April 10, 2015 6:06 pm
Updated: April 11, 2015 6:58 pm

‘Famous’ grizzly bear feared shot by hunters in B.C.’s Chilcotin region

Big Momma. Photo by John E. Marriott.

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VANCOUVER – A photographer based in Canmore, Alberta, is expressing concern that one of the most recognizable female grizzly bears from the Chilcotin region of B.C. has been shot and killed during the grizzly hunt.

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Known as ‘Big Momma,’ the estimated 700-pound grizzly bear has been seen for years in the area, usually with cubs. “Big Momma is/was an extremely large female grizzly bear with a quiet easy-going disposition around people,” said photographer John E. Marriott, in an email interview. “She rarely seemed to care if she was getting photographed, regardless of whether she had cubs or not. My groups have observed her with two sets of cubs since 2009.”

Hunters are discouraged from shooting female grizzly bears.

Marriott first visited the Chilcotin to photograph grizzlies in 2007 and began leading tours there in 2009. He has been a photographer for more than 20 years. “To date I’ve led 11 tours there of 53 photographers, each paying $3,500 [to] $5,000. The tours all leave from Vancouver via charter aircraft. The same bears are all ‘shot’ year-after-year,” he said.

He does not know for sure if Big Momma was shot and killed, but said it was unusual for her to not show up in the area in 2014 “coinciding with the re-opening of the trophy hunt after these bears had developed a trust with the locals and visitors to the area over the past 13 years.”

Big Momma could have died of natural causes but it remains unknown.

In the B.C. Hunting and Trapping Synopsis (page 21), it states:

Compulsory Inspection and Compulsory Reporting are a requirement for specific game species under the BC Hunting Regulations. These species are submitted for the purposes of data collection and enforcement. The Compulsory Inspection process includes taking measurements and/or parts of the animals for scientific analysis and provides wildlife managers with valuable information about the sex, age and condition of animals being harvested.  Without adequate information, the risk of over harvests would increase, thereby requiring managers to set more conservative harvest levels in order to protect animal populations.

“She certainly could have died of natural causes, but there is also a high likelihood she was shot, either by a hunter, a poacher, or a ‘shoot, shovel, and shut-up’ rancher,” said Marriott. “There has always been a low level of tolerance for grizzly bears in the neighbouring ranch communities and rumours are always circulating about bears that have disappeared.”

He said the well-known grizzly could also have altered her behaviour after being shot at legally, or illegally, and chose to avoid the area for a more secure habitat.

Photo by John E. Marriott.

But Marriott said the story of Big Momma is about a bigger issue.

“My level of frustration with the B.C. government has reached an all-time high with recent wildlife ‘mis’-management decisions like this one, led by what I now feel is an unjustly-biased Ministry that is in bed with the trophy hunting industry,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said there were 3,067 Limited Entry Hunt authorizations issued for grizzly bears in 2014 (1,458 in spring and 1,609 in fall). Due to success rates, the ministry said more tags were issued than bears are harvested. “For 2014, only 165 grizzlies were actually harvested from these authorizations. In addition, 102 were harvested by guide outfitters for a total harvest of 267.”

Marriott said, for the Chilcotin region, the numbers are not adding up. “You would think that having three unfilled tags last spring would indicate that there aren’t as many grizzlies as the government would have us believe, yet now they’ve doubled (tripled) down and increased the number of tags for the area to [nine],” he said. “I’m astounded at this level of incompetency, even from government biologists. Keep in mind that the reason the Chilcotin grizzly bear hunt was suspended 13 years ago was because of overkill.”

The B.C. Government said there are approximately 15,000 grizzly bears in the province, although that number has been disputed.

Photo by John E. Marriott.

Marriott is concerned about the ecotourism in the region. “If we lose (or have already lost) Big Momma and a few of our other star regulars because of this hunt, then my Chilcotin grizzly bear photo tours are finished,” he said. “I want to know why the government is willing to take that chance so some hunter can have a head to mount on their wall or a rug on their floor. It’s terrible management no matter how you look at it.”

“The Ministry’s assertion that trophy hunting and bear viewing can co-exist is absurd in my opinion. Bears that get shot with guns don’t stick around to get shot with cameras, unfortunately, otherwise we would have fantastic grizzly bear viewing all over the province rather than just in a few select pockets that don’t allow trophy hunting.”

Here is the breakdown for the 2015 spring grizzly bear Limited Hunting Entries by areas in B.C.

“I just don’t see how hunting bears that have been protected, viewed, and photographed for the past thirteen years is something that ‘Beautiful BC’ should be proud of,” said Marriott.

“I am likely going to be returning to the Chilcotin this spring to try to document grizzly bear hunters driving up and down the roads looking for and shooting bears. I’ll definitely be back in the fall for one more year of photo tours, at which point I’ll make a decision on whether or not the tours can continue.”

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