Hatching History: First Short-Tailed Albatross Chick on Midway Atoll
Photographically, the image above – taken April 23, 2011 – is not among my best. It is heavily cropped, the light is uninspiring, the background is busy, the birds in the foreground are distracting, and there is no eye contact with the main subject.
Despite these flaws, this image is a keeper: it records a pivotal moment in avian history.
The main subject, in case you couldn’t tell, is that brown fuzzy chick with its back to the camera, more interested in getting fed by its pink-beaked father than in posing for a portrait.
That chick is the first short-tailed albatross ever successfully hatched on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Being able to photograph any short-tailed albatross is a miracle.
In 1949, they were declared extinct.
Once the most abundant albatross in the North Pacific, feather hunters mercilessly slaughtered five million of them at their nesting colonies until, within a few short decades, every single colony lay silent and empty.
But miraculously, a handful of juveniles out at sea escaped the final onslaught and, in 1951, returned to their last remaining breeding ground on Japan’s Torishima Island. In 1954, the first eggs in over 20 years were laid. From a remnant of 10 nesting pairs, the world population of short-tailed albatrosses has slowly increased to approximately 2500 birds today.
The colony on Torishima is vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, so recorded calls and decoys have been placed on Midway in recent years to entice short-taileds to expand their breeding range. In 2011, I was among the very few lucky people to see and photograph the very first short-tailed albatross chick to result from those efforts.
That chick nearly didn’t make it. Hatched on January 14, it was subsequently flooded out of its nest twice, first by a storm surge in February and then by the Japan tsunami that swept over Midway on March 10, killing 100,000 of the Atoll’s Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks. The lucky short-tailed chick, washed 30 meters from its nest, was replaced by a biologist monitoring its progress.
The photo above, the first post-tsunami image of this chick with an adult*, allayed concerns that its parents might not have survived the inundation to look after it.
Seven weeks later, on June 10, the chick was banded with a permanent metal band on its right leg and a red-and-white one coded “AA00” on its left. Soon after, it fledged, leaving Midway to roam far over the North Pacific.
At sea, this historic bird must avoid a gauntlet of lethal hazards faced by albatrosses worldwide, including: ingestion of plastic garbage; contamination by oil and other pollutants; and entanglement in longline and other fishing gear. In Alaska, closure of the hook-and-line groundfish fishery can be triggered by a bycatch toll of just four short-taileds over two years. Stringent mitigation regulations have significantly reduced fishing-related mortality in other areas as well, but unfortunately such regulations are not in place throughout the species’ entire range.
Despite all these threats, biologists are hopeful that the first short-tailed albatross chick raised on Midway will survive and come back to the Atoll to contribute to the establishment of a nesting colony there. But they won’t know for a while yet – as juveniles, short-tailed albatrosses stay out at sea for at least three or four years before returning to land, and they do not start reproducing until they are six years old.
If that chick does survive and successfully return to Midway, that would mark one more pivotal moment in avian history.
* Images similar to this were also captured by others in the small group of photographers I was with on Midway. During our visit to the short-tailed albatross nest, we were carefully supervised by a ranger and required to stay at a distance of 50 meters.
MAY 31, 2011
Lethal Ingestion: Death by Plastic among Albatrosses on Midway Atoll
Filmmaker Jan Vozenilek reaches into his pocket and pulls out three plastic bottle caps bearing familiar logos: two red ones, from Cola-Cola and Heinz ketchup; and a yellow one, from Shell Oil.
“All three,” he tells me, “came from the stomachs of albatross chicks who died on Midway Atoll from ingesting plastic mistakenly fed to them by their parents.
“I carry these bottle caps with me always, as a talisman, a constant reminder of my mission to stop the use of single-use throwaway plastics that are killing tens of thousands of baby albatrosses every year.”
Jan has witnessed firsthand the last heart-breaking moments of these dying seabirds. As Director of Photography for the soon-to-be-released documentary Midway, he has made numerous trips to the Atoll with the goal of bringing international attention to this environmental tragedy.
