On Friday, a judge postponed a court case regarding five charges that NHL hockey defencemen Clayton Stoner is facing related to an incident that has become highly symbolic in a public campaign to end the controversial grizzly bear trophy hunt in British Columbia.
During a 2013 hunting trip to his home province, the hockey star was spectacularly photographed holding a dead grizzly bear's head and claws. The incident provoked scorn from indigenous and environmental groups, but government investigators also believe Stoner's hunting permit was not valid.
The hearing is now delayed until Nov. 13, but grizzly bear advocates are thrilled —they see it as yet another chance to shine a bright light on the B.C. Liberal government’s permitting of the controversial sport killing of grizzlies.
“If Mr. Stoner wants to [delay this] for the next two years until the next provincial election, be my guest,” said Barb Murray with Bears Matter outside a Vancouver court building on Friday.
“He’s an international hockey player. He’s famous, Canadian-born and bred, and held up as an example for kids. Wrong!"
“This is the most unsportsman-like conduct...and we need a huge apology, to First Nations who banned the trophy hunting, and now to the Canadian people,” Murray added.
On May 22, 2013, the B.C.-born defenceman, now with the Anaheim Ducks, traveled to the ecologically spectacular central B.C. coast near Bella Bella to go bear hunting in a boat, despite a Coastal First Nations ban on the trophy sport in that area. The B.C. government still licenses the hunts to both resident and foreign hunters.
That night, Indigenous patrolmen with the Coastal Guardian Watchmen got wind that Stoner and his crew had shot and killed a beloved local bear nicknamed "Cheeky." Patrollers boarded Stoner's vessel to snap photos. The NHL player obliged, smiled and held up the grizzly bear's parts, in images that quickly became anti-grizzly-hunt propaganda.
"He let himself be an idiot poster child for the trophy hunt,” laughed William Housty, a Heiltsuk Nation resource management official in an interview with the National Observer earlier this year.
A spokesperson for Raincoast, an environmental organization long opposed to the grizzly hunt, says the the Stoner incident has become a tipping point in a 15-year battle against the trophy hunt.
“Could it be that Stoner is poised to potentially become the Canadian version of Walter Palmer?” said executive director Chris Genovali in a statement.
Palmer is the U.S. dentist who garnered worldwide notoriety for paying $50,000 to shoot “Cecil” the lion in Zimbabwe, who was a major attraction in a wildlife reserve. Cecil's death led to international scorn against the sport killing of large apex mammals. The grizzly bear is the fourth largest land predator on the planet.
Polls of B.C. residents have repeatedly shown the vast majority in the province are opposed to the sport. The grizzly hunt is also banned in Alberta. But the B.C. government has continued to support the industry, claiming the grizzly hunt is sustainable and brings in millions of dollars annually.
Now, in an unusual twist, the province's own investigators are star players in the PR battle over the hunt. They believe the U.S. employed hockey star may not have qualified for his B.C. resident hunting licence.
“At the time, Mr. Stoner was playing for the Minnesota Wild hockey team,” said Inspector Cynthia Mann of the Major Investigations Unit of the Conservation Officer Services last month. “Mr. Stoner’s primary residence had to be in B.C., and he had to be physically resident for six of the 12 months preceding the grizzly hunt in May 2013."
The Crown is now charging Stoner with: hunting without a licence, hunting out of season, two counts of knowingly making a false statement to obtain a licence and unlawful possession of dead wildlife. The maximum penalties are 250,000 and two-year prison terms.
The NHL did not respond to media requests put to Stoner, but he defended his actions in a Sept. 2013 statement: "I grew up hunting and fishing in British Columbia and continue to enjoy spending time with my family outdoors," adding he would continue those activities in the province.
Indigenous officials said the charges against Stoner are "symbolically important."
"The message that I'm hearing from a lot people is justice is finally being served," said Jess Housty, tribal councilor with the Heiltsuk Nation. She acknowledged Stoner has not yet been convicted, but thinks the trial itself will have wider repercussions for the grizzly hunt. "The fact is, this is justice for one bear and not justice for all bears."
The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that a welder, who grew up in Stoner's home town of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island, gave up up his government hunting tags to take up bear viewing instead.
Two massive guide outfitting bear-hunt territories in B.C.—one in the north and one in the south —also went up for possible sale this year. The territories have been tantalizing for conservationists and First Nations who want to buy up the last of the large hunt areas in the coastal Great Bear Rainforest.
The B.C. government won't comment on the Stoner case, and the NHL star did not appear in court Friday.
But the province officially opened the fall grizzly hunt last week. The province also increased the number of grizzly hunt authorizations this year by more than 500, to 3,614 allowable kills. Provincial wildlife officials believe the current grizzly population is about 15,000. But that figure is disputed by several B.C. university scientists.
With files from The Canadian Press