wildlife conservation

Coexistence: Charlie Russell’s legacy

Charlie Russell sitting next to a grizzly bear in Kamchatka. Photo by Maureen Enns Studios Ltd

Hunting grizzly bears for sport was banned in British Columbia in April of this year. This is a conservation success story, 20 years in the making, that is about a lot more than killing bears. I think it reflects the changing relationship people have with nature; it gives me hope we are forging a new and more nuanced relationship with the earth, one built on respect and appreciation rather than domination, consumption, and extraction. One of the people who has helped push things in this direction is Charlie Russell.

Sadly, Charlie died this week. He was a rancher who became an expert on bear behaviour and worked hard to change people’s attitudes towards bears during a time when bears were vilified and nature was something to overcome and subdue. Among many other projects, he spent 13 years living in Kamchatka to illustrate that grizzlies need not be feared and that coexistence is possible.

“What I learned from my experience is that grizzly bears — even adult males — are not unpredictable, and losing their fear of humans does not make them dangerous. In fact, the more we abuse bears, the more angry and unpredictable bears become.” Charlie Russell

Charlie also wrote Spirit Bear, a book documenting his work with filmmaker, Jeff Turner, while making the first film about spirit bears. The book has recently been re-published and is a remarkable story of their adventures in the rainforest and the relationship they built with one particular white bear.

Charlie’s ideas about human-bear relationships were ahead of their time. He was not a scientist, but his work illustrates that when it comes to wildlife conservation, science is not the only important consideration.

People have argued endlessly about the science of trophy hunting, and whether or not there is a “harvestable surplus” of grizzlies in British Columbia. But that is no longer the point; the point is that the hunt simply cannot be justified ethically by today’s societal standards. In numerous public opinion polls the vast majority of people (up to 87%) have said it is simply unethical to kill grizzly bears for sport. The firestorm created on social media by the killing of Cecil the lion in 2015, illustrates that this sentiment about trophy hunting is widespread. For those who are more interested in economics than ethics, the bear-viewing industry is also more lucrative than hunting, generating $9.54 million dollars per year in BC, versus $669,000 from trophy hunting.

An adult male grizzly bear foraging in a coastal estuary in the Great Bear Rainforest

I think it is a fair assumption that Charlie’s principles were also aligned with traditional laws and values of many Coastal First Nations, who played a critical role in ending the trophy hunt. In 2012, the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Nuxalk, Heiltsuk and Wukinuxv Nations banned trophy hunting in their territories under tribal law, stating that it is simply not part of their culture to kill an animal for sport and hang it on the wall. The Nations’ Bears Forever campaign helped raise the profile of this issue across the province and beyond. One of my contributions to this campaign was writing and producing the Bears Forever newsletter on their behalf.

Nonetheless, banning trophy hunting is not enough to ensure that grizzly bears thrive in British Columbia over the long term. Habitat loss and modification (including declining salmon stocks) are still the biggest threat to BC’s bears, and most other terrestrial species.

Some have been critical of efforts to end the hunt claiming that it distracts from the bigger issue of habitat loss–and that the money spent on anti-hunting campaigns could have done more elsewhere. I think there is some validity to this claim.

As keystone species, grizzly bears not only play outsized roles in helping shape the ecosystems they inhabit, they also attract an outsized amount of public attention; grizzly bears are the ambassadors of the ecosystems we need.

However, the trophy hunt campaign also served to raise the profile of grizzly bears and engage the public in a conversation about wildlife conservation. My hope is that this dialogue has helped create a public audience that is more attuned to conservation issues and willing to stand up and raise their voice on behalf of bears and other species. Maybe that is hoping for too much but, still, I hope.

Charlie understood that bears are simply one component of the ecosystems they inhabit. Conservation of intact ecosystems is one of our most pressing conservation issues–and is arguably more important that the preservation of any one particular species. However, engaging people in “ecosystem conservation” is also a tougher sell. As keystone species, grizzly bears not only play outsized roles in helping shape the ecosystems they inhabit, they also attract an outsized amount of public attention; grizzly bears are the ambassadors of the ecosystems we need.

Thanks to the work of Charlie and others, our relationship with grizzly bears changed dramatically over the course of his lifetime. I think bears and people are better off for this. We don’t need to fear bears and we can coexist with nature. Charlie has led by example and left a wonderful legacy behind for the rest of us to live by. Thank you Charlie.

Photo of Charlie Russell and grizzly bear by Maureen Enns Studios Ltd.

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