Viewing collaged work by Jaalun Edenshaw at the opening of TERRITORY.

Click here for a gallery of art.


- the Masset Show

by Jenny Nelson

Meeting a bear, whether in real time or story, is always a Bear Event. There is awe, a current of fear. Recall is in technicolour. The power and grace of bear loping across muskeg, sun glinting black fur silver. Bear swiping a 5 gallon bucket of Rediscovery’s peanut butter, a sorry trail of giant peanut butter poops. Cubs tumbling across a mountain meadow. Bear fishing the Yakoun. Bear on a back porch drunk on brandied fruit. Bear carcasses, a horrid, huge pile of them. Bear turning over rocks for crab along the Narrows.

The show Territory called on us to explore bear-human relationships. The response was a dynamic multi-media, multi-cultural exhibit. I found it very satisfying viewing. On a moral level it was just plain uncomfortable. I left with three disturbing pieces uppermost in my mind: Barry Wijdeven’s shocking cub with no paws, Celina Laursen’s recall of the tragic Hawke story, and Josina Davis’ reality check, titled “What is known about the Haida Gwaii Bear Population?”, a book with blank pages.

Territory lay an unwelcome burden on its audience. We just want to live our lives, do our work, hunt and gather or go shopping, enjoy the sunshine, stop to hear the geese draw near, but there is this problem, rat-a-tatting, disturbing the flow.

Here are some bear facts. A bear license is a ticket to kill 2 bear in a six month season. B.C. hunters kill bear. Outside of province hunters must have a guide. On Graham Island, 1995-1999: guided kill was 6 bear. In the year 2000: guided bear kill was 25. Add BC licensed kill of 11 that year makes a minimum of 36 dead bear on Graham Island. There is no compulsory record-keeping and no upper limit to guided hunting licences. It is up to the discretion of the licenseholder. Pacific Bear Outfitters now owns the licences for Graham and Moresby. It is managed in Tlell and headquartered in Fort St. John. Most trophy hunters come from a place where bear is more idea than reality, because of habitat loss and hunting. Most are nice people, interested in landscape and lore as well as ‘bagging the big one’.

Territory inspired questions and aimed for dialogue. So let’s have a dialogue. I took my questions to others. We sat in the maritime museum.

How many bear do you think live on the Islands?

Rolly Williams, Old Massett salmon enhancement employee: “Quite a lot.”

Elaine Nyeholt of Port Clements: “In the last ten years, there’s a big increase of bear along the road. Just about every day I’ve seen a bear on the road.” A bear census? Elaine: “No. Invasive.”

Rolly: “The logging is pushing them out of the areas, moving them closer to town. There’s not much old growth forest for them to hide in.”

More road bear may not mean high populations. I phoned Dr. Tom Reimchen in Victoria who studies forest and bear, including four years on Moresby Island. He explained the government’s method of estimating population numbers through DNA in collected hair samples.

Genetic markers can be ‘read’. Some genetic markers are highly variable. Generally 70-80% of a population have the same marker. If you take enough different markers, you can estimate how many individuals there should be in the population to allow that much variety to persist.

But this census method may greatly over-estimate actual populations. Reimchen uses basic biology and observation for his estimate. “I know how much salmon bears require, 500-1000 salmon/bear on Moresby.”

Using a rule of thumb of 1000 salmon/bear, Dr. Reimchen estimates 250 bear on Moresby. “When you go back year after year and you’ve seen the same number of individuals in different parts of the Island, and you keep seeing the same bears in different places, then it’s not many bear.”

Rolly: “We’re seeing the impact. We don’t see as many bear as we used to see. I’m at the river in two month stints. When we do see a bear, it’s a two or three year old, not the great big ones which we used to see.

“At Naden I saw close to ten at the river this year fishing, and they’re all different bears. Up in Juskatla this year for the whole month we fished we saw three. The average was 15 bear in the past. Usually on the river you see the big sow and mothers fishing.

