A RE-EXAMINATION OF GRIZZLY BEAR MANAGEMENT AND BEHAVIOR WITHIN THE NORTH AMERICAN MODEL OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION
GRIZZLY BEAR VIEWING OR TROPHY HUNTING: WHOSE CONSERVATION VALUES SHOULD REIGN?
Grizzly bears are a public trust, legally belonging to all citizens. They are a species having whatever legal status or rights we assign them. When it comes to killing them, few animals elicit so many conflicting values, rationalizations and just plain intensity of emotions that grizzlies do. I do not sit on the fence when it comes to conservation of grizzly bears, an iconic species in a long slide to extinction. This essay explains why.
What are the facts about sport hunting of grizzly bears, a so-called trophy species? Trying to make a case against hunting grizzly bears can be a daunting challenge. Admonitions to combine good science, traditional values and ethical values are common but values are the core issue. People who observe, study and photograph bears want them protected. So too do ethical hunters who want adequate numbers for recreational hunts. A host of others, like cattle ranchers and their political minions, treat them as vermin.
Many conservationists and environmentalists believe that grizzly bears should be among the mammals and birds legally not subject to hunts. I am one of them. Even after being severely mauled by a Yellowstone grizzly I was not deterred from devoting a good part of my life to understanding their behavior, ecology and conservation. Similar sentiments can be found among people who study sharks, not exactly your household pooch, who harbor strong sentiments of protectionism. But as someone who has taught wildlife management and animal behaviour, I could be expected to promote a rationale for sport hunting of healthy populations of grizzlies. However, I am reminded of a parallel conflict of the public’ values in Utah. There the state biologists responsible for setting harvest limits argued for a hunting season on Sandhill cranes. They reasoned that as long as the population remains stable or there is a surplus, then there is no “biological argument” against selling permits. Could not the same argument be made for Bald eagles or Bottle-nosed dolphins? No, the decision whether to hunt a species in our game management tradition involves more than a little concern for ethical behaviour in the hunter, including not wasting “game meat”. That is, unless your position is that all sport hunting is wrong. That is another story.
Sport hunting in North America has a long tradition, dating back to the need for nutritious food for explorers and settlers. Without getting into the details of the current system of waterfowl and “big game” hunting suffice it to say that the North American Model for Wildlife Management (hereafter NAMWM) replaced devastating market hunting, which led to near extinction of species like pronghorn, bison, and elk. The scientific basis for maintaining populations of wild animals for sport and consumption is taught in ecology and wildlife management courses in our universities. So why not hunt grizzly bears where their numbers are not threatened? My answer rests on differences in the biology, behaviour and ecology of bears. Particularly the kinds of sustainable, non-consumptive experiences that people can have with grizzlies that are not hunted.
I have observed a trend away from the intrenched tradition of grizzly bear hunting. What are the issues? Professional biologists, support hunting or “harvesting” a species that produces a surplus based on an established model of exploitation, the NAMWM. In other words, if hunting bears will not cause the population to decline in numbers, and there is a group of the human population that wants to hunt them, then government agency biologists develop policies and regulations to manage a hunting season. This is called the “biological justification”. Rarely do we wildlife biologists publicly question the ethics of killing that vex the greater society. Even some commonly hunted animals, like deer or elk, are viewed by some people, not just animal rights advocates, as needing total protection. On the red-hot end of the scale are grizzly bears, seen by advocates as close to gorillas or elephants as unacceptable animals for recreational hunting. So, what are the differences?
When you spend thousands of hours observing bears you cannot fail to develop a very favorable attitude toward them. As a biologist who does not capture bears, I have no insights about the reactions of biologists who study bears after capturing, drugging and placing transmitting collars on them. Those nerve-racking contacts (for the bear as well as the biologist) are frequently with a cornered defensive or aggressive bear, hardly an experience for understanding the complexity of bear temperament. They rarely have an opportunity to study natural behavior for hours at a time as animal behaviorists do. The latter’s anthropological approach to bear life cannot help encouraging respect and a deep appreciation for the animal. We share insights and trails with a creature forged by evolution since the ice age.
Walking streams, hanging out in tree platforms and filling check sheets with their daily goings-on gives the intimate appreciation that students of great apes develop. This led me to withdraw from the “natural resource” value perspective of many of my academic and wildlife colleagues. I see bear hunting as a tradition in decline, one that attracts fewer and fewer hunters. But even among the majority of hunters of deer, elk etc. there is little support for bear hunting and hunters. Its not hard to see why. Even if the activity maintained its vigorous and skilled roots, I have not seen an acceptable defense of “sport hunting” of bears.
While surveying remote BC wild rivers for two summers for signs of grizzly abundance I saw grizzly hunting in its modern transformation. Traditionally, hunts went on for weeks in wilderness expeditions. Those hunts are a rarity among guided hunts as described vividly by Doug and Andrea Peacock in their book The Essential Grizzly. Most coastal BC hunts have all the markings of privileged, jet-age tourism replete with the hi-teck hunting gear.
Here is one example of what some coastal grizzlies are up against. First, the hunter arrives in a float plane from a nearby town, then dropped with his gear at a remote tide-water logging road. Meeting the hunters is a licensed guide-outfitter with a beater truck, retired for the mission. It serves to get the party to a primitive, tree platform overlooking a stretch of salmon spawning stream. Prior to the hunter’s arrival the guide will have scouted the site, hoping to see a big male or other “trophy-sized” bear. Even though the province’s statistics on the size of bears killed show lots of very small bears taken, even cubs, the point of bear hunting is to return with a trophy with real bragging rights. So much for trophy hunting! And we have yet to consider the ethics of killing an animal the hunter has no intention of eating. This “sport” is limited to people with twenty thousand dollars or so to spend on permits, guides and the time to travel.
