A group of advocates wants a moratorium on grizzly bear hunting in Yukon until the decades-old bear population estimate is updated, but the territorial government says bear numbers don't seem to be declining overall.
Lucile Fressigné, who is on the board of directors of Grizzly Bear Protection Yukon, said it won't be clear if the bears are being over-hunted unless there's an update.
The biologist said the group's ultimate goal is to get trophy hunting banned, something British Columbia did a few years ago.
"To go in those beautiful areas, wild areas in Yukon, and to kill, like, a majestic bear doing nothing wrong … it doesn't really make sense," Fressigné, who is conducting her own research on bear populations, said last week.
According to the Yukon government's website, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 grizzly bears in the territory, a range based on data from the 1980s.
As per the government-approved conservation plan for the bears, "this is an estimate with much uncertainty," and "the true value is unknown."
"The best available information suggests that grizzly bear populations in Yukon are likely stable (i.e., neither increasing or decreasing significantly), although in some local areas there is a concern that the population is declining," reads the 2019 document.
Last week, Matt Clarke, formerly acting director of the fish and wildlife branch in the Department of Environment, echoed this sentiment: "All evidence that we have points to a stable population, and there's no evidence to suggest that the population across the territory is declining."
'A very small mortality rate'
About 90 human-caused bear deaths are reported in Yukon every year, he said. Those include deaths on highways, and deaths due to hunting, and defence of life or property.
"That's a very small mortality rate," said Clarke.
Reporting these deaths is compulsory, and the government tracks them, and the sex of the bears, he said. Since the mid-1990s, those numbers have been "relatively consistent."
If there were 6,000 grizzly bears in the territory, 90 deaths would constitute 1.5 per cent of the population.
In Yukon, there are about 30 bear management units (BMUs), which cover different areas of the territory.
According to the conservation plan, a sustainable mortality rate for bears in a BMU is four per cent of the population. The rates for females and males in a BMU are up to two and six per cent, respectively.
"However, BMUs are not biologically-based but rather are largely aligned with Outfitter Concession Areas. The appropriateness of BMUs as the spatial scale from which to manage grizzly bears should be evaluated," reads the plan.
"Yukon's current grizzly bear population estimates and sustainable mortality rates were derived in the 1980s and may be outdated."
Resident hunters allowed to hunt 1 bear every 3 years
Clarke said the government monitors the number of deaths in BMUs, changing management approaches when necessary, so that bears aren't over-harvested.
He said he didn't have the specific number of new grizzly bears across the territory each year, but the government believes there are enough to balance out the losses, including deaths due to natural causes.
"If that mortality rate is stable and observations from people on the land, First Nations, renewable resources councils, all outfitters are all indicative that there are still healthy populations of bears out there, then we don't have cause for concern that there may be a decline happening," Clarke said.
Resident hunters are allowed to harvest a grizzly bear once every three years, he said. Hunters are supposed to get tags (also known as seals) first. In 2014, more than 2,000 were given out.
"If you were to assign a mortality to every tag that's issued, then you would see a drastic decline in the population. However, that's not what we're seeing," Clarke said.
There would be signs if significantly more deaths were about to occur, and they would prompt the government to change its approach, he added.
The conservation plan calls for a new population estimate. Clarke said work on that has already started.
One way the bears are being counted is through DNA that's captured through hair-snag stations, which can require a helicopter to set up in remote areas.
An attractant lures bears to the stations where their hair gets caught on something, such as barbed wire. The samples are then sent to a lab for DNA analysis.
"It will be a piecemeal approach, and it will take a long time, and it will be a very expensive endeavour," Clarke said, adding the count could take longer than a decade to finish.