“When you think about where Midway actually is, the deadly impact of our plastic trash there becomes even more shocking and disturbing. Because Midway is in the middle of nowhere, one of the most remote places on earth!”
A tiny dab of sand and coral in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Midway Atoll lies more than 3000 kilometers from the nearest continent, midway between North America and Japan.
Exactly because of its extreme isolation, Midway is the chosen nesting ground for three million seabirds; including nearly half a million pairs of Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) and 25,000 pairs of black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes).
During the breeding season, each albatross pair incubates its single egg for two long months and then invests five more months making multi-day forays out to sea, often flying over a thousand kilometers from Midway on a single trip, to collect squid, fish eggs and crustaceans to feed the solitary chick.
Unfortunately, these albatrosses also collect huge amounts of plastic as they forage over the vast and polluted Pacific.
Floating bottle caps, toothbrushes, toys, pens, take-out containers, drinking straws, disposable cutlery, fishing floats, nylon line, syringes, rope, plastic wrap and so much more – along with countless unidentifiable broken bits of plastic – can all be mistaken for food by seabird species honed for scooping edibles from the surface of the sea. Flying fish often lay their eggs on plastic flotsam, and disposable cigarette lighters can look deceptively like tasty squid.
Adult albatrosses bring this plastic garbage back to Midway to feed their chicks – 5 tons of it every year. Tragically, 98% of chicks on the Atoll have plastic in their stomachs, often hundreds of pieces in a single bird. Full of indigestible plastic, 30% of them will slowly die of starvation, dehydration, toxicity, obstruction, or perforation of their digestive tracts.
Their decomposing bodies litter the island.
Windblown feathers and sun-bleached ribs cradle multi-hued mosaics of plastic trash.
Eventually all signs of the birds themselves will disappear, but the colourful clusters of what killed them will remain.
Because plastic lasts forever.
Made from oil, plastic does not biodegrade. No natural process breaks it down into benign chemical components. It does photodegrade in sunlight and weather into tiny particles, but these particles are still pure plastic.
All the plastic ever manufactured – more than a billion tons – is still present here on Earth.
Recently, a dead albatross was found with decades-old plastic from the 1940s in its stomach.
Even if we stopped producing plastic right now, what is already here will persist not just for decades, but for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Because of its durability, plastic just keeps on accumulating. It is, quite literally, filling the oceans: over 100 million tons of it in oceans worldwide; 10 million tons in the North Pacific alone, where Midway’s albatrosses roam. Between 46,000 and 120,000 pieces of plastic are adrift in every square kilometer of seawater. In vast areas of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton 6 to 1.
This plastic soup kills more than just albatrosses, of course. The bloated stomach of a sperm whale calf recently found dead in the Mediterranean contained more than 100 plastic bags. According to the United Nations Environment Program, 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as a million seabirds of various species, die each year from plastic entanglement and ingestion.
People ingest plastic, too. Tiny weathered flakes of it absorb and concentrate toxins such as DDT and PCBs, are eaten by plankton, and then work their way up the food chain into the fish and shellfish we consume. If you are eating seafood, then you are eating plastic.
A vast quantity of marine plastic trash is made up of unnecessary disposable items we use just once - often for mere minutes, or days and weeks at best - before throwing it away.
Most of it is thrown away, not at sea, but on land.
Garbage tossed overboard from ships certainly contributes, but 80% of marine plastic originates as land-based litter and from landfilled refuse that gets: washed out to sea (often from far inland) by rivers and streams; discharged via storm drains; blown in by the wind; or picked up by the tide from shorelines.
“It is our plastic trash that is ending up in the oceans,” says Jan, fingering his three talisman bottle caps. “A water bottle or toothbrush you held in your very own hands could easily end up thousands of miles away in the stomach of an albatross chick.”
Jan re-pockets his bottle caps and heads out along the beach, not on Midway Atoll this time, but on Cortes Island off the British Columbia coast. As if by force of habit, he starts cleaning up all the plastic garbage he can find, carefully searching along the strand line and among huge drift logs.
Within moments, his hands are full.
“It’s all the same stuff here as we find on Midway,” he notes with no surprise. “Plastic pollution is everywhere.”