What aspects of the gold standard of “fair chase” are involved in ambushing a bear at a salmon stream? Is this a hunt or shooting fish in a bowl? This scenario has an unsuspecting bear being staked out, like a garbage-baited bear, and shot from such a distance that the bear has no chance to sense the presence of the hunter and perhaps outwit him with superior smell, sight and hearing. That is the stuff of elk or deer hunting. But grizzly hunting is different. Big dollars chase the promise of a kill. Despite advertisements of near guarantees, hunting success statistics in Alaska from 2019 more than half the management areas had success percentage below 30 per cent. Not hard to see why so many people have given up hunting, whether too crowded, risk of getting shot by nimrods or just plain turned off by the shrinking of ethical standards.
To appreciate what has happened to hunting you need to look at the whole package. I’ve touched on some of the technology and vehicles used to get to a hunting camp. But think about how telescopic sights and gun technology have changed. Modern bear hunting is not done with an 1804 Pennsylvania rifle and black powder used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Although the best of their day, those weapons required about 60 seconds to reload and fire and lacked range and accuracy. Current hunters would never be caught hunting bears that way. You’d be dead and half eaten by your target in most cases. No, today’s semi-automatic rifles with telescopic sights are so powerful and accurate that even a person with average skills can kill a bear at 300 yards and twice that with a sniper-type rifle. And if he fails then the guide might kill the bear. Who would know?
To the bear, stuck with his marvelous natural but stone-age skills and senses, this means death or wounding from a bullet coming from such a distance that the bear stands little chance of detecting and avoiding the hunter. To the hunter the risk of a defensive attack by a wounded and angry bear is near zero. Anymore, this only happens when a bear is surprised by a hunter at close range. But we are talking about shooting grizzlies while they are feeding on salmon, with the sound of rushing water masking their hearing.
A final standard for scientific, professional management of a hunted species involves reliable data on their numbers and the population’s productivity to set hunting limits. Biologists agree that it is imperative that government managers be able to monitor hunters and enforce regulations. For the province of BC, Dr. Brian Horejsi has shown that adequate studies to base hunting seasons on do not exist. Furthermore, he found that BC has about one tenth the enforcement capability compared to the state of Alaska. Enforcement is especially inadequate on remote BC coastal areas where huge fat bears attracts foreign and resident hunters. Since the biological basis for having a hunting season is not there it should be terminated. How can an agency claim to manage bears when their ability to monitor and enforce hunting regulations is worse than some impoverished third world countries? This harkens back to early 20th century policy, before game laws went into force to stop market hunting and wildlife populations collapse.
One answer: word magic. The true situation has not been told to the public in any government proclamation. The political pressure to keep killing bears follows the same scenario as cod management. The “harvesters” – fishermen, bear hunters and guide-outfitters - lobby for more opportunities to exploit populations in the face of scientific evidence of population decline.
Bears, like all top carnivores, exist at relatively low densities, compared to deer, for example. As large animals they require a comparable amount of food, which requires that most bears feed throughout the day. An exception may be the coastal grizzlies that have access to salmon streams with multiple species of salmon available through the summer and fall. Now if you hunt grizzlies at their salmon source, you are punishing them for coming to the kitchen. Is this not like waiting with your rifle at a waterhole to shoot antelope in Africa? This is unsporting in the eyes of the public and wildlife managers because there is no “fair chase” involved. A hunter can ambush and kill an animal with overwhelming force and take little or no risk.
To repeat, when large mammals are threatened or harassed at one place continually, they learn to avoid that location - same as antelope would if lions crouched in cover near a water hole. So, managers could prohibit such ambushes by hunters largely based on the logic of loss of an essential dietary item (water or rich food source) the population will decline. Where habitat security is unacceptably low for bears, the food there cannot be accessed. Better to leave with an empty belly and live another day than risk your life for a meal or two.
The same applies to grizzly bears only more so. Grizzlies have low reproductive rates, exist at low densities. Remember this: they are as carnivorous as they can be. They require huge amounts of food as rich in oils, fats and protein as available. This means that most grizzly populations do not produce a surplus of individuals for exploiting, as rabbits and deer do. More like mountain goats who exist near their ecological limits.
An exception for grizzlies may be portions of coastal Alaska where salmon have been super-abundant and readily accessible. In most mountain grizzly populations there is rarely a surplus to shoot. They do not fit the standard model for managing deer, elk or waterfowl as outlined in the NAMWM. Furthermore, grizzlies live a long time, some reaching 34 years of age in the case of a very large male, the classic “trophy” grizzly. But there very few of them. What then about the argument for trophy bear hunting of grizzlies? It is mostly hollow: the statistics on weights of grizzlies shot in BC and AK show a preponderance of smaller bears (reference?). In case the reader feels a bias sliding in here, these are the facts. We can get into the ethical issues later.
More importantly, there is the avoidance issue. Like the waterhole example, when I was in British Columbia I discovered where grizzlies were being shot from tree stands overlooking salmon spawning channels. Compare the dense, protected populations of grizzlies in Katmai National Park, where the bears have access to salmon over 4-5 months and grow to prodigious sizes with the smaller hunted populations along the BC coast, but still with ample salmon. The BC bears are marginal in density and numbers: they do not sustain much hunting, especially of very large bears that were seen historically. What happens in BC when hunting is replaced by popular bear-viewing? This raises the economic issues of sharing the bear “resource”. Currently grizzly bear hunting is being replaced by viewing. This has been assisted where hunting guides’ permits are bought by environmental NGOs to promote bear viewing.
If the goal is a science-based compromise between hunting everywhere and an end to all grizzly bear hunting, there is an alternative. It requires that both government bear managers and bear hunting advocates get more connected with bear population science – what fundamental factors drive good production of grizzly bear populations. This is bear ecology. Set aside, for the moment only, the questions of human ethical values or personal choices about whether grizzly bears should be a species that is sport hunted. Just looking at the science, when a society’s goal is both providing for wildlife viewing and more grizzlies to hunt then both groups could promote complete protection of grizzlies where they concentrate to forage. This is because salmon streams are the factories that produce bears. Sure, a bear’s diet include hundreds of kinds of berries and other plants as well almost any animal, dead or alive. But the volume of fish available in streams is so massive (when all 5 species of salmon are counted) make this food the difference between huge coastal bears at 50 times the density of bears that don’t get a crack at salmon.
Coastal Katmai National Park bears turn out to have the largest number of animals per square kilometer ever reported, according to work by Dr. Sterling Miller and his colleagues. An even denser population, I suspect, are the inland bear aggregations that comes to Brooks River. There, four months of feeding on sockeye salmon encourage very huge size and very high local density. A complete protection strategy for salmon bears has been recommended by independent scientists. Regrettably, protection at these sites by game managers has been resisted or rejected: perhaps managers suspect viewing is the thin edge of the wedge to reduce hunting opportunities. Should be surprised? The state of Alaska responded with a regulation that demanded “no net loss of habitat where bears are hunted”. This seems to be a reaction to advocacy by conservationist who press for more protected areas, a tactic with good scientific backing.
The case was made earlier that killing animals at water holes or concentrated feeding areas. These are the kitchens that maintain the productivity of populations. When animals are protected, they will produce more offspring and so the areas become population “sources” that provide emigrants to other areas i. e. hunted areas, where mortality of bears are the “sink” population. To say this another way, the hunted areas kill animals in excess of what the habitat can support. The better habitat produce a surplus. This source-sink effect has been demonstrated dramatically in Alaska. The long-time protected area McNeil River State Wildlife Refuge was the earliest and perhaps most popular place to observe and photograph huge AK grizzly bears at close range. With only 10 people with permits to visit the falls area at a time the bears clued to the protection and increased in proportion to the wealth of salmon flooding into the drainage.
Let’s back up and consider who owns the bears. They are managed as a public trust by government for the enjoyment of people. That surely means all the people, not just the ones who shoot a bear and hang its skin on a wall. Should a minor segment of the public get hunting rights to almost all the bears and thus influence the experiences of the majority or even those who will never see a bear but want them left to live their lives? There is an explosion of interest by the public to travel to photograph and view bears in western Canada and Alaska. Witness the interest in television specials showing large mammals. Studies of tourists’ preferences for seeing various wildlife species in AK give the prize to grizzly bears, hands down; about twice (?) the value of seeing a wolf or moose. And this interest is reflected on the BC coast where eco-tourism on land and by adventure tour boats supports dozens of businesses that have sprung up in the last 2-3 decades. Where my students and I did bear behaviour research in Knight Inlet the bears increased from under 10 or so when protection began, and we started out studies up to a density of four or five times that number. With protection grizzlies rapidly habituated, ignoring the presence of observers. With full access to fat pink salmon, they became so dense and that they could be counted on to be seen also any time, day or night.
THREATS TO THE CONSERVATION OF GRIZZLY BEARS FROM HUNTING
Reduction or elimination of dispersion. Killing bears on the border of small, isolated populations (like the Cabinet/Yaak or North Cascades), eliminates or reduces dispersion and genetic exchanges that are so important in preventing inbreeding depression and local extinction. This impact was a major concern when the GYE grizzly bears were being considered for de-listing under the ESA. States bordering the GYE (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho) planned to sell hunting permits for grizzlies. Adding to the current all-time record of human-caused bear mortality from poaching, defense of life and property (DLP) and vandall killing, the proposed loss of federal protection would grease the path to population extinction.
Optimal population densities vs. token numbers of bears. Top carnivores can only carry out their many ecosystem functions (see below for salmon bears) when they occur at historical higher densities. When management objectives have a goal of species representation (presence or absence on the landscape) the policy epitomizes inadequate token presence and ignores the deeper, more significant ecological role of grizzly bears.
Habitat security and numerical resilience. Hunting, poaching and other killing of bears eventually results in their avoidance of rich, preferred micro-habitats like salmon streams and berry shrub fields. When bears experience and remember a lethal threat (low security or alienated habitat in the lingo of wildlife biologists), those that survive learn to avoid those areas. As a consequence, these individuals are lacking an important food source. This syndrome has a cost in weight gain, size and in females translates into lower weight and fewer offspring. If hunting is intense and prolonged, then slowly the population is on its way to collapse. In the ABC archipelago in Southeast Alaska some individuals opt for feeding on high elevation berry fields in place of salmon. Studies showed that some collared grizzlies never came down to salmon stream but remain in the alpine zone. Modelling their productivity showed that a similarity to tundra grizzlies; small, exist at low densities and produce fewer cubs (Reynolds 19XX).
