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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Op-Ed

Aug 06, 2019

British Columbia’s Grizzlies, Trophy Hunting and Boo.

Views of this embattled species range from “all bears are violent and unpredictable” to “OMG, I just want to hug a bear". But is it ethically right to kill a bear, if not for food?

WRITTEN BY

Nicole Gangnon

Nicole Gangnon has worked with animals her entire life. With this passion, Nicole began volunteering at a young age before pursuing her veterinary assistance degree. During a trip Rockies, she fell in love with the mountains & decided to return to school to obtain a diploma in Fish & Wildlife. Upon graduation, Nicole was hired to the Grizzly refuge at Kicking Horse Resort & has now been a part of the refuge & Boo, the resident Grizzly, for 7 years. Continually moved by a love for animals, Nicole is currently developing a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Golden, BC. A licensed & government permitted facility that can accommodate a variety of species from birds and Elk. As Nicole puts it, she “may not save the world by saving animals, but saving that animal changes its world”.

Grizzly bears are often a hot topic in and around Golden, British Columbia. Despite the broad range of views and opinions, millions of tourists flock to Alberta & BC Canada for the opportunity to see a bear, more specifically the noble Grizzly.

Until November of 2017, grizzly bears have been trophy hunted in British Columbia, but is it ethically right to kill a bear, if not for food? This question has been presented to the public and debate circles across BC. Should we finally end the decades’ long trophy hunt?

Photo courtesy of Neil Weisenberg

The Grizzly Bear Foundation, established in 2016, considered the question and sought the opinions within the bear industry, from those who work with captive bears to individuals who work within the bear tourism industry and guide outfitters. The Grizzly Bear Foundation wanted to consider the topic with attention to research, public education and conservation. This organization is the only not for profit in Canada that is dedicated to the welfare of grizzlies, with a focus on their status and long-term future.

From an ecological view, grizzlies are considered to be an ‘Umbrella’ Species, defined by Boston University as a species that “provides protection for other species using the same habitat as the umbrella species. As the term implies, a species casts an “umbrella” over the other species by being more or equally sensitive to habitat changes. Habitats supporting grizzly populations are often lush, boasting a variety of flora and fauna. Having evolved to dig, grizzlies commonly search for roots, tubers, bulbs, small rodents, and insects. Their impressive front claws are powered by the formidable muscle mass located between their shoulder blades, so naturally, they are uncovering large areas of nutrients under the soil – nutrients that are therefore exposed to other animals, while the seeds of the plants they consume are allowed to pass through their digestive tract without being broken down. This means when bears defecate, they are replanting their food sources. Experts often refer to Grizzlies as nature’s gardener.

Photo courtesy of Neil Weisenberg

Economically, grizzlies have supported two commercial industries, the first being guide outfitting, the second being the bear-viewing industry. The outfitting industry, coupled with resident hunters, generates $350 million annually. Meanwhile, the bear-viewing industry in BC has continued to grow over the past three decades and now generates 12 times more revenue through visitor spending and 11 times more government revenue than the outfitting industry.

Working for Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s Grizzly Bear Refuge, I have personally seen growth within the bear-viewing industry. I have been employed by the resort for seven years and when I first started, we would see an average of 8,000 visitors to the refuge each summer. This summer, 18,000 visitors have walked through our door, and all our guests respond in the same way when asked, “Why visit BC?”. “To see bears”. Our resident grizzly bear Boo is a big reason why tourists flock to Kicking Horse. How many opportunities are there to safely observe a Grizzly whilst learning relevant information about their ecology, biology, mating and history?

Boo at The Grizzly Bear Refuge in Kicking Horse Mountain Resort

“Our ambassador for his wild kin”

Boo is our ambassador for his wild kin. He helps us drive home the message of the importance of grizzlies to our ecosystems. Boo has a sad story but one of significance that must be told. At five months of age, Boo and his brother Cari were foraging alongside their mother near highway 26 in BC. A poacher with no regard for life pulled up beside her in his vehicle, raised his high-powered rifle and took his shot, killing her and orphaning the sibling brothers. A common practice by the BC government was to euthanize orphaned grizzly cubs. There wasn’t an option for rehabilitation in 2002 and had it not been for Grouse Mountain initially, the brothers would have been destroyed. Grouse Mountain proposed to Kicking Horse the idea of building a refuge for the brothers and KHMR agreed. Thus began the Grizzly Bear Refuge program which focused on research in its first four years of development. What was the research focused on? The inherent skills of a grizzly cub. What skills, if any, could they develop in a safe area that offered similar opportunities to those in the wild. “Why” was this important question. To push the province to implement a rehabilitation centre for orphaned grizzly cubs.