According to Jan, “The albatrosses dying on Midway are more than mere innocent victims of our plastic trash.
“Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the albatross is the avian messenger for our time, warning us that our wasteful consumer culture is exacting far too high a planetary price for the fleeting and meaningless convenience of things like single-use disposable plastic.
“We need to heed that warning and take action now, before we kill not only the messenger, but countless other species as well, including our own.”
Heeding the Message: What You Can Do
1. Learn more about the beauty of the albatrosses on Midway Atoll and the atrocity of their death by plastic.
The Midway blog includes many poignant and informative posts, poems and video clips chronicling the experiences of Jan Vozenilek and the rest of the film crew on Midway. To get the full impact, start at the oldest post and work forward from there.
2. Stop using plastic, especially single-use disposable items.
Start by refusing to use plastic shopping bags and plastic water bottles. These contribute more to plastic pollution than any other products, and are easily replaced by cloth bags and by metal or glass containers, respectively.
Other helpful suggestions for further reducing plastic use can be found here, here and here.
Some suggestions for reducing plastic use may surprise you. For example, check the ingredients of your toothpaste, exfoliating skin cleanser, shampoo and other personal care products. Tiny beads of plastic (labeled as polyethylene or polypropylene) are intentionally added as abrasives to many brands, and these get flushed straight down the drain. Plastic-free alternatives exist. Find out more here and here.
If you absolutely must use throwaway plastic items, put them in the recycling bin or dispose of them carefully so they do not end up in the ocean. But do not be lulled into thinking these are viable solutions to plastic pollution. Over 90% of plastic goes straight to the landfill. The small amount that is recovered is not truly recyclable. Unlike metal and glass, plastic cannot be repeatedly recycled back into material of the same quality as the original. Instead, plastic is “downcycled” into lower grade items that eventually end up in the ocean or the landfill. “Downcycling” plastic does not reduce the demand for more virgin plastic; only using less plastic can do that.
Pick up any plastic litter you find so it does not end up in the ocean.
3. Learn more about the problem of plastic pollution and get involved with organizations seeking solutions, including:
4. Enlist others – spread the word from the messengers of Midway Atoll.
MAY 1, 2011
The Choreography of Courtship Among Albatrosses
For an albatross, not just any mate will do.
Finding the right match is crucial because these seabirds mate for life – and they can live for more than 60 years.
Not only that, successful reproduction requires full commitment from both mates. They take turns incubating their one egg, and the single chick can survive only if both parents invest many long months making multi-day forays far out to sea to collect food for it.
With so much at stake, albatrosses take their time, months or even years, sizing up potential mates.
Central to their mutual wooing is the courtship dance. Both sexes actively participate, displaying their own fitness, and assessing that of prospective partners, through the speed, vigour and coordination of their choreography.
Albatross dances are among the most intricate courtship behaviour of any species on earth. Among all 22 species of albatrosses, the two with the fastest and most varied moves are the Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) and black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes) that breed primarily on Midway Atoll and other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Their complex choreography includes sequences of head bobbing and shaking, bill jousting and clapping, fake preening of half-spread wings, and sky pointing while standing up on webbed tippy toes – all punctuated by high-pitched whistles and low moans.
But a video is worth a thousand descriptive words. Here are two brief clips of courting Laysan albatrosses dancing on Midway.
And here are two brief clips of courting black-footed albatrosses dancing on Midway.
Most of the albatrosses dancing on Midway are non-breeders. Some may be adults courting a new mate to replace one who has died, or pairs taking a year out from reproducing to molt. But many of the dancers are immature birds.
After fledging, juvenile Laysan and black-footed albatrosses spend the first three or four years of their lives entirely at sea before, at last, returning to land to seek a mate, usually at the same colony where they hatched. They will return here over several years to court before reproducing for the first time, usually when they are seven or eight years old. That means that birds displaying on Midway range from adolescents practicing their dance steps with a variety of partners in pairs or small groups, to maturing birds forming a lasting bond with their one chosen life mate.