CRUCIAL ROLES OF SALMON FOR GRIZZLY BEARS AND COASTAL FOREST ECOSYSTEMS
Some Background. The Great Bear Rainforest of BC, like the Great Barrier Reef and Africa’s Serengeti, is a biologically productive, species rich ecosystem, capable of supporting some of the densest populations of bears in the world. Over eons of time a combination of high rainfall, moderate climate and fertile, salmon-enriched soil have provided optimal growing conditions for monster trees, dense forests and high animal diversity and abundance. A marvel of evolution, this is an awesome life zone that we call temperate rainforest. The rich diversity of interdependent plants and animals forms a unique ecological web of energy-nutrient linkages - a living factory. The nutrient basis or fertilization for this factory derives largely from massive transport of salmon from the Pacific Ocean into the far reaches of thousands of coastal rivers and their tributaries in British Columbia. From there bears transport large quantities of salmon tissue and elements (N,P,C) in their feces and urine which fertilize riparian vegetation (Bilbey et al. 1996)
Over millennia, unimaginable numbers of salmon have returned annually to NW Pacific rivers to spawn and then die, high in coastal watersheds. Biological scientists are just beginning to fathom the ecological significance of this natural subsidy of fertilizer and energy being transferred to forests, streams and people on the coast … an input of ocean nutrients that any forester or agriculturist can only dream about. Nowhere else, it seems, have species like salmon combed the ocean vastness, foraging and when fully mature come ashore in concentrated waves, flooding repeatedly into rivers and streams. Nitrogen and phosphorus in fish carcasses is transported by over 22 species of vertebrates into riparian zones and the forests beyond (Cederholm and Houston 1992). This transfer of nutrients is ecologically essential for the superior growth rates of coastal forests, which exceed tropical rainforests in annual accumulation of wood volume or forest productivity. It also accounts for maintenance of coastal marine and terrestrial predators and scavengers, human subsistence, but not unsustainable commercial exploitation where removal of the gears and linkages of the machinery run down the factory.
Grizzly bears are especially significant participants in the transport of nutrients and seeds to forests because they large mobile mammals that often travel long distances between feeding locations. Their large size also means they consume and distribute large quantities of material in their feces, urine and fish parts (both in absolute weight terms and relative to other animals). For example, in the Brooks River area of Katmai National Park on the Alaskan Peninsula bears feed on one population of sockeye salmon (Onchorhynchus nerka) over a 3–4-month period. In late June they congregate first on sockeye salmon arriving fresh from the ocean to Brooks Falls. After those fish have passed Brooks Falls the bears move to the spawning tributaries of upstream lakes. Finally, dead and dying salmon are caught and eaten in numerous downstream locations in the fall. Katmai National Park has the densest grizzly population ever measured: 550 bears per 1000 sq. km. (Miller et al. 1997) Research using stable N isotope analysis has shown conclusively that plants and soil along bear trails exceeds the nutrients in areas without bears (Morris, A, J. Starck and B.K. Gilbert 2005).
Not only is access to abundant salmon highly correlated with increased population density and reproductive potential of bears (Hilderbrand et al. 1999) but it is also associated with increased productivity and diversity in the whole ecosystem. This upslope transport of organic matter has long been recognized as essential to the production of young salmon (Juday, Rich and Mann 1932), but more recently recognized as contributing significantly to the fertility of riparian and upland forests (Wilson and Halupka 1995; Bilbey, Fransen and Bisson 1996; Willson, Gende and Marston 1998; Cederholm, Kinze and Murota 1999; Hilderbrand et al. 1999; Gende et al 2002).
THE FUNDAMENTAL ROLE OF SALMON IN GRIZZLY BEAR POPULATIONS AND ECOSYSTEM BIODIVERSITY
An early study (Miller et al. 1997) suggested that the densest populations of grizzly bears in Alaska, maybe in the world, had diets high in salmon. This has been confirmed (Hilderbrand et al. 1999). In coastal Alaska some bear populations obtain more than 90% of their nutrients from marine sources, mostly salmon but also clams, mussels and other intertidal animals. This almost total dependence of coastal grizzly bears on salmon has been verified through stable isotope analysis (Hobson and Welch 1992; Hilderbrand et al. 1996). The crucial dependence of dense bear populations on salmon is accentuated further by the temporal overlap between the period of super-abundant salmon and the pre-denning hyperphagia of bears in late summer and fall.
Thus, salmon are key to the survival and reproduction of the densest grizzly bear populations known worldwide. Where bears are protected from hunting dozens, even one hundred individual bears have been observed at McNeil River where salmon concentrate (L. Aumiller pers. comm.). Because these locations are very limited in space and time, traditional use by grizzlies in high historical numbers is dependent on adequate security – freedom from harassment, disturbance and killing by people. This vulnerability of bear concentrations makes special protection of the areas essential for maintenance of historically high use by bears. Decline of salmon from over-fishing, pollution or global warming effects on salmon survival in streams could tear the fabric of these sensitive relationships. We can predict rather well what will happen in BC if salmon streams are warmed from the triple threat of shade removal from clear-cutting to the edge of streams, average temperatures rise as rainfall declines from global warming. Spawning streams rise above critical temperatures for fish survival.
