SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

Photo from the Olmstead's brochure promoting hunting on Haida Gwaii.

BEAR FAT MAKES THE BEST BISCUITS

by Ian Lordon

I am not a hunter.

It’s not that I have anything against guns either. I’ve handled guns, fired them at targets: Bull’s-eyes, bottles, cans, and skeets. In responsible, capable hands I’m quite comfortable with them. Guns are tools, like an axe, a hammer, or a wheelbarrow, only there’s a mystique around guns owing to their purpose: Guns are designed to kill.

As a meat-eater — hell, as a human being — I don’t have a problem with killing for food. I can’t afford to. My very existence depends upon the death of other creatures great and small. Baby cucumbers are regularly slaughtered on my behalf to fill my pickle jar, just as a proud buck surrenders its life so I can enjoy a deer burger.

So hunting for food is okay. I actually admire the people I know who do. It’s simple, natural, fundamental; like breathing. There’s something incredibly pure about leaving home with a gun and a purpose and returning to stuff the freezer with food.

But there’s another kind of hunter. One who kills for satisfaction, for experience, for fun. Lion hunters, fox hunters, bear hunters — it’s all a bit of game, and not really essential to human existence.

We find both types of hunter on Haida Gwaii. Many kill deer, elk, and grouse for food, while others kill bears for sport. Bear hunting is becoming quite an industry. Like sport fishing, rich folks who play this game will travel a long way for the opportunity to kill a bear. They’ll pay a lot of money.

If a person from outside the province wants to shoot bears in BC, the law requires her to do so in the company of a licensed guide. Because in many places it’s getting hard to find bears outside of zoos (almost everyone frowns on shooting captive bears), and because there are still quite a few bears in BC, guiding licences in this province are a valuable commodity. BC licence-owners can earn a comfortable living showing these hunters where to find the bears they want to shoot.

On Haida Gwaii, there are only two of these licences. One for Moresby Island, the other for Graham. A few years ago the owner of the Graham Island licence, Walter Ernst, wanted to sell it. Ernst is an older gentleman, his health was failing, and he figured he wouldn’t be finding much time to show hunters where to kill bears on Graham Island.

Not that he did much of it anyway. You see Ernst wasn’t really all that interested in capitalizing on his licence to the greatest extent possible. No fancy marketing, no web page, no promotions. An Austrian, when he did guide Ernst catered mostly to Prussian aristocrats— wealthy European gentlemen looking for a little adventure, the romance of hunting the great bear in the untamed Canadian wilderness (there are no wild bears left in Europe). The last five years Ernst owned the licence, six bears were shot by guided hunters on Graham Island. A fraction more than one per year.

I had a chance to visit with Ernst and his wife Maria at their home secluded away on one of Copper Bay’s windswept shoulders. There, Ernst explained he wasn’t interested in making piles of money from guiding. He did it because he loves hunting, loves bears, and loves the outdoors. He likes to indulge these passions with people who share them.

When he decided to sell the licence a few years ago, Ernst approached the Council of the Haida Nation, Skidegate Band and Old Massett Village Councils to see if they were interested. He wanted to sell the licence to the Haida out of concern for the bears on Haida Gwaii. He worried that if the licence went on the market it would be bought by someone looking to profit from it, and that would place undo pressure on the local bear population. He wanted to sell it to someone like himself, someone who cared more about bears than making money.

Ernst tells me that when he would hunt, he and his guests would only kill the grand old boars, leaving the sows and young boars to carry on doing what bears do. In his heyday, Ernst rarely killed more than half a dozen bears a year on all of Graham Island. He hoped the Haida would adopt a similar approach.

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Ernst found a sympathetic ear in Dave Monture, Old Massett’s economic development officer at the time. Monture isn’t Haida, he’s a Mohawk. A member of the bear clan, he felt it was his duty to do what he could to help bears on Haida Gwaii.

“I think Walter was quite sincere about wanting the licence in Haida hands, otherwise it could be obtained by a less responsible party,” he said. And Monture’s enthusiasm rubbed off on Old Massett’s village council. “We thought it was an opportunity to get some control over the numbers.”

