In British Columbia’s Selkirk range, Patrick Barkham joins the region’s bear watchers, and is shocked to learn that hunting these rare beasts is still perfectly legal.
Saturday November 22 2008
Three cheers for bear/For where?/For bear/He couldn’t swim but he rescued him/He rescued who?/Oh listen do! I’m talking of Pooh.
Snow-capped peaks lay ahead and thick fir trees behind as I strolled through bear country reciting Winnie the Pooh’s Anxious Pooh song in my head. Pooh bear was yellow and friendly. Poo bear is grizzled brown and may not be.
A trail of large greeny turds led up a narrow track in the Selkirk mountains in western Canada. They smelt, sweetly, of decomposing dandelions. Did this mean Poo bear was a well-satisfied vegetarian or was he famished and ready to snack on the next well-fed human with the temerity to stick a camera in his face.
Ever since Captain Meriwether Lewis recorded his encounter with a grizzly bear on the banks of Yellowstone River in 1805, we have both humanised and demonised Ursus arctos horribilis, the great grizzly beast at the top of the food chain.
Hunters have recounted chilling tales of the strength and cunning of these intimidating, complex creatures, which can run as fast as a racehorse, swim rapids (unlike Pooh) and scale trees, yet choose to spend most of their time rooting out tender leaves. Meriweather noted the grizzly was “very remarkable for the wounds which it will bear without dying”, while another hunter swore one specimen he shot rampaged on after plugging its own gunshot wounds with moss.
“For years before I visited the district I had heard wonderful stories of the grizzlies of the Selkirks,” wrote William H Wright, a North American “hunter-naturalist” in 1909. “I had heard how plentiful they were, and how ferocious they were, and how many miners were killed by them every year.” There are no miners left now in the Selkirks, but the bears have clung on. It hasn’t been easy. Since western settlers discovered North America, bears have been hounded from almost all US states and much of Canada with habitat destruction and hunting.
It used to be the ultimate challenge to kill one. Now it’s a mission just to see one. Ninety nine years after William H Wright, I wandered through the thick scrub of the Selkirk range in British Columbia obediently hollering “Ho bear! Woah bear!” as I was taught to by our bear safety video, hoping to catch sight of one before it ate me or, more likely, ran away.
It is a long road less travelled by tourists to the Selkirk mountains: after a while, the tarmac ends. Across a wooden bridge the power-lines stop. Mobile phone reception vanishes. During the winter, the road itself disappears, washed into the river or swamped under a thick duvet of snow.
Human life is almost as wild as nature. The Selkirks are home to loggers, truckers, hippies, retired bikers and lots of managing directors of “grow ops”. They sound respectable, I remarked to Julius Strauss, bear fan and owner of Grizzly Bear Ranch, the only bear-watching business in this region. Strauss explained: grow ops are actually covert cannabis factories.
This edgy kind of tranquillity seemed perfect for a resting war correspondent. After covering conflicts in Kosovo, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone for the Daily Telegraph, the British-born Strauss came to Canada with his wife, Kristin (amusingly they met when he visited Estonia to write a story about Brits drinking and behaving badly with local women; Strauss drank and behaved badly with Kristin) to start a new life.
Their bear-watching ranch consists of four wooden cabins in a beautiful meadow by a shimmering river. In the winter months, it is completely snow-bound, but Strauss takes bookings for more hospitable times: it is easy to see black bears emerge from hibernation in spring (May and June, when I visited) while midsummer is best for a general wilderness break. You are most likely to see grizzlies if you wait until autumn, when they descend from the mountains to swish their paws through the rivers in search of spawning salmon.
Strauss claims to have tired of living dangerously. Yet I suspect if he had found this blissful valley as peaceful as it looks he would have flitted back to Afghanistan by now. Since setting up here in 2006, he has crashed one Land Cruiser, dived out of another with a guest as it wobbled on a precipice, been trampled by a horse, fallen off an all-terrain vehicle and nearly lost a hand in a wood splitting machine.
Then there are the bears. Westerners named it the “grisly bear” not because of what it could do to you but for its white-flecked, grizzled coat. The ranch’s bookshelves groan under the weight of titles such as “Mark of the Grizzly”, and the first evening was spent learning, without being too alarmist, how to stay alive.
Bears claim the lives of far fewer humans than wasps or dogs. On average about two people die in bear attacks in North America each year. Humans kill far more grizzlies – 430 were shot in BC alone last year. Grizzlies and black bears will, however, sometimes charge at a human when provoked. “That’s going to be a terrifying experience,” warned Strauss. “What you must remember to do is not run away. That brings the hunt mentality out in them.” Easy to say. A safety video taught us the difference between a “defensive” bear attack and a predatory assault: “If a bear keeps attacking you, it is no longer acting defensively,” it intoned. Er, thanks.
