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Flogging the Proverbial Dead Horse

The grizzly bear hunt debate has been one of the most damaging and divisive issues in conservation in B.C.’s recent history. It’s been a debate filled with toxic public discussions, hate, polarization, death threats, fake information and self-serving interests.

We continue to hear politicians and groups speaking in the media about these “polls” that justified the hunting ban decision. Some people purport that a 2015 poll stated, “91% of British Columbians opposed the trophy hunting of grizzly bears”, when in fact the 2015 poll in question did not draw that conclusion. The 2015 poll often referred to in the media and by politicians was not specifically asking British Columbians about their opinions on the grizzly hunt. The 2015 poll surveyed only 1,003 adult British Columbians and it failed to meet acceptable standards for public opinion polls. The only truthful conclusion that could have been made from the 2015 poll was that: 91% of the 1,003 people surveyed (912 people) were opposed to trophy hunting which was simply defined as killing animals for their fur. This 2015 poll had nothing to do with the current grizzly hunting debate at all.

As the 2017 election was ramping up another poll conveniently surfaced which reported that 74% of rural British Columbians oppose hunting grizzlies. This poll was paid for by the Commercial Bear Viewing Association and a cosmetics company. The poll surveyed voters in 5 electoral districts (there are 85 electoral districts in B.C.). There were approximately 147,000 registered voters in those 5 districts. A total of only 400 voters were selected and the poll failed to achieve the minimum accepted standards for reliable public opinion polls. Even the 74% figure from the 2017 poll was misleading based on the how the survey structured its questions. The only truthful conclusion that could have been made from the 2017 poll was that 51% of the 400 respondents (204 people) were “strongly in favour” of a hunting ban and 23% (92 people) where “somewhat in favour” of a hunting ban. I’m not sure how a person can be somewhat in favour of a hunting ban; however, the option to pick this response was likely a sneaky polling tactic so they could bump up the total. Politicians were often quoting these polls saying that the results represented the opinions of 4.6 million people in B.C.

Another “fact” often quoted in the grizzly hunting debate included statements to the effect that bear viewing generates more revenue than hunting in B.C. This “fact” relied on a single independently conducted study. This study was paid for by the commercial bear viewing industry and only 13 of the 53 bear viewing operators in the Great Bear Rainforest study area provided complete financial reports for the economic analysis. Financial data for the remaining 40 bear viewing operators were “estimated where possible…” The study was not a full economic analysis of bear viewing or hunting across the entire province as some claimed it was.

Is U.S. Style Politics Now the Norm in the Management of Public Wildlife in B.C.?

The truthfulness of the two polls and the bear viewing vs. hunting economic analysis was never independently verified by experts. It appears that not one single elected official or election candidate bothered to look critically at any of these polls or data to ensure a public policy decision was going to be based on factual information. The government stated 78% of the submissions it received in the grizzly policy public comment period that was open in late 2017 supported a full hunting ban (i.e., no meat retention hunt) yet the comment submissions were never set up to be a defensible and unbiased public opinion poll at the start of it all. Sadly, all these things mean that alternative facts and fake news have taken a firm grip on making public policy decisions in natural resource management in B.C.

Public policy decision making for wildlife conservation requires un-biased scientific research in the fields of wildlife ecology/biology and human dimensions (i.e., human values and relationships to wildlife).  Part of the controversy over the grizzly hunt has been a large misunderstanding over which type of science should drive public policy in wildlife management. Some people even suggested that science should not be used at all in making public decisions about wildlife management especially when it comes to the topic of hunting large carnivores. A world class wildlife management program will use both types of science equally for policy decision making.  What we had happen with the grizzly hunt ban decision was a failure of government and the public to stand up for the truth and advocate for the use of proper science in public policy decision making. Regardless of personal values, positions or opinions people on both sides of the fence should always demand the truth. The people of B.C. deserve verifiable and defensible facts be brought to the table for any public policy discussion. Fake news and alternative facts are what hunter conservationists need to fight against in 2018 whether the mis-information is coming from within the hunting community or outside of it.

The folks that are happy with the grizzly hunt ban likely say, “So what? We won”.  After all, the polls said what they wanted them to say. If the post truth era approach is the path we as a province want to go down for wildlife conservation then we should expect to continue to witness further declines in biodiversity. Decision making based on the populist approach and substandard social science will, in the long run, hurt wildlife more than it will benefit wildlife. As a society, if our basic decision making premise is flawed who really wins? Win-lose outcomes never stand the test of time and often these decisions get reversed by another populist decision which is exactly what happen last time B.C. imposed a ban on grizzly hunting. Wildlife management in this province desperately needs to become non-partisan which means more decisions about conservation need to be made at the regional or community-levels using social and wildlife science as well as First Nations Traditional Ecological Knowledge as the basis for facts. The goal for wildlife conservation needs to be about finding win-win solutions at the community level. Wildlife conservation is not straight forward. It is has many complex layers like an onion or puzzle whose layers and pieces don’t perfectly fit together. Often the human side of wildlife conservation is the toughest nut to crack and human values, goals, needs and wants are the most difficult aspects of conservation to reconcile. What we do know is that examples of modern wildlife conservation success stories from around the world are showing us that communities must find their own win-win solutions if they want to achieve the collective goal of protecting and sustaining wildlife populations. Finding win-win solutions mean that all sides of any wildlife management debate need to give a bit in order to find the middle ground in the personal values, goals, wants and needs arena.

The True Cost of the Debate

The grizzly hunt debate has come at the expense of the big picture problem facing wildlife conversation in British Columbia. B.C. is the most diverse and biologically rich jurisdiction in North America yet B.C. invests the least amount into conservation, science and the management of the public’s natural resources. For example, B.C. invests about $36 per square km of land into wildlife management yet Idaho with less than a quarter of our land area and a third of B.C.’s population invests approximately $488 per square km of land into wildlife management.

How does funding for wildlife management in B.C. stack up?

The grizzly debate in 2017 and the lingering odor of it in 2018 is coming at the expense of figuring out how hunting license and tags fees can all be put back into conservation. If this could ever be realized it would immediately add about another $12-13 million to conservation. Once all tags and license fees are dedicated back to wildlife conservation most hunters I believe will accept an increase in the cost of their license and tags. We could easily within 12 months double the provincial funding available to wildlife management. We have yet to have meaningful dialogue in this province on how other outdoor users and commercial eco-businesses can pay into conversation too. But the grizzly bear debate was and continues to be a boat anchor for this bigger discussion. If we can get past the strife that this grizzly hunt debate has created, B.C. could easily rank number 1 in wildlife funding which, given our landmass and biodiversity it should be.

Some folks say now that the grizzly ban is in place it’s time to move onto these other more important issues. Like the Cecil-the-lion, Namibia black rhino hunt, bear 148 and Alberta cougar hunt social media fiascos society as whole has proven this will not happen. Consequently we will continue to lose the things that make B.C. Super Natural including steelhead, salmon, caribou and moose because the majority of people tend to lose interest in conservation (and paying for conservation) once the sensationalized aspects of a controversy fades away. If you are a non-hunter concerned about funding for wildlife conservation please prove me wrong.

The grizzly hunt ban is a loss of opportunity for resident hunters and it will make the next few years or even the next decade much harder for many of the province’s small family run Guide-Outfitter businesses to make ends meet in their households. I know hunter conservationists and scientists will continue to work together on grizzly bear conservation and I predict that a version of the grizzly hunt will eventually return to B.C. as a means to support conservation. Wide swings in the pendulum eventually find the middle ground. It just needs time for some rational discussion, more listening to each other and a higher level of respect for one another. However, we must all continue to focus on making the big picture of wildlife management a priority in B.C. and that it is operated under a framework that is much better supported by world-class funding and science including wildlife and social science.

It is time for B.C. to mature and for the grizzly bear hunting debate to die.

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