First nations on British Columbia's north and central coast have banded together to declare that trophy bear hunting is banned in their territory, a move that could lock hunters out of an area twice the size of Vancouver Island.
But the move to put bear hunting off limits in the Great Bear Rainforest – a 70,000-square-kilometre swath of rugged fjords, coastal mountains and old-growth timber – doesn't sit well with provincial officials or B.C. hunting guides, who say only the government has the authority to make games laws.
"Our concern is that people without jurisdiction are unilaterally deciding something like this," said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C.
Mr. Ellis said the commercial revenue from the guide/outfitting business is about $120-million annually. "Hunting has been going on, on the north and central coast, for more than 100 years," he said. "And the bear populations are healthy."
He said the ban is driven by those who want to close down hunting for the benefit of bear watching. The ecotourism industry is developing in the Great Bear Rainforest, a region world famous for its primordial forests and its rare white-phase black bears.
B.C.'s unique Kermode – a black bear that is as white as a polar bear because of a recessive gene – is found only in the Great Bear Rainforest, a zone which stretches from north of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle. Although Kermode bears are protected and cannot legally be shot, it is impossible for hunters to know if a black-colored black bear has the recessive gene that could produce white offspring.
But Mr. Ellis said hunters take only about 2 per cent of the overall bear population, and with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 black bears in the region, the gene pool is big enough that the Kermode is not threatened.
"There is no issue with the bear population," Mr. Ellis said. "Our hunting is science-based, it's sound."
But Chief Doug Neasloss, of the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation, himself a bear-watching guide, said the hunting has to stop.
"Despite years of effort by the Coastal First Nations to find a resolution to this issue with the province this senseless and brutal trophy hunt continues," he said in a statement released Wednesday. "We will now assume the authority to monitor and enforce a closure of this senseless trophy hunt."
But B.C.'s Forests and Lands Minister, Steve Thomson, said the province is clearly responsible for setting hunting regulations. "I'm disappointed in the declaration that they've taken. Given that the province has the responsibility for setting the harvest limits, we'd ask them to respect that authority," he said.
Mr. Thomson said it is not clear how first nations intend to enforce the ban, and "it's too soon to say exactly how we're going to respond without more specifics on the actions that they might take."
But he said he has instructed wildlife staff to open discussions with the bands that make up the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of 10 bands.
William Housty, integrated resource manager for the Heiltsuk Nation, said the issue has come to a collision point because bear watching is developing rapidly in the Great Bear Rainforest, and native tourism guides are tired of coming across bear carcasses.
"Our people on the coast are leaning towards ecotourism and we don't see this as a good fit," he said. "A lot of bears are shot in estuaries, in the fall when the salmon are running … the skin and head and claws are taken, but the carcasses are just left there. It's gruesome."
Mr. Housty didn't know what first nations members would do if bear hunters enter the area this fall, but he said the declaration is intended to send a clear message: "They aren't welcome here."