As the bond between two birds evolves, they refine their choreography through repetition, developing their own unique synchronized dance, distinguishable from all others. Ironically, once the dance is so perfected, it is rarely, if ever, performed again. With the lifelong bond fully forged, the pair will depart, returning to breed for the first time the following year. Established pairs reinforce their bond through contact and mutual preening, and mating involves little or no preliminary display.
Albatrosses typically nest in large colonies on tiny oceanic islands, and the Laysan albatross colony on Midway Atoll is the single largest colony of any albatross species anywhere in the world. Starting in late October and November, nearly half a million breeding pairs of Laysan albatrosses, as well as 25,000 pairs of black-footed albatrosses, crowd onto the Atoll’s scant 623 hectares of land. These numbers represent over 70% of the global population of Laysans and 35% of black-footeds, respectively.
At the height of the breeding season, a cacophony of life abounds on Midway as myriad albatrosses fly overhead, crash land on the white sand, regurgitate seafood slurries into the beaks of their waiting chicks, perform courtship dances, run awkwardly along the beach to get airborne and then glide gracefully among big breakers beyond the lagoon.
This brief video depicts the bustle of activity taking place during April at just one small section of the Laysan albatross nesting colony on Midway.
If you are lucky enough to be among them, nesting albatrosses will often waddle right up to as you they go about their business, sticking their huge beaks into your camera lens, tugging gently at your hair or adeptly untying your shoelaces.
But by late August, the last albatrosses have departed and Midway lies quiet and deserted. For the next few months, the birds remain at sea, soaring effortlessly all around the North Pacific; on wings spanning over 2 meters, they can log over a million kilometers during their lifetime.
But come next breeding season, albatrosses will once again navigate back to that same crowded little dot of land that is their breeding ground, there to dance their courtship dances, or to reunite with their chosen mate at that same special spot on that dot that is their own familiar nest site.
AUGUST 31, 2010
Subdivision: Pueblo West, Colorado
Visiting the new and burgeoning town of Pueblo West in south-central Colorado was both a joyous and a depressing experience. Joyous because of the huge diversity of wildlife I encountered there - everything from raptors to reptiles. Depressing because urban sprawl is relentlessly swallowing all of these creatures up.
The crux of the problem is that Pueblo West is being built on top of a black-tailed prairie dog colony. A whole host of other species depends on prairie dogs for survival, including black-footed ferrets, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks and golden eagles who eat them and burrowing owls who nest in their tunnels underground. Bison, pronghorn and deer preferentially graze on the nutritious new grass that sprouts up where prairie dogs have mowed it down and mountain plovers need such close-cropped turf for nesting.
Prairie dogs once ranged in huge numbers all across the North American Plains, but since Europeans took over this continent, their populations have plummeted by 95% as a result of persecution, introduced disease and, of course, habitat loss like that currently taking place in Pueblo West.
I wrote a poem about all this and have coupled the words with images in the audio-visual presentation below.
OCTOBER 15, 2009
Rock-a-bye Babies: Great Gray Owlets in the Treetops
Doing my best to overcome my fear of heights - and my terror of falling - I gingerly climb 30 feet above the forest floor on a triangular metal ladder that sways far more freely than I would like in the pre-dawn air.
But once seated in the blind at the top, my camera safely nestled on a bean bag, enchantment replaces anxiety as I find myself eye-to-eye with two round-eyed, fluffy great gray owl chicks cuddled together in a large sticky nest anchored among leafy branches.
The government biologist who gave me permission to visit this blind near Elk Island National Park, Alberta, told me the nest had been built in a previous year by northern goshawks; great gray owls do not build their own.
He also told me to listen for the lovely, soft “bu bu bu” call of the female and the somewhat louder call of the male announcing the imminent delivery of a rodent repast to the nest.
But far more blatant clues are the sudden attentiveness of the chicks and their urgent food begging calls. Then one chick falls momentarily silent as a large vole disappears in mere seconds, swallowed whole and head first.
These owl sounds - along with those of smaller birds, of rustling leaves and creaking branches - are right beside me now that I am up here among the boughs. More grating sounds that would normally be at ear level - barking dogs, machinery, tires on gravel - fade into the distance far below. This soothing soundscape, topsy turvy for me, is just the norm for these baby owls.
