Monday, November 2, 2015

Two Thousand Days with Grizzly Bears

Phil Timpany (photo by Fritz Mueller)
by Phil Timpany

"Specatcular," said the Belgian, looking through his camera as we sat near a stream in northwestern Canada. Twice the grizzly bear had lunged into the water to catch a chum salmon and brought it to shore to eat in peace. I looked at the bear, the Belgian, then again at the bear. The animal was indeed spectacular. It consumed the fish and started walking toward us.

"Is it close enough?" he asked. I whispered, "Yes." A bolt-action rifle -- a weapon with a short bolt designed to prevent jamming -- replaced the camera. He placed the crosshairs on the bear and began to shake. I said, "Take your time." He readjusted the rifle and took aim. The shaking started again. At 150 feet, the bear turned broadside to study a group of spawning chum. "Breathe," I whispered, "and put the bullet low, just behind the front shoulder." The rifle roared. Water erupted at the bear's front feet. The animal spun around and bellowed, waving a nearly severed and bloody front paw. "Shoot again," I urged. The Belgian tried putting another round in the chamber. It didn't work. His rifle had jammed.

The grizzly began running across the slough to get away. I picked up my rifle and shot. The bullet entered the bear and exited in a large spray of blood and lung tissue. It was a quick death. For me, this was anything but spectacular. The Belgian, however, was happy. He had paid $8,000 to slay the bear.

Thirty-seven years later, I sit by the Fishing Branch River a few miles south of the Arctic Circle with a small group of tourists. We are watching a 500-pound male grizzly chase salmon. My task for the morning has been successful. I have safely placed people and a grizzly together in a natural setting. My 12-guage shotgun is leaning against my pack, loaded and ready for use. The bear-viewing business I share with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation of Old Crow requires that I carry it. In the 21 years I have been working here, I have never fired it. Morris, the 15-year-old male, walks ten feet from us, undisturbed by the shutters of the cameras. Guests have been watching him fish on this river since 2006. He has starred in natural history documentaries and his photos have been published globally in many magazines.

As a young man, I dreamed of a career with wildlife. I thought I could fulfill my naturalist ambitions by working as a guide for "sportsmen" who came from around the world to kill iconic wildlife, especially grizzlies. It pains me to confess that I am responsible for the deaths of many grizzlies. My appreciation for these magnificent mammals, and an increasing repulsion for what I came to see as senseless killing, ended my guiding career. With the bloody adventure behind me and my desire for wilderness still intact, I was lucky to find a vocation that allowed me to begin a long relationship with a population of grizzly bears. In the mid-1970s, I began doing fieldwork for a scientific study of Chinook salmon in a remote area of British Columbia frequented by grizzlies. To date, I've spent more than 2,000 days with grizzly bears. It has been a privilege, a life lesson, and a humbling experience. I am deeply touched by their intelligence, physical power, forgiving nature, and honesty. The familiarity I have developed with these bears now allows me to share my experience with tourists and photographers in wilderness areas in northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. When we enter the bear's domain, we engage in a peaceful coexistence based on respect.

Grizzlies are captivating animals and most people believe they are worthy of protection. Opposing views, however, exist as to how to go about it. The institutions supporting the recreational killing of grizzly bears justify the activity on economic terms. They profess their followers have great love for the animal and the killing gives the bear a value, which encourages its protection. The moral issues surrounding the slaughter never enter the equation. Others, like me, believe in the full protection of grizzly bears. We feel that maintaining viable populations of this apex predator and preserving a strong genetic pool will secure the vitality of the entire ecosystem. The morality of killing grizzly bears is an integral part of this thinking. The time I have spent in the presence of grizzly bears has molded my philosophy, making me a staunch advocate for their protection. I see no justifiable reason or need to kill them.

The animal's harmonious and spiritual relationship with indigenous peoples has been replaced by one in which the great bear is now a target for those who wish to kill it, study it, manage it, photograph it, or simply retain a memory of it. Where I live and work in the Yukon and British Columbia, "wildlife management" philosophies are, for the most part, archaic artifacts of early colonial enterprise. They are 100 years old in their framework of legislation and, in regard to grizzly bear management, at least 50 years behind public opinion. As the rest of the world increasingly recognizes the value of apex predators, my government continues to squander this wildlife resource by refusing to create a responsible vision that fulfills its economic and ecological potential. The politics surrounding grizzly bears involves making money, providing job security, and giving those with a passion for killing these animals the legal and moral means to do so.

For now, the best argument for conserving grizzly bears continues to be economic -- although my hope is that people will adopt economy-based values that do not include killing them. Over the long term the survival of grizzly bears will only be guaranteed if they are granted some form of citizenship within our society complete with their habitat requirements. Their continued existence will have to be as important as our own. Some of us will have to learn to coexist with them, suffer with them, and on rare occasions die by them. There is still time for governments and citizens to reframe their attitudes and relationships with these great bears. Without a new culture of appreciation and tolerance, the grizzly bear will vanish.

Nothing good will ever come from killing a grizzly bear. Much good can come from respecting its right to continue to roam the land.


NOTES: This essay was originally published in National Geographic's "Bear: Spirit of the Wild," by Paul Nicklen. It is republished here with permission from Phil Timpany and National Geographic.

Phil Timpany is a long time wildlife enthusiast who currently operates grizzly bear viewing operations with Bear Cave Mountain Eco-Adventures in the northern Yukon and also guides people salmon fishing and grizzly viewing with Nakina Adventures in northern British Columbia.  Phil advocates for peaceful co-existence between grizzlies and humans and habitat protection as the two ingredients most important for grizzly bear conservation. “If we are serious about grizzly bear conservation we will have to, sooner or later, grant them some form of citizenship and learn to co-exist with them on some level," he says. "This paradigm needs to spring from the notions of biodiversity conservation and ecological intelligence, none of which seem to be very popular or in great supply where I live and work.  I am however confident it will come with the generation coming up behind us.”


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