Saving a B.C. grizzly: Indigenous reconciliation is changing how conservation officers deal with problem bears
VICTORIA -- Hanson Island is a tiny dot on the map. Found off the wild and wind-swept northeastern coast of Vancouver Island, it’s a small speck in the Broughton Archipelago. But it’s a blip on the map that soon could hold major significance in the world of grizzly bear conservation.
Last week, a massive bruin that swam to the remote island from the B.C. mainland began rummaging through improperly kept trash.
The majestic grizzly was seen lumbering around the rocky outcropping. He sauntered down beaches, waded in tidal pools and sought the shade of dark-green forests. Of all the places the bear visited there was only one which would almost certainly ensure his death.
It was also the one place he kept returning to.
The lure of trash was great and the grizzly named Mali, after a local ancestor, Malilakala, couldn’t stop. He was slowly becoming habituated to human garbage.
“Conservations officers have to consider liability and worry about people’s safety, so often they move to a kill plan,” Nicholas Scapillati, executive director of B.C.’s Grizzly Bear Foundation, told CTV News Vancouver Island.
In close proximity to homes, Mali hit the radar of the B.C. conservation office.
Crews who are often forced to kill problem bears because of safety issues, were soon planning their trip to the secluded island. But this time conservation officers weren’t the only ones mobilizing.
“We don’t want these bears put down anymore,” says Hereditary Chief of the Kwikwasutinuxw Nation, Mike Willie.
A collection of nearby First Nations, who had recently had a roundtable discussion with the province about grizzly conservation, were planning their next move.
“Mali is going to be the blueprint,” Willie says. “A blueprint to the process moving forward collaboratively with the government.”
What came next is what coastal First Nations defenders are describing as a watershed moment.
Indigenous leaders and the Grizzly Bear Foundation petitioned the province to save Mali and relocate him back to the mainland.
“Our officers, our senior bureaucrats, myself and all of us are learning to listen,” says B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman. “We are learning to make space for conservation.”
A plan to trap and tranquilize Mali was hatched and quickly acted upon before the bear could get into more trouble.
On April 9, a government helicopter scooped up the bear in a net and transported him to an undisclosed inlet on the mainland.
While B.C.’s conservation service has witnessed a more consistent migration of grizzlies from the mainland to Vancouver Island, Indigenous leaders want more discussion before the destruction of bears.
“Seems to me lately it’s just kill-mode if they get into garbage,” says Willie. “I mean, what is the deeper reason here?”
First Nations members on the mainland coast have witnessed a decline in salmon returns in the past several seasons, which they say is forcing some young bears to swim to Vancouver Island for food.
Those same bears have also become a sustainable source of income for some local nations. Ecotourism and bear-watching tours are gaining popularity and many First Nations consider every bear a business partner.
For grizzly conservationists, Mali’s return to the mainland is a story of hope. Indigenous leaders say it’s also an example of reconciliation in a province desperate to heal old wounds.