainty in Wildlife Management: Performance of Grizzly Bear Management" and published online in the international journal PLOS ONE, cast serious doubt regarding the B.C. government's persistent claim that "sound science" is used to manage the trophy hunt.
Using the province's kill data to determine if B.C.'s grizzly management meets its own objectives (maintaining all human-caused kills below pre-determined limits), the scientists found that in the past decade total kills commonly exceeded limits determined by provincial policy. These "overkills" occurred at least once in half the populations open to hunting between 2001-2011. Troublingly, these overkills were particularly common for adult females, the reproductive powerhouses of the species.
Notably, Raincoast and our lawyers at Ecojustice engaged in a five-year legal battle to gain access to provincial kill data. That the B.C. government had to be compelled by the courts to grant us access is telling.
According to Raincoast biologist, SFU PhD student, and lead author Kyle Artelle, "Overkills are a serious concern because the biology of grizzly bears makes them highly vulnerable to excessive mortality. They have great difficulty recovering from population declines."
The team of wildlife and fisheries scientists also assessed how uncertainty in management affects the likelihood of accurately detecting overkills. Given the many unknowns in management (such as the actual number of bears in hunted populations) overkills might have occurred in 70% of the cases, and gone undetected 75% of the time.
Dr. Paul Paquet, senior scientist at Raincoast and co-author, states, "We analyzed only some of the uncertainty associated with grizzly management and found it might be contributing to widespread overkills. I'm not sure how the government defines sound science, but an approach that carelessly leads to widespread overkills is less than scientifically credible."
Dr. Chris Darimont, UVic professor and Raincoast science director, notes, "Ignoring uncertainty -- in dimensions such as true population size -- is like playing Russian roulette. As the history of wildlife management has shown repeatedly, the consequences of not accounting for the unknowns are grave."
Reasonable people might expect that the findings of the PLOS ONE paper would give the province cause to rethink their obviously flawed management of the grizzly hunt. Instead, the bureaucrats responsible for overseeing the trophy hunting of B.C.'s grizzlies reacted with what appears to be a pushback against the exposure of their unsound policies in a prominent scientific journal.
As such, they decided to double down on their pseudo-science and expand the grizzly hunt in 2014 by re-opening two management units in the Cariboo and Kootenay regions that had been closed because of hunting overkill. In fact, the Kootenay has been identified in the PLOS ONE paper as one of the regions that has most consistently experienced overkills.
In defending their decision to expand the hunt, the province proclaimed, "anecdotal information from various stakeholders suggests that the grizzly bear population has increased." The "stakeholders" they refer to are, of course, first and foremost trophy hunters, who happen to be the B.C. government's preferred constituency when it comes to wildlife management. And so, the pretense of the province's so-called sound science is exposed by the admission of their inclusion of anecdotal evidence as justification for expanding the recreational killing of grizzly bears.
Provincial bureaucrats and career civil servants have served as the shameless enablers of an indefensible activity, causing an untold amount of pain and suffering amongst large carnivores in B.C. Ironically, while poll after poll shows an overwhelming majority of British Columbians are opposed to the grizzly hunt, these unaccountable taxpayer-funded bureaucrats and civil servants justify their existence by facilitating the recreational killing of grizzlies, and devising an elaborate ever-changing rationalization for the sport hunting of bears.
Although ongoing attempts are made to dress up the province's motivations in the trappings of their proverbial sound science, they are clearly driven by an anachronistic ideology that is disconcertingly fixated on killing as a legitimate and necessary tool of wildlife management.
Government policy makers and their bureaucratic minions who manage the grizzly hunt are not interested in rigorous science, but are keenly interested in maintaining the status quo for reasons having to do with power and control. Scientific management, by definition, requires considering and incorporating any and all new evidence as it arises. The province's contempt for the PLOS ONE paper as shown by their willful disregard of the best available peer reviewed science is inexcusable.
B.C. government biologists subsequently published an article in PLOS ONE, which provided new estimates of grizzly populations throughout the province. The provincial press release publicizing the paper made the spurious claim that the "study re-affirms that B.C. grizzlies are being sustainably managed." The study, however, was neither designed to test this nor carried out in a way that provided additional insight into the sustainability of provincial bear management.
Moreover, their publication neither affirmed nor contradicted our work, but further demonstrated that considerable uncertainty remains in estimating how many bears actually occur in a given management area. This uncertainty about the number of bears, combined with questionable but indispensable information concerning reproductive rates and unreported mortalities, clearly demands that provincial managers responsible for the hunt should err on the side of caution, rather than carelessly assuming all is well when it is not.
A version of this article previously appeared in the Invermere Valley Echo.