Ernst’s offer led to several meetings with representatives from Skidegate and Old Massett councils which involved proposals for what the Haida would do with the licence once they bought it.

“We could work with science and elders to ensure we had a sustainable path with these creatures,” Monture said.

One idea tied the licence to a backcountry trail network with Haida ‘watchmen on the land’ who would be mentored by Ernst after the handover. But any proposal required the participation of both councils and when Skidegate bowed out, the discussions came to an end.

“There was not support for it in Skidegate,” Monture recalled. “I was never given a full explanation. I was kind of frustrated because it was a good opportunity lost.”

Amanda Reid-Stevens, the economic development officer for Skidegate during the discussions, said the first major obstacle to buying the licence was Council of the Haida Nation approval.

“It’s sort of a given that you look for the CHN’s blessing,” she said. “We needed the go-ahead and it took a long time.”

Even when that approval came it wasn’t enough to overcome the last hurdle which she remembers was the bottom line. “We didn’t have the money for it.”

Monture on the other hand didn’t think the money Ernst wanted for the licence was unreasonable if both councils contributed towards the purchase.

“In BC these licences usually cost three quarters of a million dollars, and this was nowhere near that,” he said. “To me, it was not insurmountable. I thought the numbers were excellent.”

In the end, however, the money issue proved insurmountable and Ernst was left to find another buyer elsewhere.

“He (Ernst) was responsible enough to make best efforts to turn it over to Haida people and we dropped the ball,” Monture said.

• • •

Ernst eventually found a buyer for his licence in Fort St. John — a young guide by the name of Steve Rahn.

Rahn had met with Ernst before buying the licence and seemed genuinely affected by the older guide’s sense of responsibility towards the bears on Haida Gwaii, an approach he told me he’d like to maintain himself when I spoke to him after he obtained the licence.

“You don’t have to worry about me getting too big, I’m trying to keep it like Walter had it,” Rahn said. “We’re going to stay very conservative in our harvest. We don’t kill too many bears, we’re being very selective.”

Rahn had just finished his first hunting season and was delighted with the size, quality, and number of bears he had found on Haida Gwaii. “I believe they are the biggest black bears in Canada. A lot of our customers are seasoned bear hunters and they’re coming to us for a real trophy. It’s a world-class area — you get a chance of killing a real exceptional old animal.”

And judging from the numbers, Rahn was doing a good job leading his clients to those trophy bears. According to statistics from the BC Wildlife Branch, the number of bears killed by guided hunters on Graham Island jumped from one in 1999, to 25 in 2000 — the same year the licence changed hands. Not all of the bears were big old males either, Rahn’s customers also bagged four sows.

Boars or sows, Ernst looked disappointed when I told him how many bears are now being shot in his former guiding area.

“That’s too much, too much,” he said, shaking his head. “They shouldn’t be taking that many bears.”

It’s exactly the scenario Ernst feared would develop when he sold the licence and he feels that taking 25 bears a year from Graham Island is not going to be sustainable in the long run.

But it isn’t Rahn who is solely responsible for the spike in bears shot by hunters on Graham Island. It turns out Rahn was the licence holder in name only, and that the purchase of the licence was actually financed by Kevin and Victoria Olmstead, a Fort St. John couple which owns and manages four guiding licences in BC and the Yukon.

In BC, a person is only allowed to own one guiding licence, but the Olmsteads have worked around this regulation by paying for licences which are then registered in the name of the guides who will manage them.

Initially, the guide on Graham Island was Rahn who has since quit working for the Olmsteads and now guides in the Lillooet area. Today the licence is managed by Brock Storry, who recently moved to Port Clements where he looks after the Graham Island licence and another in the Yukon.

The Olmsteads have made guided hunting in BC their cash cow. They have a splashy website www.olmsteadhunting.com and some slick promotional materials which enthusiastically extol the Olmstead-hosted hunting experience.

“To be the leading outdoor recreation organization in North America in terms of our client experience, unique environment, diversified activities, quality of services, professional team performance, and superior accommodations.”