In between infrequent feeds, the owlets, close to fledging, stretch and flap their wings in preparation for future flight, a snowfall of down accompanying each beat. Sometimes they awkwardly preen themselves or each other, peck at their talons and toes, or take a few steps to the edge of the nest.
I am especially charmed whenever they shift their heads from side to side to side on flexible necks, eyes fixed forward. They are using parallax to hone their binocular vision, triangulating in on only they know what, viewing it from the various angles their head movements provide.
But these feeding, flapping, preening, pecking, stepping and parallaxing activities are mere punctuation to their main activity - sleep.
I watch as they rest in their arboreal cradle, both of us rocked to the same rhythm by the same June breeze.
I watch for hours until it is time to return to earth, the 30-foot ladder swaying just the right amount in the gathering dark.
My favourite image from this great gray owl nest appeared on the cover of the Fall 2009 issue of Living Bird magazine, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/) in Ithaca, New York.
JULY 15, 2009
Throat Singers: A Night in the Life of a Wildlife Photographer
I am standing under the full moon in hip waders in the middle of a rain-flooded cow pasture on the edge of the Pawnee National Grassland in eastern Colorado. I know it is a cow pasture because I see numerous pats of cow dung floating unappealingly in the water and the slippery mud under my feet is pitted unevenly with hoof prints.
Emanating from this temporary pond is a remarkably loud chorus of rattling metallic trills. I know the sources of these sounds are male amphibians of some sort, ardently calling to attract mates, but I don't know exactly what sort they are. And I want to find out.
To this end, I scan the beam from my headlamp over the murky water.
As I do, every insect from miles around flocks to my forehead. Most of these are mosquitoes. At the end of the night, I count 51 bites on my hands alone. Note to self: invest in bug repellent.
In my hands, I carry a camera with macro lens and flash attached. Thus armed, I wade further and further into this quagmire of crap, over-flown by the biting hordes.
I must wade slowly, slowly, very slowly. I do not want to ripple the water and disturb the amphibians' courtship. And I need them to keep trilling as I hone in on their sounds.
And when I finally spot one in my headlamp beam, I am stunned!
Revealed before me is a creature I had no idea even existed. And what a creature it is!
It is a large toad with large, distinct splotches on his back – and an astonishingly humongous vocal sac like nothing I have ever seen before.
The males of many species of toads and frogs have vocal sacs, flexible membranes of skin that are inflated when they call to advertise themselves to females. I've seen courting leopard frogs with their small discreet paired sacs, one at each corner of the jaw. I've seen the single large round vocal sacs of chorus frogs that extend below throat and chin. And I've seen pictures of the impressive bi-lobed vocal sacs of casque-headed frogs from Mexico, but these, too, are modestly confined below chin level even at full inflation.
Not so for the toad trilling in my headlamp beam!
His vocal sac extends out from his throat, up past his face and keeps on going well above and beyond his eyes, towering way over the top of his head. Looking straight on from the front, all I can see are his front legs and a huge balloon delicately traced with blood vessels. He is simply magnificent!
The precise acoustic role of the vocal sac is not fully understood. It may serve to amplify the male's vocalizations so they carry further. It may help re-inflate his lungs so he can sustain the rapid, intense calls most attractive to the opposite sex.
Certainly the calls of the toads in this rain-soaked pasture are loud and long and audible at great distance. At photographic range, they are almost painfully loud, at least to my ears. The sound literally fills my head.
I scope out the entire pond and find only five or six of these toads here. One is in a spot relatively clear of grass, the best photo op I have found so far. As I crouch down to get an eye-level image, my left hip wader rapidly fills with a cold tincture of manure. Notes to self: wash clothes, invest in chest waders.
Now wet, as well as anemic thanks to the mosquitoes, I try to aim my headlamp so there will be enough light on the toad for my camera to be able to focus. This proves to be a challenging task to accomplish on my own; I have to twist my head at precisely the right angle so that the headlight beam is not hidden behind the large flash unit attached to my camera while still allowing my right eye to look through the viewfinder. Note to self: hire an assistant.
