A Postmortem on the Grizzly Bear Hunting Ban in British Columbia

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As the end of 2017 approaches the BC government is expected to introduce legislation to ban the grizzly bear “trophy hunt”. All grizzly hunting in the Great Bear Rain Forest will be banned but in the rest of the province the new legislation is anticipated to just ban hunters from keeping the head, hide and claws. The head, hide and claws are what the government are defining as the “trophy parts” of a grizzly bear. Hunters will only be allowed to keep the meat and the trophy parts will have to be turned in to government biologists who then will either give them to First Nations or dispose of them in a landfill. The new law won’t affect First Nations hunters so they will be allowed to hunt grizzlies and keep all the trophy parts.

In previous articles I wrote about the tactics that the anti-grizzly bear hunting campaigners used to advance their agenda to ban the grizzly hunt, how the North American hunting community failed to support BC hunters in their opposition to this campaign and how a ban on trophy parts will lead to wasting useable portions of a harvested animal. The ban, however, is not solely a result of what anti-hunters, non-hunters, government or the international hunting community did or did not do. A series of failures by hunters in the province extending back several decades are responsible for hunters losing the opportunity to hunt grizzly bears in BC. To sum it up, the grizzly bear hunt ban is a result of the hunting community failing to be proactive and progressive in the face of changing social attitudes towards hunting. The hunting community has failed on three basic levels:

Failure of tactics

Public awareness of and objections towards bear hunting in BC began back in the 1970s. In 2001, a three-year moratorium on hunting grizzly bears was enacted by the government of the day. Conflicts between bear hunters and grizzly bear tour operators began to hit the media in BC around 2015 and the hunting community did not act to proactively resolve the conflicts. Social media increasingly became a place where animal rights activists used photos and videos uploaded by hunters to sway the public and journalist’s attitudes about grizzly hunting and bear hunters. The shift in public opinion was the political lever anti-hunters were after. The public’s general concern for animal welfare and opposition to hunting has been changing in many countries including Canada. That concern culminated with the Cecil-the-Lion controversy which the hunting community failed to use as a proactive opportunity to self-reflect. Hunters in BC failed to recognize all these signs and keep the narrative on hunting positive.

Failure of vision

The hunting community failed to create a vision of the future – a vision that would have painted a picture of how hunters want to be viewed by society. I believe the majority of hunters feel the narrative on hunting should be one where hunting is simply accepted as a normal part of our culture where the focus is on wildlife conservation. Many hunters, however,  have failed to align their actions, behaviours and attitudes with any semblance of what a modern society would consider as normal.

Failure of strategy

The hunting community failed to execute a strategy based on a collective vision of the future. In fact, the failure is not the lack of executing a strategy rather it was the total absence of an actual strategy. There have been no attempts to objectively understand what causes non-hunters to oppose hunting or to develop solutions that address those causes. Many non-First Nations hunters have failed to accept that hunting is not a right in Canada and they have failed to accept that the future of hunting depends on maintaining social license from the non-hunting public. Maintaining that social license requires a well-though out strategy.

The Top 9 Grizzly Hunting Arguments that Failed to Change the Minds of Non-Hunters

In the flurry of public opposition to grizzly bear hunting that surrounded the BC provincial election in the spring of 2017, a fragmented and unorganized hunting community scrambled to justify why the grizzly hunt should be allowed to continue as is. The most organized articulate hunters and scientists tried to get the debate to focus on the most important grizzly conservation issues such as habitat and non-hunting mortality. The public and media; however, were stuck on the act of shooting a bear and the sensationalism around that aspect of hunting was not effectively counter balanced.  Hunters were painted as the evil doers. Individual hunters jumped into the debate and tried to aggressively impose their own arguments on others which served to entrench non-hunters in their positions. Unfortunately, the arguments put forth by many of these hunters and even some hunting organizations, failed to resonate with the non-hunting public. In fact, some of the arguments given by hunters were so unsound that the anti-hunting folks were able to expose the flaws in the arguments without much effort.

  1. Argument: “The grizzly hunt is necessary to control bear populations”

The objective of science-based wildlife management in BC is to ensure hunting does not reduce or destabilize grizzly bear populations. The objective has been to allow a hunt on grizzly bears because hunters want the opportunity to hunt them not because biologists wanted to control or reduce bear populations. In some areas of BC, biologists are still trying to recover populations and understand causes of declines. Science has shown that the regulation of the grizzly hunt needs to be set up so that hunting does not push human-caused mortality, in any population unit, above 6%.  Most grizzly populations are closely monitored especially in the southern regions of the province. High levels of non-hunting mortality (especially on breeding-aged females) have even lead to hunting closures in some population units in order to maintain a conservative management approach to hunting. The argument that hunting is necessary to control bear populations is an argument that many hunters believe is true, however, it was an argument that failed to change attitudes of the non-hunting public towards grizzly hunting.

