More than 100 Canadian guides and outfitters are attempting to sue the government of British Columbia over its ban on grizzly bear hunting in the province.
The hunt was banned by the B.C. government in 2017. While the proposed lawsuit does not seek to reinstate the hunt, it does request compensation for financial hardship sustained by B.C. guides and outfitters in the years since the prohibition went into effect.
According to Natural Resources Minister Doug Donaldson, the decision to end the grizzly bear hunt in B.C. had less to do with the status of the bear population than the public’s general perception of grizzly bear hunting.
“People in the province have come to their understanding, their point of view that the trophy hunting of grizzly bears is not a socially acceptable practice in B.C. in 2017,” Donaldson told the Globe and Mail around the time of the ban. “We recognize that there will be some loss of revenue in small communities from many aspects.”
With the announcement of the ban, Donaldson and other members of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) were able to make good on a much-celebrated campaign promise.
Now, the grizzly bear hunting ban is back in the news. A group of guides and outfitters led by Ron Fleming and his wife Brenda Nelson of the Love Bros. and Lee guiding service are seeking certification for a class action lawsuit against the government. They say the ban has devastated their business.
In a petition for certification filed on May 16, 2022, Fleming and the other outfitters claimed that the government caused them undue financial hardship by suddenly banning the hunt without any scientific justification. The petition goes on to claim that the ban violated laws set forth in the Wildlife Act—a complex piece of legislation governing wildlife in Canada.
“It was strictly a political move,” Ron Fleming told MeatEater. “In the Wildlife Act, the government can make a change when there’s a science-based conservation concern. Examples would be heavy winter kill, forest fires, or disease—say maybe the ticks got into moose. And there wouldn’t be an outfitter [who] would disagree with that. If there’s a problem, you stop hunting and fix the problem, and then someday we can go back out hunting again. But this here was not science-based. There was no conservation concern. They went against their own Wildlife Act. And the biggest thing was, they never consulted with anyone.”
Fleming said that stakeholders and wildlife managers throughout the province were taken aback when the ban was announced back in 2017.
“They never consulted with their own staff biologists or regional managers or the resident hunters,” he said. “They never consulted with the First Nations, which have first kick at the cat, and they never consulted with outfitters. It was just announced on the news, and that’s how we found out about it.”
Fleming said that in the years since the ban went into effect, outfitters, guides, and other small business owners who rely on tourism dollars to make a living in remote parts of B.C. have seen residual losses that extend well beyond the grizzly bear hunt.
“We had to get the checkbooks out and some had to borrow money to get the deposits back. It was a bad deal,” he said. “One outfitter said he wrote a lot more checks than what he received in deposits for other hunts. And it’s not only that. Hotels, they suffered from it. There were a lot of bear hunters that would come through in June. Now there’s nothing happening in June. And taxidermists and the float planes flying guys into camp, they’re sitting idle now until July when fishing starts. It’s a big, long-term spin off.”
Dr. Bruce McLellan worked as a grizzly bear research ecologist in B.C.’s Flathead Valley for more than four decades. In a recent webinar hosted by the British Columbia Wildlife Federation (BCWF), he commented on the current status of grizzlies in B.C. and the circumstances leading up to the 2017 grizzly bear hunting ban.
According to McLellan, public outcry over grizzly bear hunting in B.C. was many years in the making.
“It had quite a long history. It had been going on for several decades, and the media were major players in it, as well as all the different groups that were opposed to the hunting, and there’s quite a few of them,” McLellan told MeatEater. “They were putting out information and saying that they were primarily focused on sustainability. They were very critical of our population data and certainly suggested that the bear population was doing very poorly and a lot of people, particularly in the cities, just thought that [grizzlies] were almost extinct.”
McLellan said that when he and his colleagues refined their population monitoring techniques to reflect more accurate and up-to-date statistics, opponents of the hunt were forced to shift their messaging away from sustainability. They began to hone in on the ethics of grizzly bear hunting and started to ignore McLellan’s data altogether.
“The people that were using sustainability to try to stop the hunt, I knew them,” he said. “It was actually an ethical thing that they were most interested in. They just thought it was wrong.”
But the controversy never went away. It came to a deafening crescendo in 2017 when social media posts showing hunters posing with dead bears began to circulate within non-hunting communities and an infamous video of a grizzly being shot on a hillside went viral.
“This kind of stuff hit,” McLellan said in the BCWF webinar, sharing various social media grip-and-grins in a powerpoint presentation. “But the one that really got me is a video of these guys shooting this bear on a hillside. They shoot it multiple times. They’re cheering each other on, and the bear slides down the hillside leaving a big smear of blood. And when I saw that I just thought: ‘Hmm, that’s the end of the hunt.’”
Regardless of what role social media and traditional media outlets played in the B.C. government’s decision to ban the hunt, McLellan said that the grizzly bear population as a whole was stable at the time of the ban.
“Stopping the hunt isn’t a conservation issue,” he said in the webinar. “It’s not really going to do much for the bears. It was a pretty restricted hunt, and [in] most of the areas we’re concerned about, there was no hunt.”
Today, province-wide estimates put the B.C. grizzly bear population around 15,000 individual bears. That estimate has remained relatively constant since the 2017 ban went into effect.
Now that the controversial hunt has been outlawed, McLellan worries that people in urban parts of B.C. may become complacent about grizzly bear research and management.
“Some people might have lost interest in grizzly bear conservation. They might have been fooled to think that the hunt was the problem,” he said. “I wish the people that were all strongly opposed to the hunt would now be strongly in favor of managing these fractured areas well and having bear-aware things and making overpasses and fencing.”
Fleming doesn’t believe there’s much of a political appetite for reinstating the grizzly bear hunt in British Columbia, at least not at the moment.
“I think, to get it done, it would have to be with the next election,” he said. “It can’t just be opened with the stroke of a pen. It has to be opened through legislation. It would have to be brought to the floor by the wildlife minister. He would bring it to the floor, and it would go from there.”
As far as the eventual outcome of the class-action suit is concerned, he said it’s a waiting game at this point.
“When it comes to the court decision, nobody knows anything on that yet,” he said. “It’s up in the air until we can see if we get certified or not, then it would proceed to court. We’re just gonna keep hammering on it and see what comes about.”