Not entirely reassured, the small group – Strauss hosts a maximum of eight visitors at a time – retired to their own cute cabins, each with balconies (and two with cosy wood-burning stoves). Breakfast and supper are eaten around the communal table in Strauss and Kristin’s homely cabin. I was fresh from an unrelated “gourmet tourism” trip elsewhere in Canada for which Kristin’s home-cooked meals could easily have qualified.
On the first day, Strauss took us up a remote track and poked a stick into bear poo, or scat. “This guy knows his shit,” nodded Wendy, the American tourist. Having hung out with biologists and bear watchers, Strauss is a knowledgeable guide, and said that taking people out to watch bears is curiously similar to war reporting. “We’re driving around on shitty roads in the bush looking for action. You want to get there but when you do, and see a bear, you think, “Arrgh, why did I come here?”
This fear and desire sharpened the senses to the beauty of the vertiginous v-shaped valleys of the Selkirks. Avalanche slides thrust aside conifers and pushed fingers of grey stone through the forested mountainsides. You could walk all day without seeing another human, but every flicker of a branch might be caused by a bear rolling its shoulders through the undergrowth.
We followed Poo Bear’s trail of scat up the valley but never glimpsed him. As we bumped slowly down the track home, however, we rounded a corner and there was a large black bear, running ahead of us. Strauss cut the engine and we watched this muscular animal, its thick glossy coat bouncing as if in a shampoo advert. It calmly reared up to better see and smell us (a bear’s sight is as good as ours but their sense of smell is far superior) and then it was gone, the undergrowth echoing with the crash of its departure.
In the evening, we couldn’t help but talk bears. Grizzly watching is a growing tourist attraction, so it was shocking to learn that hunting them is still legal in BC. As well as the licensed hunt, many more are slaughtered illegally or shot for safety reasons when they become “problem” bears – usually because people carelessly leave out waste food, tempting innocent animals into urban areas. It’s even more bizarre that grizzlies are being slaughtered when no one knows how many are left. It is thought there are about 70,000 in North America, almost half of which are in Alaska. One biologist recently found numbers were half the government estimates in the southern Selkirks region. The BC government agreed to reduce the hunt in this area but then increased it in other regions. Three years ago the authorities issued just one annual permit, or “tag”, to legally kill a single grizzly bear in the central Selkirks area around Strauss’s ranch. In 2007, it permitted the killing of five grizzlies; this year, it increased the tags to allow the slaughter of 16 bears.
Our second day’s trip with a local guide followed a similar pattern – lots of white-tailed deer, swallowtail butterflies and bear scat but no actual sightings until we were safely back inside the truck on the road home. Luckily, on the third day, we had a secret weapon: Barry, a quiet New Zealand tourist, revealed he was a professional deerstalker. Strauss was no slouch in the bear-spotting stakes, but Barry missed nothing: he could pick out paw marks at 100m from a moving vehicle.
We drove almost 100km up an old logging track, crossing streams named by embittered gold miners – Jinx Creek, Sob Creek, Devil’s Creek – until our path was blocked by snow. Huge tree trunks had been scattered like toothpicks by the receding flood waters. No one had been here for days. Fresh grizzly prints ran across patches of mud. Strauss clutched his bear spray (a form of pepper spray similar to that used in riot control). We stuck together as we walked until my concentration lapsed and I found myself 30 yards ahead of the group. At that moment, a bear sprang out of the undergrowth barely 10 yards ahead of me. I froze. It froze. Time froze. It turned its brown muzzle to examine me with an imperious look on its face. And then it scrambled away down the slope.
With Barry’s eagle eyes, we saw porcupines, elk, a western striped skunk, possibly a coyote and seven more bears that day. All were black bears, but each one was different. Some we were able to watch from a distance, grazing and ambling about. Others took fright and slipped away.
The more you see these magnificent beasts in the wild the more barbaric it seems that they are still hunted. “There’s still a lot of 19th-century thought – ‘there’s a bear, shoot it’ – and that’s not acceptable in the 21st century,” said Strauss. “BC has an undeserved environmentally friendly image. It isn’t environmentally friendly. What we do have here is a huge amount of nature that can still be saved. What we don’t have is a government that understands it has to take a long-term view of the province.”
You may not always buy all the arguments for eco-tourism, but in this case, it seems crystal clear. Bear-watching is currently estimated to be worth C$3 million per year in BC, but is bound to grow: whale-watching in BC is now worth more than C$100 million. The more tourists come to watch bears the more likely that the authorities will finally get the bluntest of economic messages: these wonderful animals are worth more alive than they are dead.