  1. Argument: “Use science not emotion”.

Some hunters argued that the ban was decided on the emotions of the non-hunting public. These hunters argued that science should be used instead of emotions. Hunters who used this argument lacked a basic understanding of the role of science in decision making and the difference between emotions and personal value/belief systems. Some non-hunters have values and belief systems where they feel the killing of animals, for any reason, is not a moral act. Hunters hold different values and belief systems. Telling others that their deeply held personal beliefs are wrong didn’t get much traction in the public forums.  These differing value systems do not mean that non-hunters oppose the grizzly hunt because they are emotional and that hunters want to preserve hunting because they are unemotional. Hunters using this argument inferred that non-hunters are “over emotional” and that science should override these people’s emotions because science-based wildlife management is un-emotional.  Science is objective when it tests a hypothesis but the choice of what to study can be, and is often, influenced by social values and sometimes even emotions. Science does control what society can or cannot do. Science provides a course of action that society can use to meet social objectives. Science provides options, trade-offs and consequences of decisions that society is faced with making. There is no body of science that mandates grizzly bears must be hunted in BC.  It has been my observation that some hunters are as emotional and irrational about the grizzly hunt as some non-hunters.

  1. Argument: “The hunting ban caters to a minority special interest”

Resident hunters make up about 2.4% of the total population of BC. Hard core anti-hunters might be a minority in BC but there are definitely more non-hunters than hunters in the province. The argument that a hunting ban is catering to a minority special interest is akin to the pot calling the kettle black. To argue that non-hunters should not have a say in wildlife policy is a rather undemocratic way of thinking since the province’s wildlife belongs to all the people of BC. The fact that hunters tried to use this argument to counter opposition to the current grizzly hunt showed there was a lack of a rational understanding of the democratic process, politics and demographics in the province and a lack of understanding for the concepts of advocacy, equality and equity. The very things hunters argue for when they want hunting to be preserved.

  1. Argument: “Hunting grizzly bears is needed because adult male bears kill cubs”

Researchers from Cambridge University reported that infanticide was observed in 119 of 260 mammalian species that were studied. Infanticide is reported to occur in fish, insects, amphibians, rodents, birds and mammals.  Hunting of grizzly bears in BC was never a management tool used to prevent cub mortality as some hunters claimed. The fact remains; infanticide is a natural part of the animal world and it is likely important to the survival and evolution of species in ways that we may never fully understand. The thought of infant animals being killed is emotional for hunters and non-hunters but brown bears have evolved and survive just fine as a species even though infanticide is part of their natural behavior. The non-hunting public likely accepts this fact better than some hunters do.  Consequently non-hunters were not convinced that hunting grizzly bears is necessary so humans can “prevent” the natural cub killing phenomenon. On one hand, some hunters were trying to tell the public that hunting is necessary to control bear populations and, on the other hand, other hunters were saying hunting is necessary to prevent cub mortality so the bear populations can increase. This contradiction was not difficult for the anti-hunting organizations to use to make hunters look bad. Anti-hunters were quick to point out the number of female grizzlies hunters were shooting every year which tended to discredit the supposed biological benefits of the cub killing-hunting argument.

  1. Argument: “Grizzly bears are wiping out other wildlife species”

Bears require a diet of vegetation and protein so they will actively hunt other animals. In some parts of the world scientists have studied the effects of grizzly/brown bear predation on ungulates. In some cases, the effect on ungulate populations is significant.  However, hunters tried to convince the public that grizzly bears need to be hunted because they are apex predators that are “wiping out” populations of moose, caribou and elk.  If any predator (other than humans) had the ability to cause another species to go extinct they probably would have done it thousands of years ago. Given that the grizzly hunt was tightly regulated so that hunter harvest did not cause population declines the effect of removing a few hundred bears across the entire province of BC would not have been enough to change their overall impact on ungulate populations. The non-hunting public is not convinced that grizzly hunting is needed to ensure that a small proportion of the bear population does not prey on other wildlife. As with the case of infanticide in the animal world, the non-hunting public appears to accept the role of grizzlies as a natural predator of ungulates better than some hunters.

  1. Argument: “Hunting reduces human-bear conflict”

The hard reality of this argument is that it is pure speculation. Scientists have not thoroughly tested the hypothesis that hunting reduces human-bear conflict so there is no reliable data or defensible conclusions on this topic. If reducing conflict were the reason biologists needed to implement a grizzly hunt then it’s logical to say that the hunt would have been set up to reduce bear populations closer to human settlements and that hunting bears would not be necessary in the remotest regions of the province.  While some hunters claim science should be used to manage all wildlife populations they tried to justify the grizzly hunt using an argument that has simply not been tested by scientists. The non-hunting public was much more on top of the published wildlife literature than many hunters and they were quick to discredit this argument.

  1. Argument: “Urban people don’t have to live with grizzly bears”

Some hunters who engaged in the grizzly hunt debate appeared to have a grudge against people living in populated centers even though a large number of hunters reside in the province’s largest cities. Some hunters argued that urban people “don’t have a clue about the real world”. Others argued that because the populated areas around Vancouver (where most of the province’s population is centered) no longer supports grizzly bears that urban people are not entitled to have say on wildlife policy in the rural areas of the province.  Elements of this argument suggested that people living in rural areas are inundated with grizzly bears wreaking havoc on life and property and somehow hunting was helping fix the “problem”. Living in grizzly country is a choice the same as living in an urban center is a choice. These choices have nothing to do with a person’s rights or intellect.  The argument that urban people are less intelligent citizens when it comes to participating in grizzly policy decisions simply did not resonate with non-hunters whether those folks lived in rural or urban communities.

  1. Argument: “Hunting pays for conservation”

Hunting does not pay for conservation in BC it contributes to conservation. A surcharge placed on hunting licenses and game tags is collected and re-invested back into conservation. Hunters in Canada do not “pay” for conservation to the same level that hunting license fees and excise taxes do in the United States. Excise taxes on outdoor equipment, firearms and ammunition generates roughly $1 billion a year in the USA and many state-level fish and wildlife conservation programs are supported by hunting and fishing industry tax dollars. There are no excise taxes like this in Canada. British Columbia is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America yet it has one of the lowest levels of funding for wildlife management. If the wildlife budgets of BC’s neighbours are an indication of the funding benchmark for good wildlife management then hunting is not coming close to paying for wildlife management in BC. The vast majority of conservation in BC is born by the tax payers. The fact that hunters do not pay for all conservation is something that hunters have failed to recognize when they use this argument. Many of the non-hunters have a better handle on the economics of hunting in BC than hunters do.

  1. Argument: “Science says the grizzly hunt is sustainable”

 A published scientific paper released in 2016 by the province’s top grizzly researches demonstrated how BC’s management of the grizzly hunt was sustainable. Hunters hailed the study and subsequently used it to counter opponents arguing against the grizzly hunt. The primary failure of the hunters’ argument was not that the science was flawed but the logic in how the science was used in the grizzly hunt debate. Most opponents to grizzly hunting that I observed objected to the hunting of grizzly bears based on moral principles. Whether or not science demonstrated that the hunt was sustainable was irrelevant to these people. Many hunters argued that science should be used to manage the grizzly hunt yet they turned around and openly rejected the province’s other scientific studies on grizzly bears.  In a public meeting where a grizzly bear PhD candidate researcher was updating hunters on a local grizzly study some of the local hunters and guides publicly criticized the researcher for reporting when bears in his studied died claiming the deaths were affecting the number of grizzly hunting permits that would be allocated for “their” area.  It was hard to tell who was on whose side sometimes. For some hunters, science is accepted only when it aligns with their own opinions. Hunters who reject science out of convenience or to protect their ego discredit the entire hunting community when we advocate for more science-based wildlife management. The non-hunting community sees these contradictions as well.

 He Who Holds the Gold Makes the Rules

On a recent MeatEater podcast Greg Blascovich, a researcher in the United States with a PhD in political communication and President of the Keep it Public campaign, shared the results of a research study he completed on non-hunters reactions to hunter’s arguments.  Blascovich’s study looked at how non-hunters attitudes towards hunting changed by accessing their reactions to 5 common arguments hunters use to justify hunting. The study assessed whether non-hunters attitudes toward hunting became more positive or remained unchanged depending on the particular argument provided to them.

The study showed that attitudes towards hunting among the non-hunter participants in the study were positive when they were given the following arguments:

  1. Hunting is a way to acquire a sustainable food source.
  2. Hunting is regulated by biologists.

The attitudes towards hunting among the non-hunters in the study did not change when they were given the following arguments:

  1. Hunting needs to continue because it’s a tradition.
  2. Hunting is needed to control animal populations.

When it came to using the argument “Hunting generates revenue for conservation”, Blascovich found some un-expected results. If the non-hunters participating in the survey declared themselves as “environmentalists” their attitude towards hunting was not positive when they were given the argument that hunting is necessary because it generates revenue for conservation. If the survey participants said they were not environmentalists their attitudes toward hunting were more positive when they were given the same argument. The take away message from the Blascovich study is that arguments in support of hunting that resonate strongly with hunters do not automatically resonate with non-hunters. This concept is critical to understand because hunters need the support of non-hunters if hunting is going to survive.

