Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

The last hunt

The trophy hunt has sparked outrage across the province — but are we ignoring the more pressing threat to B.C.'s iconic animal?

Sitting at a table in a small wooden cabin about an hour northeast of Prince George, Tyler Stepp looks exhausted. For the past seven days, he's been tracking grizzlies. He's seen two — but one was female. And the other was "teeny."

So Stepp didn't pull the trigger. He didn't travel all the way from Pennsylvania for a puny grizzly.

He wants a big one. Like the kind shown in photos pinned to the cabin wall behind me. Weathered and faded, they show men standing next to giant dead animals.

In one, Stepp's guide — a Nanaimo man who only agreed to be identified by his first name, Dennis — poses with a massive grizzly. He and his client stand proudly behind the bear, whose head is propped up on a piece of wood, facing the camera.

Stepp, who resembles a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, is quiet, but quick with a laugh. Throughout the trip, he's made a point of pitching in, helping Dennis clean up and organize gear.

And as Dennis cooks breakfast and explains what urbanites like me don't get about hunting, Stepp chuckles.

A former commercial fisherman, Dennis estimates he's spent over $100,000 on "wildlife art." His living room is full of taxidermy, including exotic animals he killed in Africa.

The men clearly like each other. And it's times like this, just shooting the breeze, that Stepp values most.

That said, Stepp didn't come here just to make friends. He wants a grizzly — and the challenge of finding one has begun to frustrate him. "People don't play the lottery because they want to lose," he tells me.

In September, Pique spent time with Stepp and Dennis in an effort to better understand B.C.'s contentious grizzly-bear trophy hunt. The month prior, B.C.'s newly elected NDP government committed to banning the controversial hunt, which was supported for years under the province's BC Liberal government.

"It is time," said the NDP's Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Doug Donaldson.

Paying to kill a grizzly, a species that once roamed much of North America, is unacceptable, explained Donaldson at the time. "Society has come to the point in B.C. where they are no longer in favour of the grizzly bear trophy hunt," he said.

Though thin on details about how the ban will be enforced, Donaldson was adamant that hunters will no longer be able to keep the hide, head, or paws of a grizzly.

A meat hunt, to the chagrin of environmentalists calling for a full-on ban, will still be permitted.

For the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia, the ban not only strikes a nerve, but sets a dangerous precedent. The non-profit advocacy group has vehemently opposed it, arguing B.C.'s grizzly hunt is conducted in an ethical and sustainable way.

There are an estimated 15,000 grizzly bears in B.C., and non-resident trophy hunters are only permitted to take a fraction of them. Of the 250 or so grizzly bears killed every year, around 80 are by non-resident hunters.

The association's message — that the hunt is sustainable and well regulated — squares with what the hunters I spoke to at Bear Lake Outfitters said. The public, they feel, is misinformed when it comes to killing grizzlies. They are not the big, bad hunters the media and environmental groups portray them as. They are, rather, conservationists, operating in a sustainable system that ensures grizzly bear survival. If urbanites don't get that, it's because they have lost touch with rural B.C. and the animal world, they said.

The case for the hunt

At around 6-3 and well over 250 pounds, Bear Lake's owner, Vince Cocciolo, is a bulldozer of a man. When we meet at the one-storey house that serves as his office, he wears a black T-shirt and basketball shorts, revealing his massive, tree-trunk thighs.

A dog — a rambunctious pup named Trump — jumps on my lap and licks my face.

"The government needs to recognize this is an industry," says Cocciolo, in a loud, booming voice. "It's no different than logging, mining — even building homes!"

A promising hockey player, Cocciolo was drafted into the WHL at 15. In the offseason, he started hunting. It spoke to him, combining his love of the outdoors and wildlife.

After knee issues put an end to his dreams of playing hockey, Cocciolo pursued a career in wildlife management, eventually landing a degree in environmental sciences and a diploma in resource management.

But he soon realized that the world of conservation — or at least what the mainstream considers conservation — wasn't for him. Following a stint working with Ducks Unlimited Canada, he decided to go his own way.

"You're always operating on the government's promises," says Cocciolo, shaking his head with frustration. "You'd have funding — and then you'd turn around and they'd cut off the funding!"

Cocciolo, who began guiding as a university student, says he "fell into" being an owner-operator. He started in the east Kootenays and has since expanded. His company — Total Adventure Outfitter Ltd. — now runs four operations, including one in Alberta.

People travel from around the world to hunt with him. In addition to hunting grizzly, they kill moose, lynx, mountain lions and bighorn sheep.

But the grizzly hunt is a real moneymaker, he says. A weeklong expedition can net him $24,000, significantly more than what he gets for a moose or black bear hunt.

