Dressed in a black cowboy hat, B.C. Premier Christy Clark beams at the camera as she accepts the President's Award from the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. The year is 2012, and the outfitters are gathered for their annual convention in Kelowna. Clark has just announced new regulatory changes to benefit the hunting guides to cheers and applause.
"So awesome to have Premier Clark in attendance and noting her support for HUNTING and the role of hunters as conservationists and as the original eco-tourism promoters in B.C.!" a commenter gushed on the Guide Outfitters' Association (GOABC) Facebook page.
Representing 245 outfitters, GOABC is one of the key proponents of ongoing trophy hunting of grizzly bears. Its members constitute a small minority of B.C.'s population, but carry significant weight with the provincial Liberal government.
Photo of Premier Christy Clark at 2012 GOABC convention from Facebook. GOABC president Mark Werner, left, and executive director Scott Ellis, right.
Like Canada's polar bears, B.C.'s grizzly bears have been listed as a "species of special concern" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Unlike their Arctic cousins, though, grizzly bears don't qualify for federally legislated conservation measures — despite the fact that B.C. grizzly numbers have dropped from an estimated 35,000 grizzlies in 1915 to possibly as low as six thousand today — and have become a coveted prize for trophy hunters.
Polls show that a vast majority of British Columbians oppose the trophy killing of grizzly bears. A 2013 poll by McAllister Opinion Research showed 87 per cent of B.C. respondents favour banning trophy hunting for bears.
The European Union embargoed the importation of B.C. grizzly bear parts and trophies into its 28 member countries because they believe it is not sustainably managed.
The bear hunting moratorium by the NDP was immediately overturned by the B.C. Liberal government of Gordon Campbell, and over the past 14 years, the B.C. Liberal government has steadily maintained and increased the rights for outfitters.
These policies are even starting to drive a wedge within the hunting community. Should foreign hunters be given licenses to hunt B.C.'s bears? Should they be hunted at all? As policies expand, many have raised critical questions about the politics behind expanding access to bear hunting in the province.
A strong voice for hunting in government
Key Liberal politicians in B.C. are champions of hunting, and by extension, the grizzly bear trophy hunt.
Bill Bennett, the current mining minister and a respected figure in East Kootenay, told fellow MLAs in 2002 that he represented hunters in the province.
Recreational hunting, he noted to the legislature, is "a topic near and dear to my heart... I speak this morning on behalf of the hunters in the East Kootenay but also for all those men and women in B.C. who hunt the mountains and valleys of our province. With respect, I will be their voice in this House today."
A focus on hunting has been consistent throughout Bennett's political career, from the Hunting and Fishing Heritage Act he introduced as a newcomer in 2001, to the newspaper ad he published in 2012 pledging to continue to support the right for hunters to kill grizzly bears in B.C.
Though Bennett says he speaks for "hunters" as a general group, resident and non-resident subclassifications within the community make such generalizations complicated. There are over 100,000 resident hunters in B.C., and approximately 45,000 of them are members of a conservation organization, the B.C. Wildlife Federation, that often speaks on their behalf.
Non-resident hunters — those who do not live in B.C. and travel here to hunt game — are legally required to hire a professional guide to lead them.
In Mountain Hunter magazine, the GOABC's president, Mark Werner, speaks in glowing terms about Premier Clark and several cabinet ministers from the BC Liberal Party for supporting the guide outfitting industry. He writes:
"Premier Clark is a big supporter of families and rural communities, and she really 'gets' our industry. We will continue to work with the Ministers and Premier Clark on the many issues affecting our industry."
Screenshot of Mountain Hunter magazine
Over the last few years, the Liberal-led government has made a series of changes within the Ministry of Forest, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations that favour the commercial hunting industry, according to critics like Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver.
Up until three years ago, hunting guides and their assistants in B.C. were legally required to be Canadian citizens. Citing a shortage in qualified guides and unnecessary hardship for the hunting industry, this requirement was partially removed – allowing non-Canadians to be hired as assistants.
In 2014, another round of amendments overhauled the guiding industry. Notably, it changed who could purchase guiding territory certificates, which give outfitters the exclusive right to guide within a specified region.
