On Tuesday May 9th, the province of British Columbia will head to the polls to elect their next government. Of the many issues facing the electorate, one prominent debate effects the future of the province’s true icon: Grizzly bears.
With the exception of one brief period in 2001, grizzly bears have been hunted in BC. Though government has maintained that the hunt is underpinned by rigorous science, many groups have their doubts. Population estimates have come under scrutiny. The management of fragile populations have been criticized. And the number of bears being killed each year is being questioned.
In fact, the perceived lack of transparency and the numerous questions being raised has sparked the BC Auditor General to investigate. Moreover, upwards of 90% of BC’s population says it opposes trophy hunting, including 74% of rural communities, according to multiple polls.
And none of this touches on the economics. Bear viewing has become a multi-million dollar industry in the Great Bear Rainforest alone and tourism associations believe it outweighs trophy hunting in the Great Bear by twelve to one.
In the face of this opposition, will anything change?
The BC Liberals (centre-right/right) have long supported the hunt, though are now promising to work towards ending it in the Great Bear. The NDP (centre-left/left) is vowing to close it down province-wide, with one important caveat: If you plan to eat the bear you shoot, then you’re still allowed to kill it. (Feel free to debate amongst yourselves if this policy actually constitutes stopping the trophy hunt, given the lack of resources available for oversight.)
Why not just stop the hunt altogether? Simple: Money and electoral math.
As has been covered by multiple media outlets, the governing BC Liberal Party is awash in large donations from the pro-hunt lobby – mainly from GOABC, but also from the charitable BC Wildlife Federation (an arm of the Canadian Wildlife Federation). Money wins elections, so electoral parties accept the funds. With very few restrictions on donations, niche groups have the perceived ability to swing provincial policy.
Now let’s be clear: The BC Liberals have been hit hard on this issue, but both the opposition NDP and the Green Party have hardly been saying no to special interest cheques. While donations from GOABC might not be flowing into NDP coffers in large quantities, you can find fault in other areas where special interests are buying favour.
Like so many jurisdictions, closing campaign finance loopholes for all parties means ensuring each policy debate is grounded in fact, not money. And I’m of the belief that one factor in the BC Liberals stubborn support for the hunt in the face of massive opposition is not a love for killing the iconic bruin, but the love of the political money it brings into party coffers. For the same reason, the NDP, also viably vying to form government in BC next week, isn’t stubbornly anti-hunting, they just happen to know where their bread is buttered.
I’m not saying that all politicians are disingenuous – they’re not – but every elected official must pick and choose their battles. The simple truth is no politician can fix everything; our systems allows for individual politicians to maybe influence change on one or two policies. As such, our leaders often will support issues they personally oppose in order to affect change on a larger scale, or in other sectors they deem more important. As a wise poet once said: Don’t hate the players, hate the game.
Speaking of the game, electoral math also factors into the continuation of grizzly hunting. The first-past-the-post system BC uses to elect their MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) means that the vote isn’t proportional to the population, but rather heavily weighted to equal representation of all regions (and I’m not arguing this is wrong, for the record). In other words, certain ridings, with fewer people residing in them, have a bigger say in provincial policy than a large urban riding.
Yes, rural communities also support an end to the grizzly bear trophy hunt in large numbers, as mentioned, but – for the most part – it’s not a ballot box issue. It is, however, a ballot box issue for those who do support the hunt and, in a smaller riding, politicians can ill afford to lose their votes and still form government. It’s the single biggest hurdle facing those who oppose the trophy hunt.
As we’ve written before on this page, the only change that really counts is the change that endures. In the case of the grizzly bear trophy hunt, advocating for an NDP win in the upcoming BC election in the hopes they quasi-ban the hunt is likely only a temporary victory for grizzly advocates. In four years, there is every reason to believe the BC Liberals could regain power and, as they did in 2001, overturn the ban. What then? Spend more time and money to re-fight the same issue? Talk about a waste when there are too many issues to address and too few resources.
So how do the majority of reasonable British Columbians save grizzly bears?
Asking people to cast their ballot simply to save bears is a losing battle. While many care, many more prioritize taxes, jobs, debt, housing affordability, health care, and other critical (and not so critical) issues. Fair enough. Thus, step one needs to be decoupling trophy hunting from partisanship. Saving grizzlies should not be an issue of the left, but also the right (just ask former BC premier Gordon Campbell’s chief of staff, Martyn Brown).
This decoupling won’t happen overnight, but happens when we all work to be less emotional (even if it is emotional for many), less adversarial and less partisan. It can also be achieved by getting involved in the most important step of BC’s political process: Candidate selection. Rather than setting up the issue to pit one party against another (and falling into the left-right trap), help thoughtful leaders get nominated to run in all parties. Personally, I’m not big on party politics, so I choose to support good candidates from each party, like the BC Liberal’s Sam Sullivan (who tirelessly championed saving the spirit bear) and the NDP’s Mike Farnworth (who has promoted innovation in the pursuit of a more hopeful society).
The second step is to get all parties to meaningfully commit to campaign finance reform. It won’t happen if it appears one party will benefit over the other and it can’t be selective reform either. The only chance of real reform is if all British Columbians make their voice heard. And they should. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you should care about preventing money from buying policy.
Step three is understanding the old political philosophy of Realpolitik and working with it, rather than against it. With some exceptions, grizzly bear trophy hunting has become the thin edge of the wedge for a small, select group of hunters. There is the fear of the ‘larger agenda’. If grizzly hunting is stopped, the belief goes, what will be next? In other words, this issue has become one that defines the growing cultural war in the province. And until this gets addressed, the electoral realities of BC means that politicians – no matter where in the province they’re elected – will be forced to play to these fears to gain support for their legislative agenda.
And what might a solution look like? Sanctuaries: Inter-connected corridors where animals come first.
You might be surprised to learn that BC has virtually no true provincially managed wildlife sanctuaries. They’re one of the only jurisdictions that don’t. That means trophy hunting is permitted not only on Crown (public) land, but also in provincial protected areas. Yes, some parks prevent the hunting of specific species, but no areas reflect Canada’s national parks (or sanctuaries in other provinces) where all animals are safeguarded.
Most reasonable people, no matter the side of the debate, I think can agree that while people – and their needs, habits and culture – have every right to come first in some areas, nature – and the systems that sustain us – should also have spaces where it is prioritized. After all, for most, this truly comes down to family values and sustaining a future for our children.
Protecting (not by limiting people or all activities, but by managing select regions through the lens of nature’s needs) two or three north-south corridors in the province (akin to what was accomplished in the home of the spirit bear, the Great Bear Rainforest, or what has been proposed for the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor) provides economic certainty and provides nature with what science dictates is required.
If our elected leaders of all stripes can put aside special interest money and focus on non-partisan science, sound economics, and representative public opinion, they will have a mandate to help mediate disparate parties and work collectively to build the idea of sanctuaries into the provincial lexicon. Though not everyone will agree, most will embrace an idea that is fair and enshrines rights to both people and nature.
Think I’m being optimistic? When I launched the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition twenty years ago with the goal of accomplishing this very idea (albeit on a smaller scale on the BC coast), most thought I was naive. But by the end of the campaign, the collaborative hard work of many achieved 100% of our initial goal. And we did it, ultimately, with the support of 94% of British Columbians – creating a politically sustainable result that will survive any type of election outcome.
Some will argue that creating true wildlife sanctuaries in BC means that not all grizzlies will be saved. True (though one doesn’t prevent the other). But what it will accomplish is also saving wolves, cougars and other large predators that are susceptible to the whims of wildlife management and trophy hunting. It also means we allow nature to manage itself, as intended, and ensure that the balance of the land can be managed by the people as they see fit.
Perfect? No. But in a diverse, democratic society, nothing is. What we must avoid is watered-down compromise – the kind some BC parties are championing – that accomplishes little and angers everyone. Rather, let’s be innovative and come up with solutions that endure.
Ultimately, these are only my ideas. I don’t pretend to be perfect or think that I have all of the answers. Disagree? Great. Get involved in the debate. Agree? Cool. Make your voice heard. But don’t just decry what’s wrong, understand what doesn’t work and help better it.
While I was born and raised in the province of BC, I’m now an Albertan. I don’t get a say in Tuesday’s election. But I will continue to do what I can given that I am, after all, a Canadian; what happens in BC can have national consequences (transboundary grizzly bear populations, for example, including recently photographed Banff bears 122 and 126 that can be hunted in BC, if they wander a few kilometres west). And given that we all share in this world, we all have a role to play in healing the wounds that divide – in BC or elsewhere.
Saving BC’s grizzlies and creating a better balance between the needs of people and nature is up to each of us. So let’s get started.