Just less than a year ago, somewhere near the town of Kaslo in British Columbia’s Kootenays region, Tommy Knowles and I are laying underneath our truck, tying a clove hitch to our muffler with para cord after what must be the bumpiest forest service road in the province sheared a bracket straight off our chassis. About 30km up this winding, narrow track, we’re patrolling for trophy hunters as part of Wildlife Defence League’s (Tommy’s grassroots community organization) campaign against grizzly hunting in the province.
An early snow melt this year has meant easy access for trophy hunters to the furthest reaches of these roads, and as grizzlies make their way down avalanche chutes and through alpine meadows in search of food, hunters’ scopes are poised from the back of trucks and ATVs in anticipation. But it isn’t until our second week in the area that we are really confronted with the reality of what we are bearing witness to as on the very same road - an access point to one of BC’s most treasured wildernesses and backcountry hiking areas - we come across the mangled carcass of a juvenile grizzly bear in the back of a white Chevy.
Having not grown up in British Columbia, nor even on the continent of North America, the grizzly bear has always represented an archetype of wild mammals to me. One of the most revered yet misunderstood species that has been so culturally immortalized throughout Canada and the world was always something that I presumed was cherished by Canadians. I presumed that Canadians photographed these animals, followed them with binoculars from a ridge line on a Sunday hike, and pointed them out to kids from the car window; much like we do with macropods or echidnas in Australia. So never had I considered that one day I might witness a grizzly reduced from its majesty and splendour to a bloody carcass in the box of a rusty truck; yet here it was. Surrounded by what one would describe as nothing less than pristine wilderness, the subject of most wildlife documentaries I had seen as a kid was now shoved into a space somewhere between an air compressor and a spare tire.
But as Tommy tells me, the idiosyncrasy in values is palpable among British Columbians. He tells me as we leave this scene that I’m right to think of these animals as the bastions of true, wild nature. However, politics, greed, and money had tarnished this species’ right to survival as a backward and archaic “industry” still thrived in the province. “British Columbia is one of the last remaining strongholds for the grizzly bear - they are an iconic species that play a critical role in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems and to me, they represent everything that is wild and beautiful about British Columbia,” he says. “But trophy hunting exists for two reasons in BC: one, because a handful of people believe they have an inherent right to slaughter animals for sport, and two, because this handful of people have constantly voted for and donated to the government who keeps this practice alive. In British Columbia, you simply have to follow the money. Political donations dictate policy.”
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since I’ve moved to Canada, it's that the similarities between my new home and my birthplace in the Southern Hemisphere are vast. If you simply swap out eucalypts for conifers and marsupials for ungulates and ursidae, Australia is virtually the antipodean counterpart of Canada. Because of this, I’m no stranger to wildlife exploitation, the politics and socioeconomics that lie behind resource extraction, or seeing those industries come first and the health of ecosystems, second. But we don’t have large carnivores in Australia. No bears, no wolves or felines. It is difficult to comprehend the psychology behind hunting an animal simply for a head on a wall or a rug on the floor.
Tommy’s diagnosis of this rigorous anthropocentrism that would lead to such callous disregard seemed to lie in the image of the grizzly that has been perpetuated by colonials since American naturalist and ornithologist George Ord formally classified the species in 1815 as Ursus horribilis - meaning “terrifying bear." “There is, without a doubt, a fear instilled within people that grizzly bears are vicious, aggressive, and mean, and trophy hunters have exploited this fear in their justification for killing,” says Tommy, but he remains optimistic that this image can be altered. “We can change folks’ perception by educating them. We have to show people that these animals are truly gentle in nature and not violent as perceived,” he says. “I recognize that bear viewing isn't possible for everyone, but if you do have an opportunity to see these animals living out their natural lives, interacting with their young, and moving through their landscape, you'll understand what I mean.”
And indeed, it seems that the overwhelming majority of British Columbians know exactly what Tommy means, as statistics from polling data suggest that only a fraction of the province’s population support trophy hunting and 91% would like to see it come to an end. This is where money and vested interests step in, as recent investigations primarily lead by Dogwood Initiative and Pacific Wild have revealed the true colours of the BC government’s political and monetary incentives coupled with the economic precariousness of the hunt. Tommy explains that “revenue generated from hunting fees and licenses doesn't cover the cost of managing the hunt, meaning that British Columbians are footing the bill for it.” So, in a province where 9 in every 10 people don’t support a government sanctioned hunt - as Christy Clark and the Liberals are set to gain financially from an exploitative and ecologically destructive practice that will see British Columbians deprived of the megafauna they so cherish - those people are paying the cleanup costs.
But thanks to the efforts made by these organizations - in addition to Wildlife Defence League’s field work to monitor, document, and expose the hunt - some change is being made. British Columbia's 41st general election in 2017 will finally see an opportunity for British Columbians to evict Christy Clark’s exploitative programs. While the BC Liberals essentially believe grizzly bears should be allowed to be slaughtered for sport, on the other hand, the BC NDP have listened to and acknowledged 91% of residents in this province and have stated that, if elected, they would ban the grizzly bear trophy hunt. As Tommy explains, “The continuation of the grizzly bear trophy hunt is at stake in the coming election. British Columbians should reach out to their MLA to let them know how they feel about the issue because MLAs province-wide need to hear from their constituents that it's time to end the grizzly bear trophy hunt. Once and for all.”
As Tommy and I limped our truck home that evening, the full extent of what we had witnessed seemed at once to validate the power of bearing witness to the BC Liberals’ disregard for wild nature but also to point to what is really at stake here. Because while the full gamut of numerical data informing this issue points overwhelmingly to the shaky economic, ecological, and philosophical foundations of the BC trophy hunt, at times - and most pertinently, at a time when you are face-to-face with those animals you are seeking to protect - it is difficult to comprehend why we need to rely on such a swath of statistics to inform our decision on this issue at all. At the end of the day, it would seem most important to simply ask the question: how dare we place the onus on another species to quantify its eligibility for existence? And how dare we ask this species to justify its own rights in any sense other than ecologically? But perhaps these are questions best posed to MLAs around the province, as the BC trophy hunt will certainly become the elephant in the room at this coming election.
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*All imagery courtesy of Sam Edmonds