The owner of an Indigenous tour company based on the north end of Vancouver Island is calling for changes to the way the BC Conservation Officer Service operates after a grizzly bear was killed on the North Coast last week.
Mike Willie, owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, says a resident of the small village of Kingcome shot and killed a bear named Gatu on Friday, because the bear was getting too close for comfort.
"There's a threshold where it becomes a little bit too scary," he said, noting that the bear had been seen climbing onto porches in the area.
Willie and other members of the community had asked the COS to get involved because Gatu and another bear named Atli were getting too close to humans in the village of about 80 people, but he says the community wanted the bears relocated, not killed.
"I had wanted to take a proactive approach, because there's a number of colleagues that I have that are in the tour industry as well that are willing to put their resources forward to create a better program, like a grizzly bear rescue program," Willie said.
He said there are nonfatal ways to deal with human-grizzly bear interactions, including relocating bears, as well as using electric fencing and rubber bullets to deter them from certain areas.
The COS said in a statement earlier in the week that Gatu and Atli were not good candidates for relocation for a variety of reasons, including "risk to the public during their capture" and the fact that they "cannot be moved into an area that is unsuitable for hibernation."
The two bears were relocated to the mainland from Alert Bay in 2016, after they had become a nuisance in the small community.
Willie said he remembers watching the pair eat salmon out of a river on the mainland after their initial relocation.
"They looked kind of funny because they had tags in their ears, but they were in the wild and they were doing really well," he said.
Observing bears in the wild is part of how Willie makes his living, so he doesn't like to see them killed if it can be avoided.
He said he was frustrated by the lack of interest he received when he contacted the COS about dealing with the bears without killing them.
"We got a threatening email back to us saying, you know, 'You're liable to be charged under the (Wildlife) Act,'" Willie said. "So, it's like, when you want to do something right, you get slapped on the hand."
Willie said he's hopeful that Gatu's death will lead to changes to the Wildlife Act that will make it easier to use alternative means of dealing with problem bears and reduce the number of bear deaths for which conservation officers are responsible.
"He had a lot of friends," Willie said of the deceased bear. "International travellers that came here, viewed him, and loved him."
Though conservation officers did not kill Gatu, Willie noted that the COS has killed more than 4,500 bears over the last eight years, according to provincial government statistics. The vast majority of those have been black bears, but 162 have been grizzlies.
For Willie, these thousands of bear deaths reflect a lack of emphasis from the COS on keeping bears alive.
"Obviously, if the Wildlife Act, which is the policy that the COs fall under, had more Indigenous and First Nations input, there wouldn't be these 4,500 bears put down," he said. "There would be the wherewithal to try and get this bear to safety."
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that local residents in Kingcome killed the bear, not members of the BC Conservation Officer Service.