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Too many grizzlies killed in BC trophy hunt: report

British Columbia's controversial annual grizzly bear hunt leaves more of the animals dead than even the province's own wildlife guidelines allow, claims a new report to be released Thursday by the David Suzuki Foundation that once again calls on the government to curb the trophy hunt.

The report's release comes on the first day of this year's grizzly hunt, in which hundreds of the bears will be killed by trophy hunters around the province - a practice that critics have long said is unsustainable and must stop.

"This is new science that really questions the sustainability of the hunt," Faisal Moola of the foundation said in an interview.

"This is a disaster in the waiting. If we do not act to protect the species given what we know about its vulnerabilities, we may no longer have bears."

The report uses provincial government records to examine the number of grizzly bears that were killed by humans between 2004 and 2008 and compares them with the province's own limits for what it calls the allowable human-caused mortality rate.

B.C.'s grizzly bears are divided into 57 different population areas.

The report says in 20 of those, hunting alone accounted for more grizzly deaths than the province's allowable mortality rates at least once during the five-year period of the study.

When combined with other human-caused grizzly deaths - including legal kills by wildlife management officials and illegal poaching - the mortality rates were exceeded at least once in 36 areas, or 63 per cent.

That higher number, says Moola, is the most important, because it shows that too many bears are killed even when the hunt doesn't push the grizzly deaths over the limits.

"You can't look at trophy hunting in isolation - you have to look at trophy hunting in addition to the other sources of human-caused mortality," said Moola.

"What the study shows is that if you removed trophy hunting from the picture, you would actually drop the mortality rate below what the government thinks is sustainable."

The report is accompanied by a letter to Premier Gordon Campbell, signed by eight grizzly bear experts from Canada and the United States, urging the provincial government to establish a province-wide network of no-hunting zones.

British Columbia is estimated to be home to half of all grizzlies in Canada, and a quarter of the North American grizzly population.

B.C.'s grizzlies are considered a species of "special concern" by both the federal and provincial governments because of their slow reproductive rates and susceptibility to human activities.

Grizzly hunting is restricted in parts of the province, but every year a trophy hunt opens up throughout much of British Columbia during the spring and fall. The David Suzuki Foundation report estimates that, since 2001, an average of 253 bears a year have been killed by hunters in B.C.

There have been perennial calls for the hunt to be scrapped, but the Liberal government has consistently rejected those calls, arguing the hunt is sustainable and properly managed.

In 2001, the NDP government of the day implemented a moratorium on grizzly hunting, but that was overturned a few months later after the Liberals took power.

The David Suzuki Foundation released preliminary results from its latest study last month, prompting the province to issue a statement insisting it is committed to protecting grizzly bears.

The province noted it has closed almost two million hectares of land to grizzly hunting along the North and Central Coasts, and there are other strict no-kill zones elsewhere in the province.

Last year, when First Nations and conservation groups called for a hunting ban in an area known as the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C.'s premier suggested there were competing interests that needed to be taken into account.

"It's an issue where we're working hard to strike the appropriate balance," Campbell said in May 2009.

There are differing opinions on the health of bear populations in British Columbia, and conservation groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation suggest the government's current methods to estimate how bears are actually roaming the wilderness are flawed.

Alberta placed a moratorium on grizzly bear hunting in 2006, and is currently examining whether to keep the ban or revisit the issue.

Last year, the Manitoba government added grizzly bears to a list of species protected under the provincial wildlife act.

Grizzly bears have been extinct from Manitoba for a century, but migrant bears from Nunavut have been spotted, raising hopes the species is making a return.

James Keller reports for The Canadian Press.

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