Until recently, the grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest had good reason to be afraid of people — this vast tract of pristine rainforest encompassing most of the western coast of Canada and the islands just off it was prime grizzly hunting territory. But as of the end of November 2017, the British Columbia provincial government has banned grizzly hunting in the area. Now, shooting bears with cameras is the only kind of grizzly “hunting” allowed.
The ban was a big victory for local First Nations who have long opposed the grizzly hunt on the territories that have been their home for millennia.
“People a long time ago had to learn to live with bears and share the same estuaries, share the rivers,” says Doug Neasloss, chief councilor of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais. “So we were taught very young to have a respect for these bears.”
Neasloss says his people used to hunt grizzlies for food but stopped doing that a century ago. Today, in place of grizzly hunting his nation is working to build a tourism economy that it says honors the bears, benefits the First Nations and takes their cultural heritage into account.
Ecotourism companies run by First Nations like the Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Homalco Nation already bring in about 12 times more money than the trophy hunt, and tourism has become the second largest employer in the Kitasoo/Xai’xais community of Klemtu. Homalco Nation’s bear viewing tours are booked up a year in advance without any advertising.
Since opening, Homalco has continued to expand its wildlife tour offerings. “We had to increase our capacity to meet demand,” explains O’Connor. “We needed more infrastructure to be able to host larger groups.”
The Nation also wanted to provide more stable employment to its tour guides and other Homalco Wildlife Tour employees.
“All of our crew out there are Homalco members, and this business has provided long-term employment,” explains Trenholm. “However, because the wildlife viewing tours are seasonal, we wanted to build the shoulder season so we can create a longer term of employment.”
The answer was in the Homalco tour guides themselves. They were trained to run cultural tours that showcased the history, language, songs, stories, and dances of Homalco First Nation. “That’s where the cultural tours come in. They’ve helped to grow Homalco Wildlife Tours and that’s been really great to see,” explains Trenholm.