Friends and foes of highway hunting face off

The legacy of the blonde grizzly shot along the Tagish Road in May lives on. The female grizzly was shot legally, but its death has spurred a conversation about the ethics of the territory's laws that allow roadside hunting.

The legacy of the blonde grizzly shot along the Tagish Road in May lives on.

The female grizzly was shot legally, but its death has spurred a conversation about the ethics of the territory’s laws that allow roadside hunting. Hunters can shoot animals as long as they are completely off paved shoulders before firing, are aiming away from the road and are more than one kilometre away from residences.

But roadside hunting’s just not ethical, said Jim Borisenko, a campground maintenance man who has lived on the Windy Arm portion of Tagish Lake for over 30 years. He often sees bears along the road while he drives his ATV to work, and they don’t bother anyone. “It’s way overdue for this law to be changed,” he said.

Environment Minister Currie Dixon has requested a working group be formed with members of Environment Yukon and the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board to review roadside hunting in the territory. It will hold public consultations, which may lead to recommending changes to the law. But any changes won’t take effect until 2015.

This plan doesn’t impress Borisenko.

“I hardly see that it’s necessary,” he said. “I’m sure that 99 per cent of Yukoners would like to see this law changed.”

“(The Yukon Party’s) record on public consultation hasn’t been stellar,” Borisenko added. “But that’s the route they’re going. So that’s the route we’re working with.”

Borisenko and a handful of other residents, are putting together a petition asking for roadside hunting of grizzlies to be banned across the territory. In the meantime, they want people to ask Environment Minister Currie Dixon to ban this practice until a new law is formed.

But they’re not the only ones urging people to make their views about hunting known to the government.

Hunters need to speak up too, said Tagish’s Katie O’Farrell. O’Farrell, 19, has lived in the bush her whole life. Her mother went into labour with her while out at a bush camp, and she was raised on a trapline.

“People are arguing all throughout Tagish about this bear issue,” she said of the reaction to the blonde grizzly’s death. But a lot of the conversation is based on emotions, not facts, she said.

Some of these discussions have been happening on Facebook. Shortly after the bear died, Carcross resident Greg Karais started a Facebook page called Yukon Hunting Rules Need to Change so people could discuss hunting regulations. Some of the comments on the page upset O’Farrell, a wilderness guide and licensed trapper. She started a Facebook page, Yukon Hunting Rules Stand Firm, to give hunters a place to post their views.

It’s not something they commonly do, she said.

“Most of my friends, they just stick to themselves. We’re used to having the right,” said O’Farrell. “It makes us feel threatened when people that don’t know anything by hunting, or an extension of that, how it works within conservation are saying, ‘Hey, this shouldn’t be happening because it makes me feel bad.’”

If people support hunting, they need to contact their MLAs and let them know why, said O’Farrell.

Hunting bears helps stabilize other animals’ populations, like caribou, she said. And there’s plenty of bears. Environment Yukon estimates the territory is home to 10,000 black bears and another 6,000 to 7,000 grizzlies.

O’Farrell’s family hunts black bears for food every spring. And there are good reasons to do it from the road. Many people, especially the elderly, can’t travel into the woods to hunt bears, she said. And banning roadside hunting could lead to more ATV traffic in the backcountry.

It’s easier for bears to find food in the spring along the road, said O’Farrell.

“Any good hunter knows that you follow the animals to where you’re most likely to see them, where the best habitat is. And in the springtime, it’s on the roadside.”

It’s easier for hunters to appraise whether a bear should be shot when they’re along the road, she said. That’s especially important for hunting grizzlies – hunters can only kill one every three years.

Her father took photos of Carcross’s blonde grizzly once to see if he’d consider pursuing it later. The bear charged at the vehicle, said O’Farrell, who was with her father when it happened. He drove away to avoid confrontation.

But Borisenko’s encounters with the bear were peaceful, he said. “If she wasn’t feeding, she would recline in a comfortable safe place and watch the vehicles just like we were watching her. It seemed to me that she was enjoying that,” he said.

Tourists are “overjoyed” to see bears along the road, he said. It’s a highlight of many people’s trips, he said.

O’Farrell understands that – bears are

magnificent to look at, she said. But hunting is also part of the Yukon’s identity.

“It’s our heritage,” she said. “I think the tourists would rather us still have our heritage and live the way that we have for hundreds of years then to come up and (have us) say, ‘No, we don’t hunt.’”

And describing grizzly bears as “friendly” is dangerous, she said.

“These are wild animals,” said O’Farrell. “They have to be treated with respect.”

Contact Meagan Gillmore at