The last time Julia Hill Sorochan was in the Kitlope valley, she was there to spread her father’s ashes.
“It’s one of the most spectacular places on the whole entire planet. It’s so magical,” she says about the wild and remote valley 150 kilometres south of Terrace, B.C.
It was 2017 and Sorochan’s father, Bruce Hill, had fought for the protection of the area since his first visit there 25 years earlier.
Last week brought a new layer of protection to the Kitlope as Raincoast Conservation Foundation announced it had raised the $650,000 needed to purchase the guide-outfitting licence for the valley.
Guide outfitters hold the exclusive right to take people from other provinces or countries hunting in their vast licence areas, charging thousands of dollars per customer.
It’s the fifth hunting tenure the organization has purchased over the past 15 years in its bid to end trophy hunting within the Great Bear Rainforest.
The tenure transfer doesn’t end hunting in the valley. B.C. residents can still hunt there, though few do because of its remoteness and the challenges in getting there. Most who come here to hunt are from the Haisla and Xenaksiala Nations, looking for moose to fill their freezers in their traditional territories.
Grizzly hunting bans have already put an end to the practice in the region, but the new measures provide a more permanent, encompassing conservation measure that includes other large carnivores, like coastal wolves and black bears.
Sorochan says her father would have been pleased.
“It just makes the hair on your arms stand up to feel the energy of those grizzly bears in that valley. There is not a sandy beach that you walk on that doesn’t have grizzly bear prints. It’s just incredible,” she says. “I know that my dad would be really excited at the hard work that Brian and others have done to stop the trophy hunt.”
Brian Falconer, guide outfitter co-ordinator with Raincoast, says the campaign has struck a chord with supporters. Most of the nearly $3 million raised since 2005 toward acquiring the licences came from private donors, he says.
In one instance, a teacher who shared the story in her classroom had some students later dump $39 in change on her desk. They wanted to help the bears.
“When you can present an opportunity that’s as direct as this, that, literally, we’re paying not to kill these animals, it’s very tangible. It’s not some campaign that may or may not succeed. We’re just buying the lives of these animals directly,” he says.
The push to protect the Kitlope began in the early 1990s. Hill, a former logger, had visited on a fishing trip and saw flagging tape indicating the valley was slated for logging. He contacted the Haisla Nation and suggested working together to protect it.
Lifelong friendships were formed. Hill teamed up with Xenaksiala Elder Cecil Paul (Waxaid), and Haisla Elder and former chief councillor Gerald Amos to fight industrial encroachment in the Kitlope. In 1994, the 322,020-hectare Kitlope Heritage Conservancy was established.
Once it was saved from logging, the steps to preserve the valley’s wildlife have been incremental. While supporting a food hunt, the Haisla have long opposed grizzly hunting, saying it’s not in line with nuyem, the tradition of only taking what you need. The same year the conservancy was formed, Haisla Elders declared a ban on hunting grizzly in the area, a move supported by the provincial government.
In 2012, Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine Indigenous communities,
Last week’s announcement effectively shuts down trophy hunting in 530,000 hectares of the Kitlope.
B.C.’s Wildlife Act requires those who hold guiding rights to facilitate hunts, so Raincoast plans to run “hunting” trips in the region.
“We do those hunts every year and, you know, they’re spectacularly unsuccessful,” Falconer jokes about regular wildlife viewing trips into the region. “We have a really good return clientele. They’re just extremely, particularly fussy, and none of them have ever found exactly the wildlife that they want to kill.”
Instead the supporters that visit remote areas on the northwest coast leave with photos and memories, he says.
Two of those clients are renowned conservation photographers Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, who Falconer credits with taking the campaign across the finish line. Its two-year deadline was set to expire Dec. 31.
On Oct. 25, the couple released a video about the campaign. In it, an emotional Nicklen describes the difference between bear viewing and trophy hunting: “They’re going to see that wolf at 200 yards away, they’re never going to have that emotional connection with that animal, and they’re going to pull the trigger,” he says about the hunters.
Three days later, Raincoast announced it had reached its goal.
“If you’re a hunter, the interaction you have with an animal lasts a minute and then the animal’s dead. If you’re a photographer, or just a person who’s come to view wildlife, the experience lasts a lot longer and it’s really intimate,” Falconer says. “You start to see the impatience of the pups waiting for their parents to come back. You see the very affectionate gestures of a mama grizzly bear with her cubs. Those things affect you profoundly.”
The tenure purchases have been done in partnership with Coastal First Nations. Doug Neasloss is the resource stewardship director with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation and a former chief councillor. He has a long history in the eco-tourism industry and is on Coastal First Nations’ Bear Working Group.
“All of us here are very supportive of Raincoast’s approach to purchase these bear licences within the Great Bear Rainforest,” he says. “If you just leave it up to the provincial process, positions can change. We’ve seen this in the past where the NDP had a moratorium on the hunt of bears and then the Liberals came in and overturned it.”
The previous Liberal government and Guide Outfitters Association of BC say that big-game hunters are the province’s “top-spending tourists.” But Neasloss says claims the industry contributes $350 million to B.C.’s economy each year are exaggerated.
A 2014 report by Stanford University’s Center for Responsible Travel found that simply appreciating bears in the Great Bear Rainforest had far more economic and employment value than shooting them.
The study found that bear-viewing operators generated 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting did in 2012, at $15.1 million compared with $1.2 million. It found 53 bear-viewing companies employed 510 people compared with 11 jobs in the guide-outfitting industry.
Neasloss says “not one dollar” from the guide-outfitting industry ever came into his community of Klemtu. Yet, as a wildlife guide, he would find the evidence of their activities strewn nearby — bear remains left behind, with only their heads and pelts taken as a token of the hunt.
“We’re always taught when we hunt something or fish something to utilize everything, to give thanks for that and to be respectful to make sure it’s sustainable. That’s not what trophy hunting is,” he says.
“We live in an extremely remote area. Trying to get any industry up here is extremely challenging. So, when we found some success in tourism, this really gave the community some hope and some jobs and some money to put food on the table.”
As a guide, Neasloss would host clients from around the world who paid top dollar to experience grizzlies, black bears and elusive white spirit bears in their natural habitat. “You’re giving local communities a chance to survive in their backyard,” he says.
The Guide Outfitters Association didn’t respond to The Tyee’s request for comment. But Falconer describes his relationship with the organization as one of “grudging respect.”
“Basically, what they’ve said is that this is a business-to-business transaction and they don’t oppose guide outfitters selling their territories to us,” he says. “We’ve offered to buy them out at a fair market value and that’s a pretty hard thing for them to oppose.”
In total, Raincoast has acquired the commercial trophy hunting rights in approximately 33,500 square kilometres of the Great Bear Rainforest.