Cocciolo purchased Bear Lake several years ago with $1.1 million he borrowed from a U.S. investor. He bought it with the understanding that he'd be allowed to kill 180 moose and 10 grizzlies over a five-year span.

But the government has continuously misled him, cutting his quotas down.

"That's why I'm selling this shit," he says. Alberta is where it's at, Cocciolo claims. He plans to sell his B.C. operations and move there.

With a penchant for grandiose statements, I don't quite believe him. But he's clearly angry with how the province has treated him, and the ban strikes him as an arrogant imposition of urban values on rural B.C.

In Cocciolo's mind, the public doesn't understand the strict regulations around the grizzly hunt. Hunts are "managed very tightly," he explains. "It's not like we're going out there and shooting a bunch of grizzlies.

"My business doesn't thrive if there are no animals. My business only thrives if there are animals," he says.

That, in a nutshell, is Cocciolo's main argument. Under the current system, guide outfitters like him pay for land tenure rights over specific tracts of land, giving them the exclusive right to run commercial hunts.

Because of that, they have a vested interest in maintaining wildlife in their area. It's simple — no animals, no revenue.

Cocciolo, who only had two grizzly tags for this season (meaning he could sell up to two hunts), says he insists that clients only shoot mature male bears. And this, in turn, is good for the overall population. They pose a threat to other bears, hunters, and other wildlife, he feels.

Grizzlies, Cocciolo and the others explain, aren't the fuzzy, cuddly teddy bears city people often view them as. They are unpredictable, dangerous animals, and managing them in a thoughtful way is both ethical and scientifically sound.

There are plenty of grizzlies around Bear Lake, he explains. Without proper management, he believes their numbers will grow too large, causing them to migrate to urban areas, eventually leading to conflict with humans.

During my stay, he drives me to one of the massive clear-cuts that dot his hunting grounds. It's enormous. All of the trees are gone, revealing an undulating sea of brown topography that goes on for several kilometres.

"Grizzlies need habitat," he explains. "We're not the reason why we're having problems with grizzly bears; the problem is we're losing habitat."

Stalking grizzly

The hunters' days take on a similar pattern. Rise before noon. Hunt all day. Come back after dark. Repeat.

When I join them, they patrol a cut-block, following promising signs, like fresh droppings or footprints. Dennis's rifle dangles from his shoulder, pointing forwards — "safari-style," ready for action, he explains.

The men are quiet, trying not to draw attention. They talk in hushed tones, exchanging strategies and plotting the best direction.

We walk through a field of stumps, and the guys, who walk ahead of me, knock into waste-high shrubs, which sends dead white flowers into the air, where they float in the sunlight.

We stop and sit down. It's a good spot, with a nice view of a forested area. From here, we'll be able to surprise a bear, they figure.

Cupping his hands in front of his mouth, Dennis lets out a moose call. To me, it sounds more like a death cry — prolonged and full of agony.

Growing opposition

Guide outfitters like Cocciolo have a long history in British Columbia.

Since as early as the 1800s, they have guided hunters from the U.S. and Europe, showcasing the wilds of B.C.

Hunters, who are required by law to hire local guides, view the province as an untapped gem, a spectacular region teeming with large game.

But opposition to the trophy hunt has only grown over time. In 2013, NHL player Clayton Stoner became the unwitting face of the trophy hunt when an image of him posing with the severed head of a grizzly he killed on the Central Coast went viral, sparking outrage across the province. (He was eventually fined $10,000 and prohibited from hunting for three years for hunting grizzly without a proper licence.)

Polls have indicated that British Columbians are strongly opposed to the trophy hunt. Most recently, a February 2017 Insights West poll indicated that 90 per cent of British Columbians support banning the hunt.

Yet, in spite of this, the BC Liberals — who had been in power for 16 years until this past May's election — stood up for the hunt, fostering strong ties with the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia.

The association has a long history of donating to the party. Since 2005, the BC Liberals have received nearly $60,000 in campaign donations from the association. And in 2012, the group went so far as to award party leader, then-Premier Christy Clark, its annual President's Award.

In addition, the hunt has helped feed government coffers.

While a grizzly tag runs resident hunters $80, non-residents pay $1,060.

Sixteen dollars and $30 of those respective fees goes to the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which was started in 1981, for grizzly bear conservation. The rest is funnelled into general revenue. In 2015 alone, the Ministry of Forests collected $366,400 from grizzly bear hunters. Of that, only $34,000 went towards protecting and monitoring grizzlies.

