Grizzlies pushed `towards extinction'

THE GRIZZLY bear, symbol of North America's wilderness, is under severe threat in one of its heartland habitats, a report said yesterday.

It is being hunted in the Canadian province of British Columbia in a way that will put it on the road to extinction, says the Environmental Investigation Agency. The London-based group says the British Columbia government regards grizzlies as a species to be hunted, yet has no idea how many there are in the province.

Its estimate of 10,000 to 13,000 may be a 300 or 400 per cent overestimate and with unreported kills by poachers the population is likely to be dwindling faster than the bears can reproduce, says the agency.

The forest habitat is also under continual widespread assault from clear- cut logging, road-building, mining and other industrial developments.

The agency has a track record in highlighting early warning signals of major declines in important species. It provided much of the evidence of large-scale ivory poaching, which led to the 1989 ban on commercial trade to try to save the African elephant.

Now it wants an immediate moratorium on trophy-hunting of grizzlies while a long-term review of the population is done and protected areas set up.

"The Government of British Columbia is clinging to a dangerous and irresponsible policy in the face of overwhelming evidence that these magnificent creatures are in dramatic and possibly irreversible decline," says the agency chairman, Allan Thornton, himself from British Columbia.

The grizzly is a North American sub-species of the brown bear, ursus arctos, which is found around the world, but the ursus arctos horribilis is bigger, stronger and fiercer. Grizzlies, named for the white tinge on the fur, can stand seven feet tall, weigh 850lb and kill a steer with one blow of a paw. They occasionally attack and kill people.

Once they roamed from Alaska to Mexico but that range shrank drastically in the last century. They died out in California, which has the grizzly on its state flag, in 1925.

The animals are now concentrated in Alaska and western Canada, British Columbia's huge ancient forests holding up to a quarter of the grizzlies in North America. It is their very wildness that attracts hunt-ers, and they are the most prized American hunting trophy.

The British Columbia government issues 350 licences a year to kill grizzlies, but the agency says its method of estimating the population is "hopelessly flawed" without an attempt to actually count the animals. The agency estimates that for every two bears killed legally, at least one is killed illegally as a trophy or to supply the trade in bear parts used in traditional Chinese medicine. Still more are killed as "wounding losses" (shot animals that retreat into the forest to die unreported) and in road accidents.

"British Columbia is placing the demands of a small pro-hunting lobby above conservation and biodiversity, which as a Canadian I find shocking and outrageous," says Mr Thornton.

"The BC Government and its federal counterpart in Ottawa must act now to protect the grizzly bear, before it is too late."

Last night the British Columbia government in Victoria could not comment on the agency's report.

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