Olmstead Hunting Mission Statement

The Olmstead empire caters primarily to wealthy American clients, offering opportunities to kill Yukon Mountain Goats from horseback for $15,250, Fort St. John elk, moose, or goat starting at $6,000, or a Haida Gwaii black bear for the low, low price of $4,000 — with the second kill at 25 percent off (all prices in US dollars).

If the wife doesn’t like hunting, choose one of the Fort St. John hunts and you can bring her along anyway. There she’ll be pampered at the Elisi Spa and Wellness Center which offers massage, facial, linen herbal wrap, paraffin restoration, exfoliation, or aromatherapy for only $400 a day.

I decided to call one of the hunters listed among the references on the back of the Pacific Bear Outfitting price card to get an idea of what it was like to shoot one of Haida Gwaii’s big, black boars. There were hunters from relatively nearby states like Wyoming and Iowa, and distant ones like North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. From small towns like Hastings and Elkina Park, or more urban locales like Raleigh or Minneapolis. And although their origins diverged, they did so from a common purpose which united all of them: They had all set out to kill a bear on Graham Island.

I went far, far afield and tried to reach Bill Wilson in Midland, Texas who unfortunately was unavailable. However his partner, a charming woman named Nikki Haley, agreed to talk to me and before long she was reminiscing fondly about her two trips to the Queen Charlotte Islands where she had shot her first and only bear.

“Bear was the most exciting thing I’ve hunted.” Haley told me she and Wilson are in the ‘oil and ranching business,’ and regularly venture far beyond the borders of the lone star state in search of good hunting and fishing. They heard of Pacific Bear Outfitters through word of mouth and made their first trip to Haida Gwaii two years ago. “We’ve just hunted in the spring. We enjoyed our experience, it was very pristine— there’s actually water and trees and mountains up there which we don’t have here.”

It turns out Wilson never managed to get a bear on his two trips here. Haley said that every morning before the two of them set out with Brock Storry it was already decided who would shoot if they came across the bear they wanted. On their first trip, they didn’t find that bear until the last day, when it was Haley’s turn to fire.

“I was trying to be really nice and not hunt, but Bill insisted,” Haley said. “We’d been looking for bear and looking for bear — we saw a lot of sows and not many boars, but finally we saw a boar chasing a sow.”

Haley fired and hit the bear, which disappeared into some foliage, leading to a few tense moments while they searched through the brush for the wounded animal.
“The place we were in was really tight,” she said. “I knew I’d hit him, and it turned out to be fine.”

They found the bear lying dead not far from where she shot it.

“Its wasn’t as a large a bear as I hoped to get,” Haley said, but she was happy all the same. The carcass was sent to a taxidermist on the mainland, butchered and frozen, then sent to Midland, Texas where it eventually found its way onto her barbeque.

“We ate bear, it tasted pretty good.” Haley and Wilson also gave some meat to friends of theirs who rendered the fat for use in baked goods. “It’s one of the best fats to use in pastry.”

When Haley and Wilson returned the following spring she said they came too early in the season and there weren’t many bears up and about yet so they went home empty-handed. All the same she said she enjoyed her experiences here and was delighted with Storry, their guide on both occasions.

“He’s a well educated, interesting man,” she said. “A wonderful guide and a chef too, the food was wonderful.”

Before our conversation ended Haley asked me not to write anything bad about Pacific Bear Outfitting or bear hunting. She said although hunters are out there shooting animals it doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the environment or wildlife. I promised to only write what I managed to learn through my research.

“Hunters are probably some of the most conscientious conservationists around,” she said. “Almost anybody that’s in hunting wouldn’t want to over-harvest animals to the point where they would not come back.”

• • •

There is no immediate danger of that happening on Graham Island. Everyone I asked — Ernst, Rahn, the Conservation Officer Service, and BC Wildlife Branch — agreed the area boasts a healthy bear population. Where they disagreed were the actual estimates, which for all of Haida Gwaii ranged from as little as two thousand bears to a high of 15,000.

Ernst leans towards the lower end of that scale. He scoffed at the 15,000 figure and called it unbelievable. I’m inclined to agree. Biologists who study black bears in BC have regularly tracked males with ranges in excess of 1,000 square kilometres. When you subtract unsuitable habitat, factor in available food and other limiting factors, the total bear population for the islands is unlikely to be much more than 5,000.