The best estimates of effects of rising stream temperatures on salmon survival may be from recent drought situations in which salmon have been trapped in pools and died from lack of oxygen and/or lethal temperatures.
When salmon collapse large carnivores like bears leave traditional areas and range widely, often searching in coastal villages for foods that they smell. The land can no longer support the same density of animals, so they steal our food or starve, both outcomes generally resulting in death and dramatic population reduction.
Such declines in bears and other salmon-dependent animals is the start of the unraveling of the integrity of the natural system, the ecosystem that stood on a foundation of rich salmon. As wide-ranging, large mammals, grizzly bears are instrumental in distributing material from the salmon bodies far into the forests and mountains of coastal landscapes.
Bears feeding in the intertidal zone
Along the Pacific coast from the Alaskan Peninsula south to Vancouver the ocean upwelling and nutrients flowing out from coastal streams creates the fabulously rich diversity of marine life. Planktonic organisms, carried by endless tidal ebb and flow, are captured by sessile creatures on rocks and driftwood and in sand and mud, all providing a source of foods for foraging bears. In the intertidal zone along the Pacific coast of Katmai National Park, the animals eat seven species of mollusks (Smith & Partridge 2004). These clams, mussels and oysters are super rich in lipids and fats, similar to salmon in their contribution to bear survival and reproduction.
Bear Hunting and/or Bear Viewing: Is There a Conflict?
In Alaska brown bears top the list of animals sought out for viewing by summer visitors, way ahead of other large mammals like caribou, Dall sheep, and moose, according to surveys. And tourism to salmon streams and Pacific coast shores, where bears congregate to catch salmon, is at an all time high. Brooks River and McNeil Falls on the Alaskan peninsula are so busy with photographers and bear-viewers that capacity limits are over-subscribed. However, this popular opportunity to observe bears preying on abundant fish may be seen by others as a growing threat to Alaska’s long tradition of bear hunting. Can the two coexist? Can managers maintain bear hunting without raising serious violations of ethical standards that are accepted by most hunting groups?
To see whether there is a conflict between viewing and hunting I offer a picture of how an agency policy could make the two work (assuming grizzly hunting is official policy). This must involve how the media and various proponents have perceived the conflict. Worth considering is the management of bears on Kodiak Island, a world-renowned location for titanic brown bears and trophy bear hunting. Before hunting seasons open, salmon stream bears have attracted bear-viewing commercial concessionaires, who fly clients into the sites for a day or longer. In shallow streams full of fat salmon, or at falls where they are especially vulnerable, huge brown bears are as predictable as the morning sunrise. Photographic opportunities are terrific. The bears have learned to accept people as benign, a learning process that behavior specialists refer as habituation. Habituation is not a mysterious process to anyone who has visited a national park or other area where animals are protected from risks of death, hunting or harassment. You want a close-up photo of an elk? Get your long lens and head off to Banff or Yellowstone. And, as ever more people give the foraging bears a steady diet of human presence the bears appear to become more tolerant around people. If they are not, they leave, commonly at the first sound of an approaching aircraft. This works quite well because the more wary bears are often the large, adult males that are intolerant of people. They get to the stream very early in the morning and leave before people arrive. Perhaps some of these large males have had bad experiences with hunters. We don’t really know because the appropriate studies have not been done yet. More on that subject later. Let us go back to the potential for unethical hunting.
Bear-viewing proponents interested in the welfare of bear populations have a very strong reaction to subjecting bears to summer viewing experiences with total protection and later shooting at them. This is totally unethical. How could you accept teaching bears to trust you one month and then the next month have hunters start shooting them? This would be the case if you are “hunting” the same individuals. The question of whether bears, that have lost their wariness of people after prolonged benign contact, retain that individual behavioral change in another location or contact has not been studied. If habituation is site or domain specific, then hunting that bear later in a different location may be less of an ethical dilemma.
Furthermore, hunting habituated bears does not fall within the category of “fair chase” hunting. Some would compare this kind of hunting to “canned hunts” where penned animals are released into a larger area and the hunter shoots it. Where is the hunting experience there?
I am not a supporter of hunting grizzly bears. I have spent too much time studying their behavior directly and walking among them is so many places like Katmai National Park. But that is a statement of my values. I wish to stick to the narrower issues and facts central to arguments surrounding hunting and viewing grizzly bears, especially habituation to people and impacts of disturbance.
Another similar example receiving much criticism is the culling of bison when they leave Yellowstone Park in the fall as they migrate onto state land. The bison cannot know that it is now vulnerable - does not know that this land is any different from the protected situation it has been experiencing all summer, maybe all its life. Recreational big game hunting usually involves searching, stalking and working hard with particular knowledge of the ability of the animal to escape out of range at any time. These examples don’t make the grade as hunting.
But if the wariest bears do not come near people, and as a consequence are not habituated then the ethical conflict would not exist. This was the case on Kodiak island, near a viewing area at Karluk Lake and feeder streams. There large adult males were documented chasing fish in nearby streams but avoided the viewing area when people were present. If the fall hunt were limited to taking some of these older males, then a case might be made for viewing and hunting in the same general area. The crux of that argument could rest on whether bear hunters could be trusted to target only very large male bears. There is much local interest in having hunting follow bear viewing because it extends the seasons for pilot-guides and outfitters, making the cost of operating a business and float planes more economical. However, a contrary argument is that living bears continue for years to provide highly valued wildlife experiences for eco-tourists whereas one dead bear can provide a trophy for only one hunter. It exists no more for others to enjoy. There is no comparison with the economic argument: viewing wins.
There is an even better biological management plan that could accommodate bear viewing, recreational hunting (where policy permits) and increases the density of bears where they have been over-hunted and not as productive as they might be.
Currently in AK and BC bear hunting is permitted along salmon streams, usually concentrated there in the late summer and fall. That is where bears are most abundant, fattening up on lipid-rich salmon in preparation for denning. Access to fatty foods at this time is typical because bears enter a physiological condition called hyperphagia, an adaptation making them sufficiently obese to survive a long winter in dens. By surviving on their fat, they also get the water they need from the breakdown of fat molecules into water and carbon dioxide. Since this over-eating period is so crucial to bear survival then biological goals and best practices would mandate managing hunts and viewing so that bears are minimally disturbed to see that they have adequate access to a glut of salmon. This will permit the females to produce the largest number of young that they are capable of. At Glendale Cove in 2018 four females were on stage, each with four cubs to the delight of two boatloads of bear-watchers. The simplest way to accomplish protection would be to designate no-hunting zones on all streams where bears feed on salmon. This meets two survival needs: first, pregnant females get superior nutrition, particularly to accumulate enough fat for their denning period and the needs of one to four growing suckling cubs. Second, the bears would be away from threats from people, roads and all the human factors that wallop bear survival.
Another vision is to categorize bear habitats into “source” areas that maximize bear productivity (“bear factories” as labelled by the late eminent ecologist, Dr. Charles Jonkel) and “sink” habitats with poorer security and hunting mortality. The latter are areas where bears are more likely to get into conflicts with people whether being shot, trapped, or colliding with vehicles. Currently management programs for grizzly bear hunting in states and provinces permit killing bears on salmon streams. This doesn’t make sense if the objective is to encourage the highest bear production because the stream is their kitchen (to repeat the points above). If bears avoid streams or are killed there it is entirely predictable that the population will either go into decline or stabilize at a lower density of bears than would otherwise occur if the bear population has unfettered access to its richest food.
Yellowstone National Park implemented this type of protection for bears on streams in 1988. Managers recognized that grizzlies searching for spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout came into conflict with anglers walking the fifty-one tributaries into Yellowstone Lake. Fortunately, they put grizzlies first in the use of streams by establishing seasonal closures on those streams.
The verification of the concept of establishing protection zones around streams can be seen in Katmai National Park, where the density of brown bears is the highest recorded in the world, about 550 bears per thousand square kilometers. It may be hard to believe this, but that density is about 100 times that of grizzly bear populations in the Rockies or on the north slope of the Brooks Range in AK, as studied by Harry Reynolds in areas with very impoverished food bases. The bears coming to Brooks River and other streams flowing into Naknek Lake in Katmai have sockeye salmon available for an unusually long period, about 4 months after late June, due to a number of factors. First is the short distance from the ocean to Brooks Falls, where bears can capture them. Next in time, those bears follow deep broad bear trails up to dozens of shallow spawning streams surrounding and flowing into Brooks Lake where bears can catch fish that passed the falls successfully. Finally, the dead and dying salmon drift or swim downstream and ground out on gravel bars and in back-eddies where the bodies stack up like cordwood. The salmon move throughout a large ecosystem and the bears track them using their fine-tuned memory of all this. This is bear heaven: food so abundant that is seems infinite. Where else is a predator-scavenger able to stand in one location and have a complete diet come fall, the fattest brown bears recorded anywhere on earth. Likewise, the numbers and availability of salmon result in the highest density of bears of any population studied.
The Joys and Beauty of Watching Bears
Dumpling Mountain looks over Brooks River in Katmai National Park: a cool, clear tributary of the greatest river of salmon in North America. More breathtaking, it is a place where some 70 bears come each summer to gorge on fish. Nowhere in Alaska do so many giant brown bears chase salmon amongst anglers and wandering visitors to this blue-ribbon trout stream in the heart of Katmai.
It’s early morning. Bright sunlight glistens off the long, wet grass surrounding Dumpling’s high slopes. From my tiny, observation platform at the river’s edge I swing my spotting scope across the mountain’s green skirt. Research is slow. No bears. Why not look for a bear on the mountain? A fantasy diversion because, in the hundreds of hours of observations at Brooks, I have never seen a bear on Dumpling Mountain. At the precise moment my scope is focused: bingo, there is a bear. Then, no sooner had I spotted it yon bear tucked its head down and did one complete somersault down the slope. Stunned, I wondered if I was hallucinating. Did that really happen? It’s as though the bear thought: well now that you’re looking at me, how about this! It’s hard to avoid thinking that the bear has a love of novelty or playfulness, even when solitary. You see this in cubs; even adult bears can impress you with their exquisite play.
I must reflect on the few biologists, like the exceptional park biologist, Tamara Olson, that do systematic observational studies of bears like this. Using scientific techniques of sampling, we are like anthropologists studying baboons or chimpanzees. You get a real sense of the life of the animal. Neither hunting bears nor studies using radio-collars offer an opportunity to appreciate the marvels of bear behaviour. The study of collared bears requires capture, drugging and attaching a collar. Tracking a bear means listening to electronic signals but rarely seeing it. So, you learn a lot about where the bear is but not much about what she is doing unless you move in a , forensically, search for signs of foraging and other activity. In rare cases you see behaviour from airplanes except there is rarely any context about what is going on. Hunters, on the other hand, may know next to nothing about bears, especially their complex social life and subtle intelligence. Maybe it is better for them not to even think about these things. You might have to quit.
