Video of 9-year-old shooting bear at Alberta birthday party spurs hunting debate

WARNING: This video and story contains graphic content. Discretion is advised.

WATCH ABOVE: A nine-year-old boy celebrated his birthday by shooting and killing a bear. The video posted to YouTube by the boy’s father, shows the boy getting instructed by his father where to shoot the bear. The video has received widespread criticism across social media, but the father said Alberta laws were followed.

EDMONTON — An Alberta hunting video posted online last year has surfaced on the websites of several British tabloids, stirring up an outcry.

The video shows a nine-year-old boy in a tree stand celebrating his birthday by shooting a black bear, while his father films the hunt and his friends watch. The video was posted to YouTube in May 2014 by Greg Sutley, a professional hunter who owns Smoky River Outfitting in northwestern Alberta. By Friday afternoon, the video had been removed by the user.

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The video was dug up by the Mirror and the Daily Mail, two British tabloids who expressed shock at the killing. Global News talked to Sutley, who said he wasn’t contacted by either organization for his side of the story.

In the video, Sutley’s nine-year-old son and four friends are looking down at several black bears eating bait on the forest floor.

The kids whisper excitedly before being shushed by Sutley. He hands his son a rifle, and whispers instructions on how to hold the firearm properly and aim at the bear.

The boy appears worried about the noise of the gunshot, but is reassured his earmuffs will protect him. With the bear sitting on the ground eating, he pulls the trigger and exclaims, “yeah!” when the bear is hit. The video then dissolves to a shot of the five young boys enthusiastically chatting about the experience.

A nine-year-old boy getting ready to shoot his first bear in northwestern Alberta.
A nine-year-old boy getting ready to shoot his first bear in northwestern Alberta. Global News

The video may seem shocking for those not familiar with hunting, but the sport is popular with many Albertans. For some – including Sutley – it is also a way of life.

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The province is divided into a series of wildlife management units, or WMUs. Black bear hunting is permitted in much of western, central and northern Alberta in the fall and spring. The video does not say when it was recorded.

Grizzly bear hunting has been banned in the province since 2006 due to a decline in the population.

Baiting black bears is not illegal in Alberta, but there are several rules hunters must follow. Bait can’t be placed within 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) of occupied homes without permission of the owner; it also can’t be within the same distance of most provincial parks. The bait site also has to be labeled and have warnings signs around it. Baiting is restricted to the open season and the preceding two weeks in each specific WMU.

RCMP said as a general rule, children must be 12 years or older in order to apply for a minor’s firearms licence and hunting licence. Police said children can hunt without a licence, as long as they are under direct supervision from someone who is licensed to possess that class of firearm. They must be close enough to the child that they can take immediate action to prevent unsafe or illegal use of the gun.

A spokesperson from Alberta Justice said youth hunters can only recreationally hunt on Crown land after they turn 12. They do need a licence and they must have the hunter education course to be eligible to obtain a licence. Certain species do not require a licence, but a licence is required to hunt black bears on Crown land.

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Sutley said he followed the law on his son’s birthday, but knows some people will still find the video upsetting.

“We did not do anything illegal. Shooting bears on private property is legal. Also hunting on a trapline for kids – and I own a trapline, it borders our property – that is also legal. That is how a nine-year-old kid in Alberta can legally shoot a bear.”

Sutley said Alberta hunters are the “game managers of the province” and are essential to keeping the ecosystem in check.

“Without us there would be turmoil in the wildlife population,” he said.

“Bears are a very hard predator – bears and wolves – on moose calves, elk calves, deer farms, and with an overabundance of predators, it hurts the other populations.

“We are at the top of the food chain and we need to keep predators in check. Otherwise everybody down the food chain starves to death because we didn’t do our job.”

Dave Paplawski with the Alberta Hunter Education Instructors Association said it’s normal practice to bait a bear on private property, and added black bears are considered pests. He also confirmed there are no restrictions on private property.

Once considered essential to survival, hunting has largely evolved into a sport or recreational activity in developed nations, but it’s one that not everyone approves of.

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“The U.K. is a very urbanized country. Most of the populace is pretty well separated from the urban roots,” explained Lee Foote, a conservation biologist and professor at the University of Alberta. “We’ve seen the same sort of eruptions of social media and very venomous attacks on fox hunters, on badgering, on dog training. The U.K. sort of leads the U.S. and Canada in what an urban civil culture looks like when they’re dissociated from where their food comes from, in many ways.”

Foote said some people may still find hunting offensive, and that’s their right.

“It’s more problematic when one gets to the concept of pure trophy hunting… and an animal isn’t used for food necessarily. That seems to send up some warning signals to a lot of people. Perfectly legal and legit but many find it inappropriate.”

When it comes to the specific case of the boy hunting with his father, Foote said there’s a picture picture to consider.

“People are focusing on the people and the event and not on the larger issues of the idea: the rightness, wrongness, sustainability aspects of this, which are pretty profound,” he said.

“Hunting isn’t wrong. In fact, there are a lot of opinions on it. It may be wrong for individuals, but it’s not wrong as a category of activities.”

READ MORE: U.S. hunter who killed Cecil the lion in Africa may have killed deer in Alberta

The hunting death of Cecil the lion in Africa has put a spotlight on sport hunting.  In August the lion was allegedly lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe, before being killed by American dentist Walter James Palmer.

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The incident sparked an international outcry. Major airlines banned the shipment of hunting trophies, Zimbabwe enacted hunting restrictions on the area where the lion was killed, and public outrage forced Palmer into hiding for weeks.

Palmer may have also hunted in Alberta. The Bowhunting Records of Alberta list a Walter Palmer as having killed a mule deer legally in October 2006.

Scott Ellis of the Canadian Federation of Outfitter Associations said he doesn’t believe Palmer’s actions will reflect badly on guided hunting companies in Canada.

He said the industry contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy and creates thousands of jobs in rural and remote areas. The industry in Canada caters mainly to hunters from the United States. In fact, all of the prices for Smoky River Outfitting are listed in U.S. dollars. A six-day long, all-inclusive spring time black bear hunt is US$3250.00, not including GST.

With files from Emily Mertz and Kendra Slugoski, Global News

WATCH: Two British tabloids published video or pictures of a nine-year-old Alberta boy shooting a black bear, adding fuel to an already fiery debate. Kendra Slugoski has the story.