The Grisly Hunt by Julius Strauss
The life of a bear in British Columbia is cheap. Hunters, in collusion with the authorities, can kil a full-grown Grizzly for just $100. Julius Strauss reports from the Selkirk mountains on how he is fighting to stop the carnage
We had just made it to the river, ducking under branches and scrambling around stumps, when the young grizzly bear appeared upstream. I stood mesmerised as, clearly oblivious, he moved slowly towards us. Then with a bound he started running in our direction before stopping to pounce on a red salmon.
Heart beating fast, pepper-spray in hand, I weighed the next step.Was he alone? Was his mother around? If I unloaded the spray into his face would she charge to his defence? As I waited, the mantras drilled into me by my trainers ran through my head:
“Never surprise a grizzly bear at close quarters.”
“Identify yourself as human and never, ever run.” By now the grizzly was barely 100 feet away. I raised my arms and clapped sharply. He came to a sudden and surprised halt. He circled this way and that, sniffed the air, deciding what to do next. Then slowly, very slowly, he moved off into the alders. As bear encounters go, this was a pleasing one. Coming face to face with a wild grizzly fishing for salmon in the Canadian wilderness, unarmed, on foot, and on its terms is an experience to be savoured. Out on the coast of British Columbia some bear-viewing operations let you watch from purpose-built platforms many feet above the ground. But those animals have become used to people by years of viewing them as predictable, somehow distant, residents of another world.Watching from a platform, I think, you are more of a voyeur than a participant. I prefer the less consistent but more varied viewing that comes with operating around totally wild bears. Some are indifferent to humans, some not, but each has its own personality, history and behaviour. The meeting with the young grizzly was the culmination of months of learning about these icons of the wilderness; there’s more to bears than cute bums, long claws and porridge. There is the scat – slightly smaller than a horse’s but significantly larger than a human’s. Sometimes it is red and heavy with berries, at others green and apple-scented.When the bears begin to gorge on the salmon the scat takes on a shiny, grey colour and a pungent fishy smell. Then there are the tracks. On a grizzly print the claws are further from the toe-marks than on a black bear and the ball of the foot less curved. There are less obvious signs too: scratches and bite marks on trees that the bears like to rub and urinate on, leaving their scent for the next animal that comes along. There are bear paths through the bush and tiny snips of hair caught on twigs (black bear hair tends to be uniform in colour, grizzly hair usually varies throughout its length).
We came to the bush to get away from it all. Four years ago, I quit journalism and led Kristin, then my girlfriend, now my wife, away from Russia, from the wars of the Middle East and Afghanistan, away from hostility to a new life. After a miserable urban winter we chanced upon the dream we were seeking in a remote valley in British Columbia on a 32-acre plot of wilderness.
Later it turned out that the man who sold us the land and the wooden buildings on it was a kingpin in the local marijuana business. But by then it didn’t matter.We were hooked and threw ourselves headlong into life in the bush. There followed three years of crisis management, chaos and a host of minor disasters. I survived a small avalanche, a run-in with a log-splitting machine and a bloody accident with a kindling axe. One day my psychopathic horse first threw me and then stood on my prone helpless body. Later I drove a car off a mountain road and, with Kristin, had a run-in with black ice that left us upside down on the side of the Alaska Highway in a pick-up truck that had been crushed like a can of Coke. When we finally stopped to catch our breath we had a small wilderness bear-viewing operation – intimate, lots of fun, almost, though not quite, profitable and located in what is surely one of the most beautiful valleys in Canada. There was, however, one fly in this otherwise idyllic ointment. Each spring beer-swilling, potbellied men, each carrying a gun as big as himself, would descend on our valley. For days they scoured the trails on their quad bikes seeking out the animals that made the valley so special – the grizzlies. And when they found one, they shot it. Incredibly, it was all perfectly legal.
It seems to me that even in a Third World country that is struggling for survival, shooting one of the main attractions and tourist earners would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg: paltry short-term profit for substantial long-term loss. But in a First World country with a squeaky-clean image that prides itself on its considered and civilised moderation, this bloody backcountry ritual seemed to have no place.
At first it all made me feel just a little uneasy. And then it began to niggle and gnaw. My adopted province had aspirations of being a beacon of social order and prosperity, so self-satisfied that it was sometimes smug: The Best Place on Earth is the provincial slogan. And when I began to enquire, it seemed nobody had a good explanation for the hunt. Many residents didn’t even know it was happening.
So I turned to the government for an explanation. One of the things about being a journalist that I most miss is the power to terrify inept and overpaid bureaucrats. As a reporter I took great pleasure in turning over stones and exposing small-time corruption and mean-mindedness. Now, several years after I hung up my typewriter, I was sitting in a windowless room in a small, provincial town in Canada listening to a man with an enviable government salary, whose ostensible job was to protect wildlife. Instead he was defending the grizzly hunters. “Our clients . . .” the small man with the fuzzy red hair intoned to us pompously. “Do you mean the grizzly hunters?” asked Fred Easton, my friend and lawyer, whom I had invited to the meeting.
“Well they are our primary clients,” the ministry of environment official said defensively. In the 1960s as a young Greenpeace activist Fred had set out with a camera on a Zodiac inflatable to record Soviet whalers in the Pacific. His footage fueled a new conservation movement that became the global Save the Whale campaign. Now, nearly 40 years later, that indomitable spirit was resurfacing. I felt the steel of Fred’s resolve as his words became harsher and crisper. Under Fred’s relentless cross-examination the whole sorry story of the government’s dirty little secret began to emerge.
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