A Grubby Business

Kristin Strauss with Shirley Bond

A Grubby Business

Being a bear guide is a grubby business. You spend much of your life crawling around in the wilderness, poking at old bones and sniffing out secrets, and trying not to get eaten by a bigger animal than you. A little bit like politics, then.

With that parallel in mind, after months of sending futile emails to the moral pygmies that staff the local offices of our provincial ministries, Kristin and I set out last month for Victoria, BC’s quaintly Anglo capital and home to the province’s legislature.

Our goal was to meet the ministers whose policies shape so much of our lives out here in the bush and persuade them that the time had come to kill the annual grizzly hunt.

For us, after all, it’s personal.

Not only have we been forced to shut down our spring bear-viewing season after the ministry recently extended the grizzly hunt on our doorstep. But we are now all but sure that bear hunters last spring killed Apple, our most iconic grizzly bear, with a tag they paid $88 for. She left behind two yearling cubs, now struggling to survive.

The event in Victoria was the second annual get-together of some of the more urbane members of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association, a disparate group of remote tourism operators who specialise in catering to visitors to BC who want to see grizzlies.

Even the pick of the crop is a fairly wild and woolly bunch, and I suppose Kristin and I are no exception. We are almost all tucked away in hard-to-get-to parts of the province and rarely make the trip to big cities. We live, after all, where the grizzly bears still roam.

With a decade as a foreign correspondent behind me and Kristin’s long years on the diplomatic circuit, we didn’t brush up too badly. We pulled on clean shirts and jackets. Kristin gave our leather shoes a quick once-over.

But I had certainly lost the knack of holding a glass of Malbec in one hand, cramming a canapé into the side of my mouth with the other, and trying to shake hands with a grey-suited mandarin all at the same time.

This time last year, those of you who read this blog may remember, was our first foray into the world of provincial politics. Back then we were charmed by the attention of the ministers. They smiled, listened attentively, took free copies of Kristin’s cookbook and…. did absolutely nothing.

So this year we were a little less star-struck. In our meeting with Shirley Bond, the Minister of Tourism, we asked that she pressure her colleague, the man in charge of the grizzly hunt, whose offices were just across the way, to consider our request.

In a meeting with Steve Thomson, the man in charge of the hunt, we explained the financial damage that his policies were doing to our businesses, not to mention the local bear populations. He nodded his head sagely and promised to think about what we had said.

But the real breakthrough, for me at least, came the second day when an MLA, BC’s equivalent of an MP, whom I knew fairly well, took me aside and educated me in the matter of provincial politics.

“I hate to say this,” she said. “But with our present campaign financing laws you have to understand that a lot of this is about money. If you’re not donating to the party they will nod and smile and listen. But if you want them to change their tune you’re going to have to cough up.”

It was like a neon light suddenly coming on inside my head. The cobwebs cleared. The shadows departed. And I had thought public policy was all about truth and fairness and the will of the majority. How silly. How quaint. Just like the city we were now in.

But, of course, my informant was right. What Bernie Sanders has been decrying in the US is as true in British Columbia as it is Washington. Or London or Paris. Or even on Kabul city council.

After 10 years of petitions, protests and favourable media coverage, everything all of a sudden became as clear to me as the river that flows past the ranch on a sunlit summer’s day.

The grizzly hunters pay $10,000 a year into the coffers of the ruling Liberal Party, and we don’t. They have a full-time lobbyist in Victoria, and we haven’t. They put on a black-tie dinner each year for the politicians, we serve sandwiches.

“But what about the rights and wrongs of the grizzly hunt?” I asked shrilly. “Does that not count for anything?” She just looked at me with a combination of sad pity and gentle amusement.

That very night we switched tack. I sat down with Dean Wyatt, a hurricane of a man who is the owner of Knight Inlet Lodge, the largest and most profitable bear-viewing operation in BC, in a colonial-era bar at the Empress Hotel and we schemed.

If the grizzly hunters can do it, we can do it too, we decided. All we needed was money and a bit of organisation. And that evening we founded the Political Committee, the dark underbelly of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association. It was just us, a coalition of the willing.

By the next night we had hired a capable assistant, drawn up a game plan, and collected a war chest. Most of it came from Dean’s deep reserves, the rest from our more shallow pockets.

In three weeks time we will head up to Prince George, an unlovely mill town in northern BC and a nasty 12 hour drive away. It is not the sort of place you go for a romantic weekend.

The occasion will be Minister Bond’s annual fund-raiser.

At under $100 a pop the seats are a bargain, a far cry from the thousands we will have to shell out for a table at the opposition’s annual fundraiser in May, and in a different world from the extortionate five-figure number we will pay for a table with BC’s Premier in June.

The costs are high, it’s true, but the prize is immense. If the grizzly hunt is banned in BC it is unlikely that any government would ever be able to bring it back in. The old-time rednecks are dying out and the youngsters taking their place are no more in favour of hunting grizzlies than they are burning witches.

With a provincial election just over a year away, it feels like a good time to strike. I won’t bore you with all our political calculations but suffice it to say that we have a game plan.

So wish us luck! If any of you have anything left over from your Christmas stockings, our fighting fund is certainly accepting donations.

But fear not. We are not channelling all of our conservation money, collected quietly over the years thanks to the generosity of our guests, into dodgy political slush funds.

The majority will still go towards buying electric fencing for local farmers to protect their poultry with – chicken farmers kill a lot of bears in the BC interior. For those of you who remember Gillian, who guided for us in our early years, we are supporting her admirable local efforts to mitigate human-bear conflict this year.

We are making an even greater investment into a grizzly population study in our area, which will start this autumn. There has never been a decent count of bears around here and we will be working with a team of professional bear biologists from the coast.

To pay for all these initiatives we have raised our conservation fee – included in the price of every bear-viewing guest’s holiday with us – from $50 to $100. (If you have already booked this won’t apply to you.)

Running a bear-viewing and wilderness adventure business in the bush for the last decade has been a lot of fun and so, like Obama, I guess it’s time to cast an eye to legacy.

Playing a part, however small, in a ban on the grizzly hunt in BC would be something we could be proud of. We’re not there yet but we’re going to give it all we’ve got.