A CASE STUDY OF BEAR HUNT SUPPORTERS WHO OPPOSE BEAR VIEWING
What is the basis for opposition to bear-viewing from professionals?
Whether the presence of people viewing bears in wild country causes displacement or disturbance to them depends on the nature of the historic relationship or outcome that such activity has had on bears and how it is done. First, I consider cases where impacts are minimal or positive for bears.
Least impacts are in places where the bears have been protected for long periods with consistent enforcement against poaching and blatant disturbance. Brooks River bears, in Katmai National Park, have a history of both attentive management for viewing and no handling of bears for biological studies (except one small capture program in the 1960s (summarized in Will Troyer’s book “Bear Wrangler 2008). Studies through the 80s and 90s (Olson et al.) documented a large proportion of the bears becoming accustomed to the throngs of people during the summer and fall when they come to the river to feed on salmon. Since the beginning of this research and up to the present both the numbers of people and the number of bears present has increased immensely. Even so our studies demonstrated some individual bears were far less tolerant of people. They were displaced from mid-day feeding toward early morning or late evening when fewer people were near the river. We had no evidence that indicated either that the bears were food-limited, such as seeing thin bears, nor did cub production or population numbers appear to decline.
So why, with such solid data, did some very experienced Canadian wildlife biologists as Dr. Valerius Geist and Tony Hamilton maintain that viewing leads to mortality in bears? Unfortunately, they were drawing their conclusions from contexts quite different from the well-protected sites ( Katmai National Park, McNeil River, Glendale River in Knight Inlet, BC) where bears fed on abundant salmon. Neither of these biologists has studied these bear-viewing sites, visited any of the commercial programs. Nor had they referenced the many long-term behavioural studies of the Katmai or Glendale River bears.
On the other (very relevant) hand, in more food-limited populations, like the grizzlies of Banff, Jasper, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, the effects of habituation on grizzlies can indeed have serious consequences, especially when the very tolerant bears begin associating food rewards with people in campsites. Since the bears are not wary of humans, they enter camps and take food where they find it. It is crucial for grizzly management to understand that bears can become very aggressive in their pursuit of food. However, rarely are they motivated to prey on people.
The scenario of combining habituation to people and food-conditioning is not observed in Alaskan salmon bears at sites like Brooks Camp, even where campers and bears share the same campsite areas. Why is this? Many of us have come to the tentative conclusion (since the phenomenon has not been the subject of specific research) that these salmon eating bears do not use their habituated behavioral state to approach people for food. They have an ample, preferred food in the rivers. This is not to say that in the fall these bears do not break into buildings that have attractive smells. They do. Protective tactics against this are among annual preparations of fall closure of Brooks Camp. Still, the bears have not been observed approaching people aggressively for human food.
Bears have often been seen moving toward people to obtain their fish. This has been discouraged by educating people to release fish quickly and even by aversive conditioning of bears that are persistent in the habit. It appear that bears there do not act to approach and engage people to get food by intimidation. By contrast the situations that we see in parks or other wild country of bears being killed for aggressive food-seeking from hunters is not a source of mortality for bears in national parks like Katmai. I am therefore led to conclude that the conclusions reached by Mattson and Pease about the unwary or somewhat habituated bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem having a higher probability of being killed by people may be true there, but it is not a generality that can be widely applied. Unfortunately, Geist and Hamilton have, in error, generalized to all situations.
There are hunters and other armed people prepared to kill grizzlies around Yellowstone, especially during the elk-hunting season, but in a large national park like Katmai, the Brooks River bears that do become habituated are far from armed people. They are not food-limited, so not motivated to aggressively approach people. Likewise they do not risk being shot by people when surprised and feeling threatened.
Now the next question is whether this applies to the coastal brown/grizzlies of BC. Here again this depends on whether the people are guided by trained people in areas where the bears have experienced people in a consistent setting and predictable, non-threatening context. If bears are approached quietly and have had some benign experiences with people, and even despite being shot at during the hunting season, they can be the basis of a viewing program. Where the bear population depends crucially on summer and fall salmon runs the whole productivity of dense populations requires access to the streams with salmon. It is common sense to recognize that intrusions that prevent them from getting this access will have negative outcomes.
What is very strange and totally contradictory about the arguments against viewing, based on the alleged disturbance, is that the same argument is not made for hunting. How could bear-viewing be unacceptably intrusive, as argued in the BC Conservation Strategy, but hunting not be? And what about the effect of poaching resulting from abundant road access and inadequate enforcement? At the Glendale River viewing site we observed three crippled grizzly bears in a two-day period, one missing a hind foot. This was followed by a complete disappearance of all large male bears. This would appear to be habitat alienation and disturbance needing attention.
I got my tail in a wringer when I got involved in BC’s draft report was presented to the North Coast and Central LRMP Grizzly Bear Harvest Management in British Columbia: Background Report (Hamilton and Austin. 2001). The Appendix of that report addressed the alleged impacts of bear-viewing on the BC coast. That was a red flag for me because I had spent some time challenging earlier “reports” from the wildlife branch about alleged “impacts” on grizzlies from watching them. Never did the provincial biologists address the effects on bears of shooting at them. But they had the sheer gal to question the right of citizens and visitors to go into their habitats and look at them. This blew me away - reminded me of my experience in Utah at the Bear River Wildlife Refuge where I learned that photographers were not allowed to go out on the dikes in spring because the nesting waterfowl would be disturbed. Well, yes, if you were not careful and sensitive to the site that would be true. But a few months later a regiment of hunters covered the place and shot them everywhere.