Back at camp, I pull out my Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians and determine that I have just met the Great Plains toad!
A few nights later, clad in my new chest waders, I go back to the flooded pasture again. The toads are still calling, but this time there are no mosquitoes. There is no moon either. Instead, there is wind and fierce lightning.
Undeterred, I climb through the barbed wire fence and wade out. The wind gets stronger and stronger, rippling the pond and masking my own wake so I can move faster than on the previous night. I locate a photogenic toad and crouch to make some images, pleased that this time my rubber garb is adequate to the task.
Before long, the lightning closes in all around me, nearly simultaneous with the thunder. But that is not why I leave. No, I leave because I want to check out the amphibians in another flooded field I have found further down the road.
Just as I get back through the fence and into the car to head to that new pond, hail hits, furiously pummeling the car. The dirt road is slick and I slalom from side to side.
Lightning flashes straight ahead, blinding me every few moments. Reluctantly, I decide photography is over for the night. Note to self: Serving as a human lightning rod in the middle of ponds in the middle of the open prairie is probably not a good idea.
On a drizzly night some time later, I spot one of my Great Plains toads in the middle of the dirt road. I wonder if breeding season is at end and he is leaving the pond, his reproductive mission complete. As I approach, he inflates not his vocal sac this time but his entire body, puffing himself up to appear as large and intimidating as possible. That may work as a defence against predators, but not against photographers. I set up the camera, take a few pics and then carry him safely away from the road.
In September 2008, I heard talk that numerous grizzlies were being killed as so-called “problem” bears in the Bella Coola Valley of British Columbia. Disturbed by this, I did some research to determine the exact facts. And the sad facts are that the talk turned out to be true.
Journalist Mark Hume eloquently summarized my findings in The Globe and Mail, October 16, 2009. Below is his article as it appeared on page 1 of the British Columbia section of the newspaper.
When will they ever learn?
Clearly, the problem people in the Bella Coola Valley must learn to stop creating the problems that lead to their problems with bears. Only then will the out of control control kill of grizzlies in the Valley stop. That would not only benefit bears, but would also ensure increased safety for people by reducing human-bear conflicts - a win-win all around.
To this end, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation has recently launched a multi-pronged campaign to bring this win-win solution about. As part of this effort, Raincoast is calling on the B.C. government to: 1. reform the provincial Wildlife Act so that provisions addressing bear attractants are more stringent and enforceable; 2. station a conservation officer in the Valley to ensure compliance with the law; and 3. provide sufficient funding for Bear Smart/Bear Aware programs to educate Valley residents about proper handling of bear attractants and other bear-proofing protocols.
You can help. Here’s how:
1. Please take a brief moment of your time to sign Raincoast’s on-line letter to B.C.’s Minister of Environment, urging him to take these three important steps without delay.
Your on-line letter will also be automatically copied to Gary Coons (Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Bella Coola area), to the Central Coast Regional District (the municipal government for the area) and the Bella Coola Valley Tourism Association (which promotes bear viewing ecotourism in the Valley).
2. Even more effective than signing the on-line letter is communicating your concern in your own words. The on-line letter provides more detailed information than I have given here, and you may find that helpful in formulating your own message. Then write (snail mail is more effective than email), phone or fax:
The Honourable Dr. Terry Lake
Minister of Environment
Victoria, B.C. V8X 1X4
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr. Gary Coons, MLA
Victoria, B.C. V8X 1X4
Central Coast Regional District
Attn: Kevin O’Neill, Director
626 Cliff Street
Bella Coola, B.C. V0T 1C0
It is probably too late for Eva and her cubs, and certainly too late for all those grizzlies whose untimely and preventable deaths I read about in government records. But hopefully, with your help, the problem people will learn to be part of the solution before it is too late for those grizzlies still left alive in the Bella Coola Valley - before they, too, get sent to graveyards, every one.
