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The Morality of the Grizzly Hunt by Don Meredith © 1999
(first published in the April/May 1999 Alberta Outdoorsmen and subsequently published in the book, Voices in the Wind, B. Grinder et al. (ed.), © 2000, The Waterton Natural History Association.))

OWCFirst Place
Magazine Feature (Hunting)

Outdoor Writers of Canada
2000 National Communications Awards

grizzly bear

If you ever wonder how important wildlife and wild places are to people, just mention the phrase "endangered species" and watch the emotions take flight. As an information officer for Alberta Environment, I receive countless inquiries about threatened and endangered wildlife from school children and teachers throughout the province. It's a hot topic in the school curriculum that can trigger a wide range of emotional responses in both children and adults. How can we allow a fellow species to become extinct?

Now, add to this legitimate concern the hunting of a high profile species that's perceived to be endangered, and you have a very hot issue indeed. Such is the plight of grizzly bear hunting in Alberta and British Columbia.

Before I go much further, I want to make two things clear. 1) I am not a bear hunter, either grizzly or black bear. Although I hunt big game, bears are just not on my list of desired game animals. I can understand why others hunt them, but I don't. 2) Although I am an employee of the Government of Alberta, I am not representing government here, and the opinions I express are my own. However, I do believe my position with government and as a non-bear hunter does provide me with a unique view of the issue.

The Facts

The grizzly bear is not endangered in either Alberta or British Columbia. Yes, it is classified as endangered in the United States, outside of Alaska. But in British Columbia the population is very healthy indeed. Here in Alberta the species is on the Blue List of wildlife species at risk (see Alberta's Status of Wildlife report). Blue List species are those that may be at risk in Alberta (Red List species are at risk, Yellow and Green List Species are not at risk). Blue List species require special management to ensure they do not become threatened or endangered. But why is the grizzly bear on the Blue List?

Of the two bear species that inhabit Alberta (black and grizzly), the grizzly is the least tolerant of human habitation. Like the wolf, it was exterminated from large tracts of North America as human settlement expanded from east to west. Ranchers and farmers did not abide a predator that threatened their livelihoods and their lives. Now, the bear is restricted to a few of the remaining wilderness areas on the continent, mostly in Montana, western Canada and Alaska. These are areas where either development is just getting underway or wilderness areas and parks have been established to conserve these remaining wild places and the animals that live in them.

Here in Alberta, we are on the eastern edge of modern grizzly bear range which runs in a strip roughly down the western third of the province from the extreme northwest corner through the Peace River region and the Swan Hills to the foothills and Rocky Mountains of central and southern Alberta. In the south, the range is limited on the east by agriculture, industry and urban development. These limits are absolute. The bear will not expand east from where it is now.

In the north, however, the grizzly has been expanding its range in recent years, moving out of the Rocky Mountain foothills into the boreal forest. Annual population assessments conducted by Alberta Environment indicate the grizzly bear is slowly moving into areas it hasn't occupied since the early years of the 20th century.

In 1987, biologists estimated the provincial population — outside the national parks — to be between 520 and 575 bears. (These are not absolute figures because it is difficult to count most big game species, especially grizzly bears. But they are the best estimates we have based on scientific survey techniques, that include capture and marking studies, and relating the results to known grizzly habitat throughout the province.) By 1995, similar studies indicated as many of 750 bears occupied the province. Today, the estimate is closer to 800 bears outside the national parks (the three mountain parks are home to 125 to 150 grizzlies). This is steady progress towards Alberta Environment's provincial population objective of 1,000 animals — the theoretical number of grizzlies this province is capable of supporting.

Although Alberta is on the margin of grizzly bear range, the bears are doing well here. Some might argue too well.

Why are the bears increasing in numbers and expanding into new range in the north? The answer to this question lies in the close relationship we have with the grizzly centering around the hunt. As with most relationships, it is a two-way street.

The Hunt

There is a long tradition of hunting grizzlies in this province. In the early years, much of the hunting was unrestricted. In 1927, the government sought to control the hunt by requiring grizzlies be hunted under licence. However, the bear population continued to decline in southern Alberta. In 1969, the government closed the season in the south to protect the population there. In 1971, it restricted grizzly hunting to the spring throughout the province, eliminating the killing of bears incidental to the hunting of other big game in the fall.

In 1982, the season was reopened in selected Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) in the south where grizzlies were again becoming a nuisance. However, the number of hunters in each WMU was controlled through the introduction of limited-entry draw hunts. These hunts were expanded to all grizzly hunting by 1989.

The result of these restrictions has been that fewer grizzlies are killed and more bears survive to reproduce. As the densities of bears increase, more individuals disperse into new habitat to find enough food and escape from aggressive males. Fortunately for the dispersing bears in the north, there is habitat to occupy.

However, there is a cost for this success. As our human population increases and more people enter grizzly habitat to exploit resources or just enjoy wild landscapes, they encounter an increasing number of grizzlies. The number of reported incidents of grizzly bears causing problems to the public in the 1970s averaged 25 per year. From 1988 to 1990, that average increased to 117 per year; and by 1993 to 1995, 303 per year.

Likewise, the number of so-called "nuisance" grizzlies handled by Alberta Environment (those requiring transplantation to remote areas or indeed killing because of public safety concerns) increased from about 6 per year in the mid 1980s to 26 per year in 1997. Many of the bear-human encounters that led to the removal of the bears were life threatening, some ending in maulings or death. The grizzly bear is a large predator that needs a lot of space. Fortunately, the bear avoids encounters with people when it can. But with more people in the bush, more encounters are unavoidable.

This give and take relationship with the grizzly is one reason why the government allows the hunting of this Blue List species. Alberta Environment justifies the hunt for the following reasons:

  1. There is a small annual surplus of male bears available to support the season.
  2. Because Alberta Environment requires that hunters not kill bears that are found in groups of two or more individuals, mostly male bears are killed in the spring. Males kill and eat grizzly cubs. By reducing the number of the surplus males, the population has a better chance of growing.
  3. Hunting reduces the number of problem bears by killing many of those that are least wary of humans.
  4. A hunted bear is a wary bear, and less likely to cause problems with people.
  5. Because each grizzly killed must be registered with Alberta Environment, the harvested bears provide important information about the bear population, such as distribution and age of individuals.
  6. Grizzly bear hunters are people who learn much about the bears and, as a result, are strong advocates for programs that conserve the species in Alberta.

The limitations placed on the grizzly bear hunt has not deterred hunters. On average, about 1,200 residents apply each year for 160 licences. That means it takes an average of about seven years to obtain a licence in the draw, depending upon where you apply (it takes longer in the south and shorter in the north).

Getting a licence does not ensure success in the field. On average 12 grizzlies are harvested each year, with the harvest in some years being as low as five and as high as 20.

What's the Fuss About?

If the taking of 12 mostly male bears each year is not affecting the population growth of grizzlies, then what is? The real culprit that threatens our grizzly bears is human encroachment on grizzly habitat. If you want to protect this species so that it doesn't regress from an animal that may be at risk to one that is endangered, then you'd better protect where it lives. In order to do that, you're going to have to convince people that unlimited economic growth in this province and grizzly bears do not mix. You can't have one with the other. If you want the grizzlies and a strong economy, then you must fit the bear and its habitat into the economic/environment equation.

In the last few years we have done remarkably well with the grizzly bear. Despite significant growth in human population and the economy, the grizzly population has also grown and expanded. But the accompanying increase in number of problem bear incidents shows us that there is a limit to the number of grizzlies that will be tolerated.

If habitat destruction is the main threat to grizzly bears, then why are grizzly bear hunters being singled out as scapegoats by some so-called environmentalists? Aren't we all in this together — we who want to conserve this noble symbol of our wilderness? The reason is grizzly bear hunters are easy targets for a frustrated environmental movement. Grizzly hunters hunt a high profile species more for its trophy value than its meat. By attacking them, protesters can take public attention away from their own inability to make a difference on the habitat protection front.

But what the hunt protesters do not understand is that by attacking one of the bear's allies, they are attacking the bear. While we argue over the killing of 12 bears per year, others are making irrevocable decisions about grizzly habitat that will ultimately seal the fate of the animal.

Must we hold to our ideologies so strongly that we have to sacrifice a species to prove we are each right? Perhaps we would do more for the bear if we all agree that fighting among ourselves does not solve the problem. By putting aside our differences for the animal's sake, perhaps we can learn a little bit from each other about how important this animal is to the heart and soul of the province, and work together to keep it here.

To me, the grizzly is a symbol of the quality of wilderness we still have in Alberta — true wilderness where I am not in complete control of what might happen, where I must take calculated risks in order to truly enjoy it. Experiencing such wilderness forces me to come to grips with my own mortality, and shapes my view of the world and my place in it. If the possibility of seeing a grizzly was removed from that experience, I would lose an important part of who I am and why I live in Alberta.

Is the grizzly bear hunt moral? Questions of morality are personal issues, although governments legislate morals all the time. But if hunting an animal causes someone to know and understand that animal better, and contributes to its conservation, then who am I to question the morality of the hunter? Instead, perhaps I should try to better understand that hunter, and rejoice in the fact the grizzly bear population in this province is healthy enough to support a limited hunt.

[Author's note (2006 March): Since 2000, the grizzly hunt in Alberta was further reduced to only 73 licences being issued in 2005. In 2006, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (where the Fish and Wildlife Division now resides) placed an indefinite suspension on the hunt while the department reviews and implements a Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.]

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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner