Life in the ‘Great Bear Rainforest,’ what do Bella Coola’s bears mean to you?

Whatever your feelings are about bears, if you live in Bella Coola, talking about bears is like talking about the weather.

Commercial bear-viewing is an increasingly popular activity in Bella Coola

Commercial bear-viewing is an increasingly popular activity in Bella Coola

Whatever your feelings are about bears, if you live in Bella Coola, talking about bears is like talking about the weather. Have you seen any bears? What are they doing this year? Who had what bear in their yard? What are the salmon returns like? Did you hear about so-and-so’s bear encounter?

Throughout history, Bella Coola has been inextricably tied to bears. Whether it’s the superhuman feats of legendary grizzly hunter Clayton Mack, the chilling tales by Gary Shelton, the remarkable photographs of Michael Wigle, the new wave of bear-viewing that’s permeating our Valley, and the many, many personal encounters with bears, life in Bella Coola might be pretty bland without them.

The innocently named ‘Cherry Bear’ and the subsequent articles, letters, and opinions that followed have served to open the virtual ‘Pandora’s Box’ of Bella Coola. Who would have thought such a fuss would have been stirred by the death of a wayward black bear?

As our community has more recently been branded, ‘The Gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest,’ one might argue its time to have a discussion about what defines our relationships with bears.

It’s nearly impossible to define what makes people so fascinated with bears, whether it’s to hunt them or to just catch a peek. Fraser Koroluk and Holly Willgress of Bella Coola Mountain Lodge are marketing bear-viewing internationally, and they say it’s extremely important that people recognize the current role bears play in our community.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that many people in this community don’t understand the value of bears, and I don’t mean monetary,” said Koroluk. “There’s a social and cultural component, this huge intrinsic value that bears have on our community, because they draw people in from around the world. Fishing is dead, and there’s nothing else our community offers.”

Koroluk explained that he even has guests come to Bella Coola knowing that they probably won’t see a bear, but they still want to be part of the ‘bear experience,’ to see where bears live, to see a bear track, to explore their environment, to catch a fleeting glimpse. These same guests are appalled to hear that bears are shot and killed, no matter what the reasons are.

The desire to experience a bear’s environment, as it’s situated in our environment, is one unique feature that sets the Bella Coola Valley apart. Bella Coola can offer a world-class bear-viewing experience in a relatively easy-to-access community surrounded by wilderness.

“People are coming here because it’s the Great Bear Rainforest,” said Willgress. “Bella Coola is a magical place, but there are a lot of magical places in the world. We have something special, and that is the bear.”

Longtime grizzly-hunting guide Leonard Ellis, who now runs a bear-viewing business, Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, says that although he believes there is room for both trophy hunting and bear-viewing, now is the time to focus on opportunities presented by the latter.

“When I was guiding for trophy-hunting, it was generating thousands of dollars in economic spin-off’s for the Valley and the surrounding area,” said Ellis. “But influences now are indicating that viewing is better than hunting, whether that’s from pressure from environmental groups or wildlife management issues, so I sold my area and started Bella Coola Grizzly Tours.”

Ellis believes that if Bella Coola is going to pursue bear-viewing internationally, residents need to increase their tolerance for living with bears, but acknowledges that this will take time.

“People need to realize that this is a new thing for Bella Coola, we are still trying to establish the product and the tours,” said Ellis. “It’s all new, and I think we have to be very tolerant of bears now and try to exist with them, I don’t think a bear needs to be shot unless it’s a real bad offender, and that is a hard thing to define.”

Ellis says that there are numerous factors that come into play when a resident is facing down a bear. He maintains that people have a right to cultivate their properties, but believes that we have to give the bears a lot of leeway. “It’s a fine line when you pull that trigger as to whether it really needs to happen.”

Vested interests certainly make a good case for protecting bears, but there are other factors based on cultural practices and traditional territories that have recently garnered attention.

The Nuxalk Nation is part of the larger Coastal First Nations (CFN), a group of ten First Nations on the coast that recently issued a press release declaring a ban on trophy hunting on the Central and North Coast. The Nuxalk also participate in a bear-working group in conjunction with the CFN.

The CFN is adamant that a trophy hunt does not correspond with the traditional activities conducted in their territory. Jessie Housty, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Nation, said bears are often gunned down by trophy hunters near shorelines as they forage for food. “It’s not a part of our culture to kill an animal for sport and hang them on a wall,” she explained. “When we go hunting it’s for sustenance purposes, not trophy hunting. ”

In 2011, a consortium of 14 Nuxalk Hereditary Chiefs signed the Central Coast Grizzly Patrol at the potlatch of Chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow). This protocol, in keeping with Nuxalk traditional law, now stands as the principle document that guides the activities of the Patrol’s members, Jason Moody and Kiff Archer.

The Central Coast Grizzly Patrol has traditionally worked on the outer coast in respect to stopping the trophy hunt, but has recently turned its sights to focus more on the Valley.

“We are our own entity and are privately funded, but we work in conjunction with other organizations on the coast,” said Moody. “The health of bears is threatened, and that is why we are supporting the ban on the trophy hunt and other activities that negatively impact bears.”

A certified bear-viewing guide who has worked at the prominent Spirit Bear Lodge, Moody says that the bottom line is that we are living in a different era than the one revered hunting guide Clayton Mack inhabited decades ago. “Those were different times,” said Moody. “There were different influences beyond his grasp, and I think he probably felt bad about hunting all those bears.”

The Valley may have become internationally known through the exploits of trophy hunting and colourful characters like Clayton Mack, and while the community will always be proud of the man he was, those were certainly different times, and the tide seems to be turning in a different direction.

As Clayton Mack writes in his famous memoir, ‘Grizzlies and White Guys,’ “Grizzly bear guiding was good business…but I never killed grizzly bears for the hell of it. Sometimes I feel sorry for them grizzly bears. They got no gun to shoot back, not like in the army.”

Given the Valley’s rich history in all aspects of living with, watching, and hunting bears, it’s hard to entirely define what bears mean to Bella Coola, and to the people who live here.

However, as our community’s economy struggles to define itself anew, the modern trend of a new era of bear-viewing based tourism sparks the need for renewed conversation, and perhaps a new way of thinking about the bruins that inhabit our backyards.

The Coast Mountain News welcomes submissions on this topic. Please contact the Editor if you wish to express your viewpoint on anything printed in this publication.