Nobody really knows. A good indicator might be the number of bears which were destroyed when the dump in Queen Charlotte City closed a few years ago. Conservation officers killed about 50 that year and given the range of these animals, this probably represented many if not most of the bears on southern Graham Island. Viewed in this light I can only guess that 2,500 bears for Graham Island is probably pretty generous.

Regardless, suppose twenty-five bears represents around one percent of the total bear population killed by guided hunters each year on Graham Island. Add the number bears killed by BC hunters, eleven in 2000, along with unreported bear kills and that percentage doubles.

Is two percent of the total population a sustainable annual harvest? This is over and above deaths from natural causes, and of course we don’t know how many cubs are born and survive each year. Without a comprehensive survey, there really is no way to know what kind of impact hunters are having on the bear population.

One final note on the numbers. The BC Wildlife Branch couldn’t provide statistics for the 2001 bear hunting season on Graham Island. There might have been fewer bears killed that year, although the bag limit for black bears went from one to two, so it’s likely there was an increase.

In the absence of reliable empirical evidence, I’m forced to fall back on the anecdotal variety, or gut instinct. And the gut I have the most faith in is the one which belongs to the man who has hunted this area for decades — Walter Ernst. Which is why when I remember him shaking his head at the stats I feel some concern for the future of bears on Graham Island.

• • •

And that future, in the short term at least, has been decided. It is the marketed hunting experience provided by the Olmsteads to boardroom adventurers from places like Texas and Virginia.

As I mentioned earlier I am not a hunter, so maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps the excitement, the thrill of the chase, and the satisfaction of the kill are beyond me. I’d be interested to sample a bear steak, but I suspect Haley is the exception among bear hunters, most of whom are really looking for an impressive rug to tie the trophy room together. And right now I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for wealthy hunters to come here and kill the bears on Haida Gwaii.

I’ll leave you with a story I found on an Alaskan outfitter’s website, a firsthand account of a bear hunt there:

“He was moving steadily, looking for salmon and feeding on the vegetation along the stream. Upon reaching the bank, he turned and started away from us at a rate that would be hard to follow. I estimated the range to be 200 yards, within the capability of the .338 Winchester I was carrying this year. I laid my rifle across my jacket for a rest and told Billy that I would fire the next time he came out of the creek. In a moment he stepped up on the gravel bank, dripping wet. I fired for his shoulder. There was a sharp splat as the bullet hit that wet hide and he let out with a roar.

Instantly, he started to run for the mountain we had just come off of. I hit him two more times before he reached the slope, upon which he turned and headed straight for us. “This is my last shot!” I yelled at Billy as I took aim. The bullet hit him square in the chest and spun him around in his tracks, but he never went down. Instead, he headed back to the mountain and took refuge in an alder patch. With heart pounding and Billy standing cover, I quickly reloaded. Billy led the way around and above the patch in an attempt to catch some sight of the wounded bear. All was silent, except for occasional movement of brush somewhere below. After about 15 minutes and no sight of him, we decided to throw in a stone or two, hoping for a response. The first rock thudded into the soft earth and the bear stood up less than 20 yards away. “Bust him!” Billy whispered. I placed the crosshairs on his neck and dropped him in his tracks. The shot rolled him down the hill and he came to rest in the swamp. I thought for sure that shot had killed him, however, as we moved down the hill we could still hear him moving around. Carefully we inched onto the swamp. Only a small knoll separated us from the bear less than 15 yards away. About 50 yards out, we moved across until we could see the bear sitting and watching. When he caught sight of us he took off for the mountain at a run. Twice more I knocked him down before he rolled back to the swamp, yet he was still not dead. I had to fire one last shot into his neck to finish him off. It was the biggest bear I had ever seen. Needless to say, Bill and I danced around the swamp for quite some time, congratulating ourselves. It took everything we had to skin that bear, and we had to spend a second day fleshing it before it was light enough that we could pack it out to the beach. I took another fine caribou on that hunt, but the real thrill came when we squared the hide. It measured 11’3", just 2" less than the bear I didn’t get two years before. It was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in hunting.”


SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002