AUGUST 15, 2008
Crime and Punishment: The Illegal Killing of a Grizzly Bear
The image above - taken late afternoon on September 25, 2004 along a salmon stream in British Columbia - is the last one I ever made of this young grizzly.
The next time I saw her - at noon the following day - she was dead.
I heard the shots that killed her. I saw the dark mound of her body heaped on the smooth white stones of a gravel bar. I watched her red blood pooling and clotting in the cold water of the shallows.
The shots I heard were those of the two authorities who came, mercifully, to euthanize her.
They had found her alive but paralyzed, able only to lift her head and widen her eyes.
They determined that a single shot fired from the steep bank high above the river had hit her in the neck, shattering her spine. She had taken at most one or two steps before falling where she lay now.
And she had lain there, suffering, for 18 torturous hours before she was finally put to rest.
I knew this bear - a young, calm and docile female who had never bothered anyone.
She was one of numerous bears I had come to recognize as individuals during the five weeks I spent along this river - a place where grizzlies are supposed to be protected. During that time, I had been privileged to watch and photograph these intelligent, inventive and magnificent creatures as they fished for salmon, wrestled and played, dug their day beds, nursed their cubs - and lived their lives.
I brought four gifts to the place where she had last lived, and died: a spawned-out salmon for her continued sustenance; a sprig of cedar for the shelter of the forest; some bark from a grizzly rubbing tree for comfort and connection; and finally, a handful of Old Man’s Beard, a lichen made up of two different species - an alga and a fungus - that live together symbiotically for the mutual benefit of both. And I prayed that all future relationships between bears and humans could be just as tolerant, peaceful and civilized as that.
Then I posted a reward for information leading to the conviction of whoever had needlessly shot her, and left her to die. I advertised the reward extensively in all the local media. And I regularly contacted the conservation officer investigating the case to ensure that this bear would not be forgotten, and that justice would, in the end, be served.
More than two years after her death, charges were finally laid against the perpetrators: Donald Kunka (owner of Kunka Logging) and his son Robert, both of Williams Lake, British Columbia.
Many months later, on February 20, 2008, Donald Kunka pled guilty. At the same time, the Crown prosecutor dropped charges against his son and agreed not to seek jail time as part of Mr. Kunka’s punishment.
Mr. Kunka was sentenced on July 25, 2008. At his sentencing hearing, the Crown sought a fine of $15,000 to $20,000 plus a 10-year prohibition on hunting as the penalty. The defence argued for a $7,500 fine and no hunting ban. The Court imposed a fine of $11,000 without any hunting restrictions.
Here are two samples of the considerable press coverage the case received. Together, they detail both the crime and the punishment.
3. Take Action
In British Columbia, grizzlies are listed as an at-risk species of special concern. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging, mining, energy development and human encroachment, failing salmon runs, fatal collisions with vehicles and trains, control kills of “problem” bears, hunting and poaching are just some of the many pressures grizzly populations currently face.
In 2007, a record 430 bears are known to have been killed in the province, 84% of them by trophy hunters who want only the hide and so just waste the meat. The B.C. government claims that the hunt is sustainable, but many bear biologists disagree. The official government estimate of 17,000 grizzlies is based on a fatally flawed model that falsely assumes grizzlies occupy every single square inch of suitable habitat. In fact, there are no accurate, peer-reviewed data on how many grizzlies actually live in B.C. Some biologists say there could be as few as 5000 bears.
Given that, a coalition of scientists, conservationists and environmentalists are calling for an end to the trophy hunt for grizzlies to ensure the continued survival of this vulnerable species. Polls show that over 70% of British Columbians also oppose this hunt.
Tell her you want an end to the grizzly hunt throughout the province right now. And while you’re at it, remind her she has yet to keep her promise to establish all the long overdue no-hunt Grizzly Bear Management Areas. And tell her you want her to develop and implement Recovery Plans for the highly fragmented grizzly populations in southern B.C. (If you can, send an actual letter by post as that will have more impact than an email.)
Contact the Premier even if you do not live in British Columbia. Let her know B.C.'s bears matter to everyone.
Please speak out and take action, in honour and memory of a young female grizzly bear I once knew.