Grizzly Politics in British Columbia

Why is a British Columbia civil servant taking a public position to strip grizzly bears in the US of their protections under the Endangered Species Act?

Raincoast Conservation Society has attained a copy of a soon-to-be published opinion piece signed by a BC government civil servant that calls for the grizzly bear in the lower 48 states to be de-listed from the US Endangered Species Act. The BC civil servant, Matt Austin, works for the Biodiversity Branch in the Ministry of the Environment as a “Species Specialist.” The Biodiversity Branch (formerly the Wildlife Branch) has long been viewed as an apologist for the clearcut logging of grizzly habitat in BC as well as a doctrinaire defender of the trophy hunting of grizzly bears in the province. The opinion piece is scheduled to appear in the next issue of the International Bear Association’s official publication urging the association’s membership to support the Bush administration’s proposed grizzly de-listing.

Biodiversity Branch bureaucrats have claimed that grizzly bears in BC can be properly managed, and even recovered in some regions where their populations have dwindled to precariously low numbers, with no reduction in the annual allowable cut (AAC) or any change in forest practices. In other words, the ministry’s view is that the current rate of clearcut logging can continue in perpetuity, along with the continued direct killing of the species by trophy hunting and somehow grizzly bears will thrive. 10,000 grizzlies have been killed in BC since 1975 and little, if any, core coastal grizzly habitat has been protected in the last decade. In fact, proposed land use plans for the central and north coast would leave 80 per cent of grizzly habitat unprotected.

It is highly inappropriate, but somehow not unexpected given their track record, for the ministry to publicly support the political maneuver by the Bush administration to de-list grizzly bears in the lower 48 from the US Endangered Species Act. This is clearly beyond the purview of provincial civil servants and once again reveals the biased political motivations of the bureaucrats in the BC government who are ostensibly in charge of managing grizzly bears.

Coincidentally, two of the other signatories (Sterling Miller and Jim Peek) to the opinion piece in question were members of the Liberal government’s grizzly bear science panel which was struck after Premier Gordon Campbell overturned the BC grizzly hunt moratorium in July 2001. Matt Austin was rumoured to have been instrumental in hand picking the members of the science panel, which essentially functioned as a rubber stamp for the BC government’s grizzly management policies.

There were an estimated 50,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 in the 1800’s. The population is now down to 1,200 or less. The move to de-list the grizzly is highly controversial and has been roundly criticized by US conservation organizations and non-government scientists alike. The administration proposes to start by de-listing the Yellowstone population, which has grown from 200 bears in 1975 to approximately 600 now. Most grizzly experts say that 2,000 to 3,000 bears are needed in each individual recovery area, along with adequate connectivity between areas, before a viable population will be established in the conterminous US. The de-listing would leave Yellowstone grizzlies without current protections under the Endangered Species Act in some 3 million acres outside their core habitat.

The Bush administration is pushing the grizzly bear de-listing for purely political reasons in order to make it easier for industry to log, mine and drill for oil and gas on public land in the US. The BC government, through Matt Austin, is supporting this politicized effort in the US in order to lower the bar for grizzly bear protection in Canada.

Is it a coincidence that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has recently recommended to the federal minister of the environment, Stephane Dion, that the grizzly bear in this country be listed under the Species at Risk Act? So far, the federal minister has bowed to special interests in the trophy hunting lobby and has refused to list the grizzly despite COSEWIC’s recommendation. If the de-listing in the US goes through it will make it even more difficult to get the grizzly in Canada federally listed. There is no provincial species at risk legislation in BC.

This incident is yet another example of why there is a need to clean house at the provincial Ministry of Environment and eliminate the incestuous relationship between the civil servants determining the fate of BC’s grizzlies and the Biodiversity Branch’s preferred constituents – the special interests in the trophy hunting lobby and the logging industry.

CHRIS GENOVALI is executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Society and can be reached at: