Science Matters: Where the wild things are – but for how long?

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

After the massive international spotlight on Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics, many people will remember Canada for the accomplishments of our winter athletes. Those who came to Vancouver for the Games will remember our friendliness and our ability to create a society where people from many backgrounds and cultures can live together. But just as many will remember us for something that has always defined our nation: our spectacular natural environment.

The forests, mountains, rivers, and ocean are visible no matter where you go in Vancouver. The wilderness at our doorstep is home to a wide range of plants and animals, especially for a northern temperate region. In much of Canada, you can still find all of the charismatic megafauna that were present at the time of European settlement, including grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, and wolverines.

British Columbia is home to as many as half of Canada’s grizzly bears and is one of the Earth’s last safe havens for these great animals. In other parts of the world, including Western Europe, Mexico, and the continental U.S., grizzlies and other bears have been driven to extinction or are on the verge of disappearing. Grizzly bears still roam, feed, and breed in much of B.C., whereas in California, this majestic bruin is now only found as an image on the state’s flag.

Grizzly bears are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. Known to scientists as a "keystone" species, grizzlies support plant and forest health by aerating the soil as they dig for roots and pine nuts and by dispersing the seeds of the plants they eat. In coastal ecosystems, such as the Great Bear Rainforest, grizzlies and other carnivores contribute to the magnificence of the landscape through the way they eat salmon. During summer and fall, hundreds of bears congregate along estuaries and rivers to gorge themselves on salmon migrating from the Pacific Ocean to their natal streams to spawn.

Grizzles are messy eaters. As they drag their prey out of the rivers and into the forest, and as they defecate in the woods after feasting on salmon, they help to distribute the nitrogen-rich nutrients from the salmon across the forest floor.

Despite their importance in nature and their vulnerability to human impacts,grizzlies remain unprotected in Canada. Some provinces, such as British Columbia, allow hunters to kill this threatened animal for sport. The trophy-hunting season for grizzlies and other bears in B.C. will open in a few weeks, just as the bears emerge from hibernation.

The extent to which trophy hunters are killing grizzlies in B.C was not fully known until now. The David Suzuki Foundation recently acquired and analyzed thousands of kill records collected by the government. We found that close to 10,000 grizzlies have been legally hunted in B.C. since the government first began tracking kills in the late 1970s. Many hunters come from the United States and Europe, where it is illegal to hunt bears or populations no longer exist.

Our research also shows that trophy hunters are turning many of B.C.’s parks and protected areas into graveyards for bears that are legally slaughtered within park boundaries. We’ve identified more than 60 provincial parks where grizzly bears are hunted for sport, including Northern Rocky Mountains Park, Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park, and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park.

British Columbia has taken steps to protect grizzly habitat by banning some resource activity like logging and mining in protected areas, but these measures are nearly useless without laws that prohibit people from killing bears.

Canadians have always revered the spectacular natural bounty that makes ours one of the most beautiful and prosperous nations on Earth. The prominence given to old-growth forests, salmon, and bears in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Vancouver demonstrates how important nature is to our national identity and our desire for others to see us as a modern Eden. Yet with this richness comes responsibility.

Ironically, the strongest protection for grizzly bears exists outside of Canada, in places like Mexico where they are no longer found. We must tell our government leaders that this is not acceptable. Canada’s wildlife is worth much more than just being an Olympic mascot or a marketing brand to sell to tourists – or a trophy on someone’s wall.

Science Matters is published by The David Suzuki Foundation and has been re-syndicated with permission on network since 2000.

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