The user-pay model for grizzly bear monitoring and conservation has been widely criticized. To date, the government has no organized inventory and only limited monitoring of grizzly bears.

Over the years, environmental groups have drawn attention to the cozy relationship between B.C.'s Liberals and guide outfitters. They have seized upon photos of hunters posing with dead grizzlies to ramp up outrage and rally support for a ban.

One of the hunt's most effective critics has grounded his opposition in Indigenous spiritual beliefs.

Douglas Neasloss opened up a tourism company in Klemtu in 1999, a First Nations community located in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Over the years, the Spirit Bear Lodge has gone from employing two people to 30. The company, according to Neasloss, brings in about $1.5 million in annual revenue.

According to the Commercial Bear Viewing Association, activities by operators in the Great Bear Rainforest alone were worth $15 million in 2012.

Neasloss traces his opposition to a traumatic experience. Through his guiding work, he developed a connection to a group of bears. One day, he was leaving their fishing grounds by boat, when he saw a group of hunters barrel past him.

When he went back, he came across a bear's carcass. Stripped of its head, paws and hide, it resembled a skinned human.

"I felt that it was a complete violation of our culture," Neasloss explains. "I probably would have sunk their boat if I had seen it." Since being elected chief of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation in 2011, Neasloss has focused his attention on stopping the hunt. With the backing of the Coastal First Nations (CFN) — a collective of Indigenous groups whose territory encompasses the Great Bear Rainforest — he helped produce a moving documentary on the trophy hunt.

Then, a year later, CFN banned grizzly hunting outright under traditional Indigenous law.

For Neasloss, hunting grizzlies is an expression of toxic masculinity, one that should be relegated to the past.

"To me, it's not a sport. My grandmother could go and do it," he says.

A bear is taken

Back in Bear Lake, we drive back to the cabin for lunch. As we approach, Dennis spots a brown streak crossing the road. He stops, throws the truck in park, and grabs his gun out of the backseat. Then he and Stepp take off up the road.

This is the moment they've been waiting for.

I struggle, rushing to find my notepad and pen. By the time I get out, they're far ahead, a good 80 metres. I follow them up the road, but they dip into the forest, out of sight.

I pause for a moment, contemplating what to do.

I feel incredibly exposed. I run back to the truck and pick up a pair of binoculars.

I watch as Stepp and Dennis come out of the forest and walk down the road, which slopes downwards, out of sight.

A few tense moments pass.

Shots ring out, piercing the quiet hum of the bush. Four at first, followed by a pause, then three more.

I sit and wait, wondering if they got what they came for. Then I move to the driver's seat, fire up the truck, and drive towards them.

Dennis is ecstatic. Stepp looks shocked. Face blank, eyes wide, he stares at the grizzly, which lies flat on its stomach, arms and legs spread wide.

The men inspect it. It's around 10 years old, says Dennis — a "pretty bear."

To me, the lifeless body looks harmless. But to Dennis, even in death, it represents a dangerous, wild animal. "Ask if those people," and by those people, he means the hunt's many detractors, "want to come play with it," he says.

"Show him the teeth!" yells Stepp.

Dennis pushes up the lips with his thumb — the canines are huge.

The guys want a photo. So Dennis finds a log and places it on a grassy patch beside the road.

The men drag the bear by its front arms, leaving a smear of crimson that mixes in with the wet dirt. I'm surprised at how much blood there is.

Then Dennis grabs some grass and places it in the animal's mouth. This, he explains, is to give the bear a final meal, before it moves onto another life.

The men are jubilant. After eight long days, hope was ebbing. But things had taken a dramatic turn.

"Do you know what we call this?" asks Dennis. "Zero to hero!"

In addition to his day rate, Dennis will now receive a "kill bonus." Plus, Stepp is giving him the meat.

With the ban set to take effect Nov. 30, Dennis emphasizes the significance of the moment, how Stepp may be one of B.C.'s last trophy hunters.

How do you feel about that? I ask a shaken-looking Stepp.

"Privileged," he tells me. "Very privileged."

Missing the real threat?

In October, B.C.'s auditor general, Carol Bellringer, released an independent audit of grizzly bear management. Eight months in the making, the report is an indictment of the BC Liberals' handling of grizzly bear conservation.

Conservation efforts have been left to two ministries — the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Forests — which lack leadership, focus, and strategic goals, the report says.

Despite receiving direction from two government-commissioned reports, the province has yet to come up with a comprehensive grizzly bear management plan.

"There is no grizzly bear management plan to provide priorities and clear accountabilities for implementing the direction provided in these two documents," says the report.

B.C's rapid development is the primary threat to grizzlies, cutting off essential habitat, which in turn leads to more human-grizzly contact, the report states.

There are some 600,000 kilometres of resource roads in B.C., with an estimated 10,000 km added each year, the report notes.

"This expansion allows greater human access into wilderness areas, which results in increased illegal killing of grizzly bears, and greater human-bear conflicts.

"Yet, long-promised resource road legislation that could address this risk is not yet in place."

In considering the true threat to B.C.'s grizzly bear populations, the report is definitive: "The greatest threat to grizzly bears is not hunting, but rather, human activities that degrade grizzly bear habitat."

In an interview with Pique following the report's release, Bellringer says too much attention has been placed on the hunt.

"There are many aspects that need to be considered to determine whether or not the management of the grizzly bears is appropriate or not," she explains. "And hunting is just one small piece of it. The impact from the habitat (loss) has a greater impact."

Bellringer also raises questions about the province's burgeoning bear-viewing industry.

The perception is "that 'you're not killing them, so it must be good,'" she says, contrasting it to the trophy hunt. But bear viewing has consequences, too: "It disrupts the habitat. (Bears') behaviour changes. They may go somewhere else for their food."

The audit lists 10 calls to action for B.C.'s new government, including regulating the bear-viewing industry and finally coming up with a comprehensive grizzly bear management plan. Donaldson, the NDP's new minister of natural resources, has vowed to implement all of them.

For Johnny Mikes, field guide for the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, Bellringer's report hits the right notes. Its message resonates with his organization's belief that more attention, planning, and money should be focused on specific populations that are struggling.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) took a hard look at global grizzly bear populations. It identified 11 populations as critically endangered — three of which are in southwest B.C.

Certain areas, like the Stein-Nahatlach region bounded by the Fraser River, Lillooet and Harrison lakes, are in dire need of attention, says Mikes.

Coast to Cascades has made the conscious decision not to comment on the hunt.

Speaking to Pique, Mikes was sympathetic towards some of the guide outfitters' arguments.

"Having eyes on the ground, having the vested interest. There are benefits to having a single guide outfitter," he says, stressing that he is speaking personally, not on behalf of the organization.

Mikes also pointed out hunters' contributions to conservation efforts, noting how the B.C. Wildlife Association and its associates carry out major fundraising efforts and do important on-the-ground restoration work.

He says, however, that it's not like all hunters support the trophy hunt.

A reckoning

In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway writes about trophy hunting in East Africa. The literary icon viewed it as a way to experience the natural world on a more primal, visceral level.

"I did not mind killing anything, any animal," he writes late in the book. "If I killed it cleanly, they all had to die and my interference in the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all."

That, more or less, is how the hunters I spoke with felt. They see themselves as playing a key role in the larger animal kingdom. To them, hunting animals, even majestic ones, is an important form of stewardship.

The morning after the kill, I speak with Stepp. That night, he couldn't sleep. He stayed up, reliving the kill and looking at photos of the bear.

"It still hasn't really sunk in yet — honestly," he tells me, in his unassuming, Midwestern accent.

He had thought about texting people back home about it. But texting, he figured, wouldn't do the experience justice.

"It's just something you can't express — other than talking in person," he says.

Stepp felt it was an ethical kill. The entire bear was going to be used, he explains: Dennis would get the meat, and he will pay tribute to the rest of the animal. After a $6,000 taxidermy job, the grizzly will stand again — this time in his home. Right next to a black bear he killed in Maine.

Deep in the wilderness, away from life's pressures, Stepp had taken the life of one of North America's most iconic animals, and he was perfectly OK with that. It was, he tells me, the experience of a lifetime.

Like Stepp, I have to admit that I too enjoyed parts of the hunt. It was a thrilling, adrenaline-fuelled experience.

But as someone who has never hunted, the kill was difficult to stomach.

I went back to the cabin after the kill. The men could tell I was distressed. As they skinned and butchered the grizzly, I sat listening to music and jotting thoughts in my notebook. I felt guilty, as though my presence had contributed to its death. I, nor them, had expected to witness a kill. And after seeing it in person, it was difficult to rationalize, no matter what they say to justify it.

Experts agree that the main threat to B.C.'s grizzlies is habitat loss, not the 80 some-odd trophy hunters who kill them every year. By focusing on what is already an emotionally charged issue, we seem to have lost track of the more pressing threats to grizzlies: the government mismanagement and developmental sprawl that continues to chop up their habitat.

And while I can get my head around the hunters' rationalizations, seeing the dead bear — with its almost human-like form — was disturbing. In a single frame, it captures man's domination over the natural world. And no matter how sound your arguments are, that's a difficult notion to overcome.