VICTORIA - Hunters in British Columbia kill up to 300 grizzly bears every year, but it is habitat loss that is actually the greatest threat to the imposing predators, says auditor general Carol Bellringer in a report.
Growing communities, roads created to expand the forest industry, and oil and gas development in remote areas pose larger dangers to the overall health and growth of the species, says the report released Tuesday.
Bellringer's audit of the B.C. government's grizzly management plan found an absence of provincial monitoring and inventory strategies, and incomplete commitments to save grizzly populations, estimated at 15,000 provincewide.
"While government has undertaken activities to conserve grizzly bears, some of their commitments have gone unfulfilled," the report says. "These include identifying and securing key grizzly bear habitats, creating a grizzly bear management plan and implementing a recovery plan for the North Cascades grizzly bear population."
Bellringer's report makes 10 recommendations, including reviewing legislation to clarify the management and protection roles of the Forests and Environment ministries to reduce overlapping responsibilities.
The New Democrat government says it accepts all the recommendations and promises to develop a grizzly bear management plan with clear objectives, roles and responsibilities.
"Grizzly bear populations in some areas of B.C. are increasing, but this is likely happening independently from an adequate management framework," the report says. "We did find that the greatest risk to grizzly bears isn't the hunt, it's the degradation of grizzly bear habitat."
Bellringer said B.C. is one of the last areas in North America where the bears live in their natural habitat. She said the health of the bears is important because they are an indicator of how well other species and ecosystems are doing.
Community and industrial development in habitat areas makes it difficult for the bears to find food and raise their young, which results in increased human-bear conflicts, the report says. Between 2006 and 2015, 389 grizzly bears died in such conflicts.
Bellringer said B.C.'s vast network of resource roads, estimated at 600,000 kilometres and growing by 10,000 kilometres annually, threatens grizzly populations by allowing easy human access to wilderness areas.
"Unfortunately, this results in increased illegal killing of grizzly bears and more human-bear conflicts," she said at a news conference. "And yet, long-promised legislation that could address this risk is not yet in place."
Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said the government will move incrementally to address access issues to bear zones. Laws that allow the government to restrict access to hunting areas and forest fire zones could be used to limit movements in grizzly habitat, he added.
"The nice thing about this report from my perspective is it lays the groundwork for what is a very strategic issue for us and that's creating a new approach to wildlife management and habitat conservation in this province," Donaldson told a conference call with reporters.
Environment Minister George Heyman said the government will hire more conservation officers next year to help conduct grizzly management work.
"We have seen over the last decade-and-a-half a significant decrease in what many people refer to as boots on the ground, our ability to assess risk, our ability to assess numbers of species, to implement conservation measures,” he said.
The government announced a ban on grizzly trophy hunting in August. In 2015, the government issued about 1,700 grizzly hunting permits to B.C. residents and about 200 permits to non-resident hunters.