Boo at The Grizzly Bear Refuge in Kicking Horse Mountain Resort

“Successfully raised and reintroduced 20 orphaned Grizzlies”

Cari and Boo together made the long arduous journey from North Vancouver to Golden, BC in 2003, commencing the beginning of KHMR’s bear program. Boo’s home is in sub-alpine terrain and encompasses four mini-ecosystems within his enclosure. Much of what was learned by observing Boo and his brother Cari was compiled to complete a master thesis and this information helped to support seeing the implementation of a rehabilitation centre in the province. In 2007, the government gave the green light to the Northern Lights Wildlife Society in Smithers, BC. To date, they have successfully raised and reintroduced 20 orphaned Grizzlies back into the wild of BC, but they are currently the only facility in all of North America to have the approval to do this. They receive no funding via the government and heavily rely on the generosity of donors, but their work is incredibly important.

The Grizzly Bear Refuge now focuses on education. We speak out loudly against the trophy hunt, implementing and submitting petitions to see trophy hunting abolished. Meanwhile, we inform our guests about the heinous hunt for bragging purposes and ask them to speak out on behalf of BC’s grizzlies and Boo. When our guests meet Boo, many are moved to tears over his beauty and brilliance. Their fears melt away and a newfound respect develops while they listen intently to Boo’s story. He has changed the mind of so many individuals and created new bear advocates while strengthening the fight against the hunt. I’m proud of him and my team. We were part of a huge movement where the people, for once, were finally heard and our grizzlies, most importantly, are now protected. I’m an advocate for those without a voice and I will continue to promote coexistence because I truly believe humans and bears can share the landscape without fear of each other.

Boo at The Grizzly Bear Refuge in Kicking Horse Mountain Resort

You can find out more information about The Grizzly Bear Refuge in Kicking Horse Mountain Resort by clicking here.

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Op-Ed

Jun 04, 2019

Healing after Howse: How does the climbing world cope with the triple tragedy?

In April, three prominent young alpinists perished in an avalanche on Canada’s Howse Peak. Their deaths prompt another reckoning with mountaineering’s timeless question: is it worth it?

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The physical aftermath of tragedy is procedural. On April 21st, a Parks Canada rescue team located and recovered the bodies of climbers Jess Roskelley, Hansjörg Auer, and David Lama four days after they were reported overdue from an attempt at Banff’s Howse Peak via the technical M16 route. According to the official avalanche report, none of the men were wearing transceivers; use of these devices can greatly expedite recovery operations. In the absence of transceivers, a trained avalanche dog scoured the frozen debris. Roskelley’s phone was salvaged and in the camera roll, a selfie of the climbers, wide grins frozen on fatigued faces, suggests that the trio reached Howse’s summit. Social media the world over shook with an outpouring of sympathy and support.

Read next: Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer: How the World Reacted.

Avalanche debris on Howse Peak. Image via Parks Canada.

The emotional aftermath of tragedy is less straightforward. Inevitably, many critiqued the sport of mountaineering and its legacy of tragic accidents. Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit? Why do climbers seek out high-consequence routes? Are elite mountaineers doing wrong by the spouses, children, parents, and friends who await their safe return?

Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit?

Last year, the hit documentary Free Solo thrust these questions, normally the domain of the climbing subculture, into the mainstream as Alex Honnold’s unroped climbs astonished millions of viewers. In the wake of the deaths of Roskelley, Lama, and Auer (aged 36, 28, and 35 respectively), the climbing community once again confronts the unforgiving nature and fatal consequences of their craft.

David Lama in basecamp of Lunag Ri on October 19, 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

As generations of mountaineers will attest, the riskiness of a route is part of its allure. Climber Steve House, part of a trio who notched the first ascent of Howse’s M16 route in 1999, wrote the below on Instagram;

 

View this post on Instagram

 

This mountain, Howse Peak is among the most powerful mountains I’ve ever known. She changed many lives this week; in tragic ways. I lost three friends, three brothers. That is the least of it, I’m sure. I knew all three, but I knew @hansjoergauer best of all. He was a both a friend and a God to me. The greatest confusion for me personally in this moment is the role of the route M16. A route I climbed over five days, now so vividly remembered, over 20 years ago. That climb took myself and Scott Backes and Barry Blanchard to the limits of skill, power, judgement, and yes—luck. It challenged our very life-force and we nearly lost. I climbed one of the most difficult and dangerous pitches of my life. Barry was very nearly killed by collapsing snow. Scott held us together as a team far more powerful than it’s parts, then, and forever after. And now that power we knew, has killed. I wish I had words to help the mournful understand who this mountain is. What climbing Howse Peak’s precipitous East Face means. It is simply this: The truest testing place of the most powerful men on their very best days. An arena for those rare and mighty, honed, long-practiced men that are challenged by nothing less than to be locked in struggle to the death with one of the mightiest powers on earth. These men were warriors, Knights, dragon killers seeking fleeting, hot-forged perfection through the dangerous path of alpinism, the creative physical expression of power over the most high, inhospitable, inhuman terrain on earth. To be honest I’m a little afraid to put this out there like that now, in 2019. Seems somewhat out of step with where we are as a society. But damn it, it’s the truth. These were great men. The true 01%. This is something each of them proved with actions over and over again. These men were immeasurable. They were not men, but Gods living among us. And now they’re back with their God. And we are less. Our loss immeasurable. It is with the deepest respect and the biggest ❤️ and wet streams of tears that I, that we, begin to adjust to life among mere mortals, a poorer life, and we begin to say goodbye.