What Does the Future Hold for Hunting?

In the final stages of bringing in the grizzly trophy hunting ban into legislation the BC government opened up a public comment period. Hunters got all fired up over this opportunity and were rallying to inspire each other to submit comments before the deadline.  The unfortunate part of this campaign was that the government said it would provide the public with opportunity to “comment” but it was not “consulting” with the public. In other words, submit whatever comments you want the government was not changing its’ mind. I’ve witnessed hunters put more effort into submitting these after-the-fact comments than when they had the chance to change the outcome of the provincial election which had a party that openly declared they would ban grizzly hunting if elected.

Hunters in BC have not embraced the idea of rallying behind progressive, articulate and educated spokespeople/ambassadors to represent them in the public domain. Hunters continue to argue among themselves, criticize scientists and biologists, attack their peers who are fighting for conservation, argue with anti-hunters and grab the soap box to spray personal opinions as facts. Some hunters were simply too apathetic to do anything at all.  Other hunters were getting more fired up over topics like youth, senior and archery hunting seasons, antler restrictions, lengths of hunting seasons or whether hunters can harvest one white-tailed doe than they did on the important issues facing the future of hunting and wildlife conservation in the province.  Some vocal hunters took to social media to attack non-hunters in disrespectful debates about the grizzly hunt (and vice versa) and the hunting community as a whole failed to call out their peers for representing them poorly in these debates. On a mass scale, the majority of these outspoken hunters, as macho as they try to present themselves, continue to be scared to meet with their elected officials and tell them how important hunting and conservation is to them. Many of these hunters invested their time into complaining on social media rather than spending that time to write an elected official. Too many hunters feel they are wildlife experts so they try to impose their ideologies about wildlife management on everyone else rather than simply telling elected officials that hunting is important to their way of life and demanding actions to preserve it. The collective voice of hunters talking to elected officials has the power to change policies for the betterment of wildlife and our hunting heritage.

In the entire debate over the grizzly hunt in BC the hunting community failed to articulate the ultimate argument – the argument that explains why they want to hunt grizzly bears. The arguments that hunters tried to use were either not supported by science or policy, contradictory or just plain illogical. It’s interesting that when hunters talk about why they hunt game animals like moose, elk or deer they give all these very personal reasons such as; connecting with Nature, procuring a sustainable source of wild meat, knowing where their food comes from and enjoying outdoor experiences with friends and family. Yet when it came to explaining why they want to hunt grizzly bears many hunters could not articulate their reasons in a similar way. The chance to tell the public powerful personal reasons why they hunt gave way to these “matter-of-fact” un-emotional reasons why grizzly bears must be hunted. Consequently those arguments failed miserably to change people’s perceptions of grizzly hunting.

It’s likely my article will elicit some emotional and defensive responses from some hunters. In their defense, these hunters were not purposely trying to defend the grizzly hunt with flawed arguments. But its unfortunate how many hunters believe these flawed arguments should have changed the outcome of the debate on grizzly hunting. I’m concerned too many hunters are self-centered, out of touch with social trends, too rigid in their opinions, too sensitive to criticism and unwillingly to change for the collective betterment of the future of hunting. I’m equally concerned that too many hunters are conditioned to believe whatever the popular TV hunting hosts espouse and not what the wildlife scientists tell us.

Hunters in BC need to face the reality that the future of hunting in this province will not be saved by the great conservation history or the economic value of hunting in the United States. The situation south of the border has little to no impact on hunting policy and public attitudes towards hunting in Canada. Not all the high profile hunting conservation organizations and celebrity hunters in the US are going to stand up for the future of hunting in BC. British Columbia and Canada do not have a Ryan Zinke championing hunting and conservation at the highest political levels either. That responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of every hunter in the province.  The reality is that hunters in BC failed to be proactive and sensitive to a changing society – a society that was giving off signals for the last four decades that it didn’t like the grizzly hunt the way they perceived it.  Hunting in BC is going to face more and stronger opposition to many other areas of hunting in the near future.  Will hunters approach the next public opposition to hunting the same as it did for the grizzly hunt? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Do hunters really have what it takes to adapt to a modern and changing world?    Are hunters so married to their own dogmas that they will not change their ways to preserve the future of hunting? Non-hunters are not asking for a seat at the wildlife management table anymore. They have walked into the meeting room and sat at the table with their “I’m a BC citizen too” card. The public is expecting moral progress in hunting. Are hunters prepared to proactively and respectfully talk to non-hunters to find out where that progress can be made? The grizzly debate is over for now. It’s time to move on, learn and adapt to the lessons this failure has provided.

What shall the collective vision for the future of hunting and wildlife in BC be?

What actions, behaviors and changes are needed to realize this vision?


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