Denali National Park and Reserve
Credit: Denali National Park and Reserve

When a photo of Vancouver Canuck weirdo David Booth (as described by his own coach at the time, John Tortorella) hovering over the carcass of a freshly killed black bear was splashed across the Internet in May of 2012, it wasn’t exactly a high point for Canada’s trophy hunting record.

As it turned out, a guide had baited the bear — a legal practice in Alberta that is scorned by many hunters — with a pungent mix of oatmeal, molasses and beaver offal while Booth waited in a tree stand with a crossbow. Talk about an easy kill, a real macho endeavor. 

On the trophy hunting issue, I side with the bleeding hearts. I admit it. The killing of wild animals by humans for no reason other than the thrill of the kill and the opportunity to hang a bear skin rug or pair of big horns in the smoking den is, to me, one of the more pathetic examples of outdoor recreation. 

Supporters of the trophy hunt call meat-eating critics like me hypocrites for pointing fingers at the gun slingers while turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed on domesticated animals raised for slaughter in industrial meat plants just so that we can have cellophane wrapped burgers and steaks at the grocery store. To me that’s a ridiculous rebuttal; the environmental and ethical shortcomings of the meat industry are serious issues, but are for a separate discussion. Pundits who try to discount critics of trophy hunting with this argument are merely trying to deflect attention away from an extractive industry that targets wild keystone predators and prey that are highly evolved to occupy ecological niches on our planet and which are already facing pressure from habitat loss and fragmentation. 

In other words, I don’t buy the suggestion that criticism of the trophy hunt is a de facto defence of the inhumane treatment of livestock.

Neither is a criticism of the trophy hunt a criticism of hunting in general, or of those individuals with skill and commitment and an understanding of wildlife who simply want some wild game in their freezer. Over the years, fish and game clubs have added greatly to habitat conservation and our understanding of wildlife. My wife’s late grandfather, Frank Shannon, was a lifelong hunter, angler and BC Wildlife Federation member. He had a deep reverence for wildlife and natural habitat that manifested in a personal commitment to conservation and volunteerism throughout his long life. He led the effort to protect the spectacular Duck Lake marshes in southeastern BC, which in 1968 led to the creation of the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, and was the recipient of numerous conservation awards, among them the BC Wildlife Federation’s highest honour: the Barsby Trophy, Conservationist of Year. The point is — there are some hunters who mindlessly blast away and there are other hunters who understand that taking the life of a wild creature comes with a responsibility. 

Of course, people who are out for a trophy will often say they’re in it for the meat. But there’s a reason you don’t find cougar and grizzly on restaurant menus. (But you can find venison and other more appetizing game and fowl.) Trophy hunters shoot to kill out of some archaic Ernest Hemmingway-esque macho need to assert dominance over nature; what else could it be? I understand the thrill of the chase; I once followed a small herd of Fannin’s sheep in the Anvil Range above Faro, Yukon, hoping to get close enough for a full frame photograph, and it was as exciting a pursuit as anything I have experienced. I didn’t even have to shoot one to get my kicks.

In my home province of BC, the permitting of trophy hunting in many Class A provincial parks — supposedly one of the highest levels of protection the province can bestow on any piece of land — is a travesty. Either bureaucrats with a traditional hunting bias dominate the culture of the province’s wildlife branch, or the regulators are simply out of step with what the public expects from the stewards of our wild, protected places. I have travelled to many countries around the world where, save for a few species of birds and rodents, wild mammals have been virtually extirpated from the landscape. If one anomalous, unfortunate holdout from the animal kingdom pops its head out of some forgotten corner of forest, its days are usually critically numbered. In Canada, and especially BC, we need to do better by wildlife. 

The grizzly hunting issue in BC is particularly controversial; it has been for years. Stanford University’s Washington, DC-based Centre for Responsible Tourism turned its lens on bear viewing and bear hunting in BC and found that the former generates 12 times more in visitor spending than the latter and 11 times more in direct revenue for the province. Though the study was funded by the conservation foundation Tides Canada, an organization whose biases on this issue are no secret, the results confirm what many advocates of bear viewing and previous anecdotal reports have been saying for years — to put it crassly, a live bear is worth more than a dead bear. 

When it comes to grizzlies, the science and methodology used by the BC government to establish a total population of 17,000 bears, and consequently a sustainable harvest rate, has been called into question many times by reputable biologists like Wayne McCrory, Brian Horesji and others. We simply don’t have a solid grasp on the number of grizzlies roaming the province, so allowing hunters to continue killing these magnificent creatures for sport is a policy we will come to regret.

I find the transformative story of Gary Zorn, the so-called bear whisperer of the Cariboo, quite compelling. Zorn runs a bear viewing operation, based mostly on the beautiful Mitchell River that drains out of Cariboo Mountain Provincial Park into the north arm of Quesnel Lake. Like any good Ontario-born boy, he has a shrine to the Toronto Maple Leafs back at Pyna-tee-ah Lodge, the home he shares with his wife Peggy and base of operations for their company, Ecotours-BC, in the tiny town of Likely. Zorn also has a larger than life reputation that’s as colourful as the Cariboo-Chilcotin country where he has ranched cattle, wrangled horses, managed guest lodges and worked as a fly fishing guide and outfitter for trophy hunters. Urbanites might easily discount him as a regular rural BC redneck. However, in the early ‘90s, Zorn tired of dealing with people who, in his own words, “Just wanted to kill something and had no time to smell the roses.” He switched gears and obtained one of the first wildlife viewing licenses ever issued by the province for a provincial park. 

Even more compelling are the words of then-Haisla chief councilor Gerald Amos, quoted in a 1990s report titled Bears in the Greater Kitlope Ecosystem, in which he bluntly described the nature of sport hunting in the Kitlope:“They sit beside a river where the sockeye salmon spawn. That’s ‘Joe’s Diner’ to the bears ... There’s nothing challenging to what they call hunting in the Kitlope.”

Nothing challenging indeed; about as challenging as sitting in a blind with a crossbow and firing away at a baited bear. We can do better. 

This article appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.

(Image courtesy Denali National Park & Reserve.)