Two activist bear-viewing operators, using money raised from their guests, spearhead a successful campaign to end grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia.

It was the best news that grizzly bears in British Columbia have had since the white settlers first arrived: on 18 December the BC government announced that it was banning the hunting of all grizzly bears in the province, whether for trophies or meat, effective immediately. The change will mean the end of more than a century of shooting and mounting grizzly bears as trophies, or turning them into fireside rugs.

For some the announcement came as a surprise; but for two bear-viewing operators who had spent 24 months scheming with allies, lobbying parliamentarians, and skirmishing with the hunting industry, it represented a stunning, if unlikely, victory.

I should know. I was one of them.

The policy reversal shows that even small eco-tourism operators can influence government policy, if they marshal their economic arguments, tap into popular sentiment, and take a more activist role. And it was testament that eco-tourists are more than happy to contribute to a conservation effort they can truly believe in.

My wife Kristin and I may have donated hundreds of hours of our time to the cause of ending the grizzly bear hunt, but the financial cost of the lobbying effort – flights, hotels and tickets to political fundraisers – was all met by our guests. We are a tiny operation – a husband-and-wife team with less than a dozen hired staff – but we levy $100 from each guest who books a holiday with us and put that money into efforts that help bears. And, far from complaining, our guests seem to appreciate that.

Of course, the decision to end the grizzly bear hunt didn’t come in a vacuum. The machinations that led to the reversal had all the twists and turns of a nail-biting political thriller. There were secret phone calls, hushed-up wilderness visits on small chartered airplanes, and backcountry stand-offs between activists and trophy hunters.

And then, even as it seemed that all was lost, there was an 11th hour daring and principled stab-in-the-back by a parliamentarian that unhorsed BC’s former premier, and made a new government and a new grizzly bear policy possible.

For Kristin and I, it was Apple’s death that really put the fire in our bellies. She was the first wild grizzly bear we ever saw; the bear we knew the best; the bear we loved the most. And then, one day, for the measly license fee of $88, she was shot by a local trophy hunter.

We determined to take our fury from our kitchen table deep in the Canadian bush to the corridors of power. We teamed up with Dean Wyatt, owner of another bear-viewing operation in BC, and Lush Cosmetics – both dug deep into their pockets to help.

We knew we had one distinct advantage. Ninety per cent of British Columbians opposed the trophy hunting of grizzly bears, according to polls.

Initially when we arrived in the provincial capital Victoria the politicians barely gave us the time of day. The ministers responsible for hunting and tourism listened to us for a few minutes, promised much, and delivered nothing. The bureaucrats smirked and sneered when we talked about a grizzly hunting ban. The province’s then-premier refused to even meet us until we ponied up a $10,000 gate fee to one of her elite fundraising functions. Even then all we got was a quick photo op.

But we beavered away. We hired Kathy, a former dive instructor, who was charming and pushy in just the right proportions, and kept calling and meeting the politicians.

Although I am now a full time bear guide living deep in the Canadian wilderness, in one of my other lives I was a political officer in southern Afghanistan, making deals with Pashtun tribal leaders on behalf of the British government. Dealing with politicians in BC was not really any different. It was all about working with those on your side – First Nations, conservation groups and environmental organisations – and outmanoeuvring those on the other side – hardcore hunters backed by some serious American hunting money.

We had a couple of lucky breaks. First, a television team made a documentary about our efforts and it was shown on New Lives in the Wild with Ben Fogle to a global audience. And then John Horgan, then-leader of BC’s opposition, said he’d like to visit the ranch if we could fly him up. I called Thierry, a local charter pilot, who told me he could make the logistics work.

On a beautiful September afternoon I took Horgan and a few of his aides rafting down our blue-green river. I explained the economic value of bear viewing  – it’s worth more than ten times what bear hunting is worth to British Columbia – and talked about the ethics of trophy hunting, about public opinion.

In the car, as I drove Horgan back to the airplane, he was thoughtful for a while. Then he promised that, if he became premier, he would ban grizzly bear trophy hunting. Six months later he was BC’s new premier. Three months after that he announced a consultation process around the hunt. And in mid-December the grizzly hunt was banned.

The new rules will save around 300 grizzly bears a year from a hunter’s bullet. When the annals of the Canadian grizzly bear are written, maybe – just maybe – Apple’s death might not have been in vain.

[Photos are by Julius Strauss.]

Julius Strauss is the co-owner of Grizzly Bear Ranch, a small, luxury lodge in remote British Columbia that specialises in showing guests wild grizzly bears and other Canadian megafauna.


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