As of April 1, 2015, which marks the start of the next hunting season, guiding territory certificate holders will no longer need to be Canadian. They also won’t even have to be people: guide outfitting businesses in B.C. can now be owned and operated by foreign corporations.
Guide Outfitters' lobby group
The GOABC is taking credit for proposing the changes announced over the last year.
“The Guide Outfitters Association asked for the change,” GOABC executive director Scott Ellis told the Vancouver Observer.
“It legitimizes some of the things that were happening anyway.”
Norm Macdonald, the NDP MLA for the Columbia River – Revelstoke district, says his main concern is that these changes drastically increase the commercialization of the hunting sector in B.C.
“I think that foreign buyers introduce a number of elements that we really have to think about,” Macdonald told the Vancouver Observer.
“B.C. tends to very easily give up control of our public land and not only put it into private hands, but often private hands that are offshore.”
“I’m not sure how allowing corporations on the [guiding territory] certificate commoditizes the backcountry,” he said. “We pushed for this for liability reasons, tax reasons, for lending and borrowing reasons, not for commoditization or anything else.”
Macdonald thinks organizations like the Guide Outfitters Association who donate “huge money” to the Liberal Party of B.C. have disproportionate influence over wildlife management.
“There is no question there is lobbying involved. It’s one of the broader problems for us, so many of these decisions are [made] behind closed doors,” he said.
“A lot of people do lobbying," Ellis countered. "The David Suzuki Foundation does lobbying, in my opinion.”
A key difference between the lobbying efforts of pro-grizzly hunting groups, like the Guide Outfitters Association, and organizations that campaign against it, like the David Suzuki Foundation, is the money involved.
From 2005 to 2013, guide associations across B.C. made $84,800.00 in political donations. The Liberal Party of B.C. received 84 per cent of that money, getting $73,275.00. The NDP received the remaining $11,525.00, usually in the months leading up to provincial elections.
Trophy hunters over B.C. interests?
The latest set of changes to hunting operations in B.C. sparked outrage from resident hunters around the province when they were announced in December.
The new amendments, which alter how wildlife will be allocated between hunters, reduces the number of hunting licenses available to B.C. residents so that more licenses can be sold to foreign hunters.
In most jurisdictions across North America, only five to 10 per cent of the harvestable wildlife surplus is saved for non-resident hunters. The recent amendments plan to increase that figure to 40 per cent for certain species – like grizzly bears.
“Proposed changes to the Wildlife Allocation Policy are inconsistent with standard practices in other jurisdictions across Canada and in the United States,” said George Wilson, President of the B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF), in a statement. “There is no justification for these changes and they are not supported by B.C.’s resident hunters.”
This change will translate to roughly 5,000 fewer permits available for local hunters, many of whom are already struggling to get permits to harvest popular animals like moose, so non-resident hunters can hunt more, said the Wildlife Federation.
“B.C. residents who depend on hunting to help sustain their families should be supported by provincial government policy,” said Jesse Zeman, a BCWF director. “The overriding priority for all hunters is conservation, ensuring there is enough game available for First Nations, and then fulfilling the hunting needs of B.C. families.”
The steady trend of changes to hunting regulations favours foreign hunters and the guide outfitting industry that profits off of their visits, the BCWF wrote in a statement.
“Our objective is to maintain the environment for future generations. That is really our mission and sole focus, that's what we worry about,” Zeman told the Vancouver Observer. “We make our decisions based on data and science and sometimes with the government’s policies it doesn't necessarily feel like those things are lining up."
"I don't think everyone in the province knows what happens and where the priorities are and where the funding comes from,” he said.
But according to Raincoast Conservation, the new allocation policy, while flawed, is nevertheless better for bear conservation than the system that was in place since 2007, because the numbers are fixed. In the previous policy, a hunter could lose his or her bear harvesting quota if the quota wasn't met.
After a month of outcry from the B.C. public, Liberal MLA Bill Bennett acknowledged the government "didn't get it quite right" with the allocation policy amendments. A revised policy will be announced at the end of January, he said.
Photo of grizzly bear by Andrew S. Wright