“Bears are the easiest thing they hunt, just drive down the logging road. Yakoun Main - we don’t see them there anymore, or 25S, some of the areas where they’ve hunted, not there anymore.”

Something I read thirty years ago nags at me, that the Islands have been losing about two salmon streams a year since 1947 recordings.

In The Outer Shores,published in 1984, Bristol Foster wrote, “Twenty-nine populations have gone extinct since records began being kept....The extinction rate has been increasing every year since 1958 to where the mean annual extinction rate is now four populations per year.” Our remaining salmon streams are so precious.

Fish, bear, forest, stream. What’s the connection? None of us could really say.

Back to Reimchen. He directed me to an article on the web, Coastal Salmon, Nitrogen Isotopes and Coastal Forests (near the bottom of his publications list). I read it.

“Recent studies show that ...(bear) play a much more significant ecological role in coast forests than previously recognized.” Nutrients from those salmon the bear are hauling into the forest are being tracked in tree and other plant growth, in soil, and in insects and birds which benefit indirectly through the food web. Findings indicate that salmon nutrients provide commonly 50% of the nitrogen diet. “At Bag Harbour these carcasses contribute up to 120 kg of nitrogen per hectare into the forest ...Our research over the last decade, combined with those of other investigators in the Pacific Northwest, has yielded previously unrecognized linkages between the open ocean and forests ...” The bear may be a major go-between.

In Bear Fat Makes the Best Biscuits, Ian Lordon quotes
guide Steve Rahn describing hunting here. “It’s a world-class area—you get a chance of killing a real exceptional old animal.”

Trophy hunting. I just don’t get it. To me it’s archaic, and a dangerous gamble with the ecology. Rolly hunts problem bear or bear for ceremonial use. Elaine appreciates new business to the Islands. But we find common ground. We know the thrill of seeing bear, and share a feeling of responsibility for the well-being of Haida Gwaii.

Ought we to be content to leave it up to the guides in Tlell and Fort St. John to decide how much bear kill the Islands can take and what’s the solution?

Elaine: “I am because it’s their business and they’ll work themselves out of a job. I don’t know that it’s wise for people in Fort St. John to .. . But if it’s left up to people here, there’d be none taken so that eliminates the business. I don’t think it’s going to have as big an impact as people think. I could be wrong. It’s the waste of meat to me that’s the key. If you kill it, something should eat it.”

Me, Jenny, I suggest guides exchange hunting for controlled bear-viewing, just as lucrative and much more bang for your buck.

Ron Durrance of Lawn Hill back-country: “These Islands are totally incomparable to any spot in the world for me and bears are a big part of it. I’ve personally never had a bad experience with bear, but with humans yes. Bear are long time home dwellers. Seeing a bear is a highlight of your life, that time of passion, wonderment. This should be a free-bear zone Island-wide.” He suggests drumming up the money to buy back the licenses, each household contributing, “even if it took five years it would be worth it to stop it.”

Rolly: “I love the area. To me out there is like a garden. You get up on the mountain and look down into a valley, see different colours of trees, but still you want to get an animal to take food home. It’s not the horns. For me fishing and hunting is feeding my family, not shooting an animal for the sake of it.

“I don’t think they should (trophy hunt) if they don’t need it. You need information, same thing as fishing. How many guests a year? There has to be a limit of the number of people they get in a year.

“Bear have just as much right as us on the Island. I think there’s other ways we can resolve this. My way is you’ve got to negotiate. Sit down with the owner. The Island people should make the decision, not the government. It’s up to all the Island people and the licence holders to decide.”

Al Ward of Masset, retired fisherman and now sportsfishing guide: Bear? “I like to see them. But - BAM! BAM! ... Nah.”

And the last word to Elaine: “It’s a good issue. I think it’s good for them to know that we’re watching them.”

Thank you to Rolly Williams, Elaine Nyeholt,
Tom Reimchen, Ron Durrance and Al Ward
for the discourse.