A post shared by Steve House (@stevehouse10) on

House cites a feeling afforded by high-consequence climbing that supersedes normal parameters of reality. It transports the climber to the extremities of human experience.

In an article published in The New York Times following the tragedy, Rock and Ice Magazine editor Francis Sanzaro offered a different perspective:

“I can tell you that standing on a dime-size foothold with no rope, with your fingertips on a sloping edge, in a remote part of the mountains where one mistake means instant death, in no way translates to a heightened experience…If you need to go to the ends of the earth and the edge of your mortality to find some mystical je ne sais quoi, then you need to rethink your strategy. I climb because I love it. So did David, Jess and Hansjörg.”

David Lama scouting Lunag Ri in 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

Sanzaro rebukes the “mystical je ne sais quoi” House describes. The rhetoric of the two seasoned mountaineers is at odds; House glorifies the dance with danger, while Sanzaro suggests that risk is overrated. 

Banff-based author Bernadette McDonald is an expert on the psyche of cutting-edge climbers, and she notes the role of luck in even the most seasoned alpinist’s climbs. “If you talk to an alpine climber with a long history in the mountains, it’s extremely rare to find someone who hasn’t had close calls,” she says. “Almost all alpine climbers, if they’re honest, have to give credit to luck at some point.” McDonald believes the climbing community is aware of the risks but was unprepared to lose three luminaries on a peak in the Canadian Rockies. “I think that many people assumed that climbers this skilled and talented could climb their way out of any situation—they climb so quickly, make such informed decisions, etc.—but the objective hazard is simply that. And the East Face of Howse Peak has a reputation that has to be respected,” she says.

Photo (from left to right) of Rosskelley, Auer, and Lama on the summit of Howse Peak, recovered from Roskelley’s cell phone.

Lama, Hansjörg, and Roskelley presumably understood the risks. Perhaps they welcomed them with fervour, as House describes, or with acceptance, as Sanzaro contends. Does that make them selfish? According to McDonald, it does. “Of course climbers are selfish,” she opines. “The most honest among them freely admit it. Top-level climbing performances can inspire us, motivate us and capture our imaginations, but fundamentally, they are not done for the benefit of others.”

“Of course climbers are selfish. The most honest among them freely admit it.”

It’s difficult to measure the overall riskiness of mountaineering, but researchers at the University of Washington studied the fatality rate of climbers on Mt. Everest, a classic mountaineering objective. Based on data from 2,211 Everest climbers from 1990 through 2005, they found that climbers have a 1.5% probability of dying on the mountain. While this figure does not differentiate by ability or experience (i.e. elite vs. amateur) or route difficulty, it offers a crude baseline of the peril of mountaineering. By comparison, in 2017 Americans had a .97% chance of dying from an automobile accident and 0.88% chance of dying from an accidental fall. It would not be far-fetched to claim that professional mountaineers have a similar chance of perishing in a car crash en route to a trailhead as climbing a difficult objective. And it would be ludicrous to denounce every commuter for having the nerve to set foot in an automobile.

The Himalayas are mountaineering’s grandest venue. Photo by Yulia Grigoryants via Creative Commons.

Part of our collective anguish over the triple tragedy has to do with our perceptions of risk. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert is an expert in risk bias and he contends that we overreact to immediate threats and downplay perils that are perceived as “routine”, like car crashes. Additionally, we overreact to dangers that implicate our morals. These factors may account for our perception of mountaineering as an extremely dangerous and potentially foolhardy enterprise. News of three competent athletes brought down by an uncontrollable avalanche is unnerving in a way that car crash statistics will never be. The charismatic nature of a summit push is spectacular, and by extension, the effort gone awry is spectacularly tragic. In mountaineering, we see an expression of a popular moral archetype—the human protagonist doing battle with fierce nature—and thus we may accuse the sport and its participants of ethical impoverishment when those human protagonists perish. But in the end, we cannot fully comprehend, must less control, the decisions made by individuals. As McDonald suggests, “Some [climbers] have a higher risk tolerance than others, but all climbers need to take those risks—manage them, live with them.” Tragedies will always accompany mountaineering, and we must manage and live with them.

 

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