So back to the planners on the BC coast. I sent back my rejection of the arguments against bear viewing as a huge negative and complained about the misinterpretation of the scientific research that my students and I had completed and published from 3 studies over 6 years in BC and 4 studies over 9 years in Katmai National Park, Alaska. I told the committee that the interpretation of our research was seriously in error and major conclusions were totally contradictory to our publishes conclusions in the theses and papers cited. The interpretation offered by central provincial biologist, a very competent biologist under terrible pressure to get the right message out, suffered gross extrapolation of situations that may occur in some instances like Yellowstone where bears die mainly from human causes but is not a conclusion that is valid across the range of situations and contexts in BC or AK.
This might be viewed as a simple oversight or lack of experience with bear-viewing operations. However previous writings on this subject contain similar misinterpretations or bias such as in the BC Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy which I have criticized in a published report in 1998. Regrettably the same bias continues in this Appendix. Furthermore, while my students’ studies are cited as the major sources of the science behind the statements in Appendix 6, I was not contacted or asked to review the interpretation of our work, a common request in science writing. I find it hard not to interpret this as an intentional, idiosyncratic interpretation of the impacts of bear-viewing. My conclusion about this consistent bias is buttressed by rejection of our invitations to the author to visit our research site and review the research on the coast of British Columbia (at Glendale Cove in Knight Inlet).
The Appendix of the BC report (page 1, para.3) states “Although the absolute impacts of displacement and habituation are difficult to quantify, it is certain that highly habituated bears have a higher probability of mortality.” This is not a valid generality. The response of wild bears to humans in a viewing context depends on a number of factors. Most important is whether the bears in question have had a history of negative experiences with humans. For example, if the coastal bears have not been regularly hunted over a period of years, such as in the case of McNeil Falls and Brooks River, Katmai bears. These bears habituated rapidly to the benign presence of people, especially if the people are guided by someone who is sensitive to the behavioral response of bears.
In contrast, bears which have been subjected to legal and illegal hunting become exceptionally sensitive to the presence of people and, when given an opportunity to withdraw, will do so. If the presence of people is repeated and intense then we can expect that there will be displacement of bears from the specific habitat where the people appear. It appears in these cases that the bears are generalizing their negative experiences with people intent on killing them to others who wish them no harm. This where a generalized conclusion is invalid. Our research with the protected bears at Glendale Cove demonstrated the benefits if human presence on bears feeding time budgets. These results are fully described in the dissertation of Dr. Owen Nevin (2003), quoted in Appendix 6, but appear to have been ignored or misunderstood. Instead, the interpretations of one paper by Mattson et al. (1992) on Yellowstone grizzlies regarding the predisposing effects of human habituation and food-conditioning to mortality are accepted, despite the fact that these authors infer this effect. And they may be correct with this hypothesis since the Yellowstone grizzly bears that become habituated are predisposed to come into camps and other human dominated sites because they are generally food-stressed, like many mountain bears populations (e.g., Banff, Jasper, Waterton, Glacier parks, etc. This food stress and predisposition to become food-conditioned is definitely not the case in my experience of salmon eating brown bears in Katmai NP, Anan Bear Observatory in the Tongass NF, the Chilkoot River near Haines, AK (Crupi 2001?) nor at the viewing stands at the Glendale spawning channels in Knight Inlet, British Columbia.
It is very important for the conservation of coastal brown bears that misinformed beliefs about the effects of viewing not be promulgated. It is very clear from all the research on bear viewing and the success of the programs and growth and productivity of the viewed populations that well-managed viewing, especially where guided viewing by experienced operators occurs, that bear viewing can have positive impacts on bears.
A further alleged disadvantage of bear viewing has surfaced. Viewing is seen in the BC Appendix as a “direct conflict with legal bear hunting, both because of the incompatibility of the two recreational activities at the same location, and the concern about shooting human-habituated bears.” Had the author taken the time to review ongoing programs it would be clear that programs at Kodiak Island have made these activities compatible both by the different time periods of each and having viewing areas protected. Similarly, at McNeil Falls the bears are protected but the hunting of some of these individuals is apparent. In the Fall “harvest” of brown bears is uniquely high in the game management units around the refuge. It is clear that biologically sound methods for managing for compatibility are available if managers had management objectives that included meeting the recreational interests of a variety of users groups rather than continuing to serve the narrower interests of the relatively small clientele that grizzly bear hunters represent. However, if bear-viewing is misunderstood or seen as a threat to the hegemony of the traditional hunter clienteles then it is possible to erect a seeming impasse to compatibility. I hope I have shown that current science does not support this view. Quite the opposite, in fact: a number of authors have recently pointed out that a source-sink framework for managing carnivores can be both very productive for the population by protecting a breeding cohort of bears.
BENEFITS OF HABITUATION IN GUIDED BEAR VIEWING AREAS
Peer-reviewed research has identified direct benefits to bears with access to high-energy salmon, especially females and cubs (Nevin & Gilbert 20??). These benefits can be listed: