• A grizzly bear shakes water from its fur in a river

    Photo: Javier Frutos/Can Geo

On a foggy West Coast morning in October, I pull on boots and rain gear and get ready to go looking for grizzlies. My guide, K’odi Nelson, meets me down at the dock and introduces Sherry Moon.

“She’s our top guide,” says Nelson. “When we’re in the woods, Sherry leads the way and I cover the rear. We both have spray, and there’s never been a case of a grizzly attacking a group of more than three people, so we should be okay.”   

They both work for Sea Wolf Adventures, an Indigenous-owned agency that guides tourists in bear country. We cruise at slow speed into the Broughton Archipelago — a maze of foggy islands between the coast of central mainland British Columbia and northern Vancouver Island. The sea is smooth as paint, spattered with flocks of murres and the occasional V-wake of a swimming seal. Forested palisade cliffs lean up into the mist. Every few kilometres, a burst of spray announces the appearance of a humpback whale. After the better part of an hour, we reach the precipitous slopes of the mainland. In the creeks and rivers of these coastal mountains, salmon return home to spawn and die. And where there are salmon, there are grizzlies.

At the top end of a narrow fiord, we stop at a tidal flat. As we prepare to go for a walk, Nelson apologizes. “I’m normally a happy sort of guy, so sorry if I seem a bit quiet. I’m feeling kind of heartbroken.”

Mud sucks at our boots as we hike across the tidal flat. Nelson is a hereditary Chief of his band, and he’s worried about the salmon. We stop here and there, examining wide excavations where grizzlies have rototilled the turf, digging up edible roots. Nelson kicks at a heap of manure, hoping for fish fins. “It’s October, the bears should be feeding on salmon, not plants.”

Moon nods. “They need fat for the winter. There’s nourishment in silverweed tubers, but it’s not enough.”

Grizzlies, such as this sow and her cubs in Xakwikan Thompson territory near Gilford Island, are being
impacted by the collapse of salmon runs. (Photo: Mike Willie/Sea Wolf Adventures)

We enter the wet forest and follow a trail through tangled alder and fallen trees. The path, which has been beaten down by a thousand grizzlies, contours the course of the Ahta River. Now and then the glint of water comes through the trees, but the undergrowth is tangled and daunting. Moon walks ahead, with a canister of Counter Assault clipped to her belt.

As we duck and weave through the bush, the guides seem watchful but unworried. They’ve been trained by a professional development organization called the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of B.C. and say they’ve had many close encounters with grizzlies without a problem. After 10 minutes of walking, we reach a small clearing — a high cutbank with a view of the river. We stand there for a few moments, looking down at the dark pool. Except for two or three pale, half-decomposed salmon finning listlessly in the current, the pool is empty. No carcasses on the shore, no bears. On a snag across the river, a scruffy juvenile eagle hunches motionless in the falling rain.

Moon draws our attention to a flattened patch of grass a few steps away from where we’re standing. “That’s a day bed,” she says. “A bear was lying here.”

It’s a good sheltered spot with a wide view of the river. Normally this gravel bar would be a battlefield of dying salmon, splashing hordes of struggling fish, wading bears, squabbling gulls and eagles. But now the river is empty and the bears are absent. “This river normally gets 60,000 pink salmon,” says Nelson. “This year, so far, we’ve seen 110. It’s a disaster.”

Salmon are a critical energy source for the region’s wildlife, and with this year’s general collapse of the salmon run, Nelson says the whole ecosystem is in trouble. “It gives you a spooky feeling — what’s going on?”

He doesn’t say anything else. But as we stand there looking at the desolate river an unspoken question hangs in the silence. Where are the bears? 

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo; Grizzly range data: The IUSN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 6.2. 

Sea Wolf Adventure guides K’odi Nelson and Sherry Moon. (Photo: Jake Macdonald)

Most Canadians have never been to the Broughton Archipelago or even heard of it. But those who know the place and have visited are unlikely to argue with the proposition that it’s the most extraordinary ecosystem in the country.

Every summer, tens of millions of migratory salmon surge down through the narrow passages between the islands, kicking off a festival of gusto that nourishes everything from killer whales to bears to cedar forests. The straits are alive with seals, eagles, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and a variety of whales. Black bears are commonplace; a daily sight. And grizzlies are abundant enough that bear-watching has become a popular tourist attraction.

Logging and commercial fishing were once the economic mainstays of the region. But ecotourism has recently taken over as the area’s principal economy, and visitors come from all over the world to see the wildlife and spectacular scenery. Ecotourism businesses such as Sea Wolf Adventures and local communities such as Telegraph Cove, on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, are much busier now than they were during the heyday of resource extraction. Tim McGrady, the manager of Farewell Harbour Lodge, a posh ecotourism resort in the Broughton Archipelago, says many of his guests are well-educated and discerning Europeans who have been around the world, have strong opinions about environmental protection and feel lucky to visit a place like the Broughtons. “There’s no place quite like this anywhere in the world,” says McGrady. “My wife, Kelli, and I have done a lot of travelling. We spent years working as professional guides in Alaska and the Sea of Cortez. But we’ve never seen anyplace so spectacular, so full of wildlife and so rich with Indigenous history.”

'As we stand there looking at the desolate river an unspoken question hangs in the silence.

 Where are the bears?'

Some believe Atlantic salmon farmingin the Broughtons (above, at Swanson Island) is impacting local bears. (Photo: Mychaylo Prystupa)

Farewell Harbour Lodge is a small, family-style resort with convivial group meals, nature presentations in the evening and daily excursions by boat into the surrounding wilderness. “I can’t believe that I get paid to introduce people to this ecosystem,” says lodge guide Darien Walker. “One of my favourite things is helping my guests encounter their favourite animal. When they see dolphins zoom up to the boat to say hello, or they watch a mother bear teaching her cubs how to forage, or they see a humpback whale the size of a school bus come crashing up out of the ocean, it’s often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, and they do everything from jumping and dancing to crying tears of joy.”

Farewell Harbour Lodge and Sea Wolf Adventures work closely with each other, sending clients back and forth, and K’odi Nelson says that in general, the Broughton islands are a model of good cooperation between local Indigenous people and other ecotourism outfitters. “We all respect each other,” he says. “There’s a feeling that we’re all on the same team. Most of the people here understand how special this place is and how important it is to protect it.”

Nelson says the whole ecosystem will collapse if the salmon disappear, and the local economy will follow. But some local old-timers say they’ve seen it all before. Gordie Graham, the “unofficial mayor” of Telegraph Cove, has lived in the area for most of his life and cautions against alarmism. “The pinks are a boom-and-bust fish. All these self-appointed experts said the pinks would be all gone by 2015, and then we had the biggest return in history. They said the chinook salmon were done, and this summer we had a terrific return of chinooks. On the whole, this is a very healthy ecosystem.”

''These fish farms have been the last straw. Wherever there are salmon farms, you have.

Trouble with wild salmon.'

Graham, 75, seems a reincarnation of the pioneers who risked their lives every day building the outpost communities of the West Coast. After he’d pushed his luck for 40 years as a logger, his wife, Marilyn, suggested it might be prudent to try something else, so he bought a village — the historic, decaying community of Telegraph Cove — and proceeded to restore and repaint it like an antique wooden sailboat. Nowadays, colourful clapboard cottages sit on stilts above the water, and tourists saunter along the plank boardwalk, learning about the province’s history from the archival plaques and from the stories Graham tells at his regular salmon barbecues. In other words, Graham is the sort of can-do individual who does not put much stock in the word “problem.” And that might shape his opinions on the status of the salmon stocks. “If you want to learn about salmon, just go and see Billy Proctor,” he concludes. “He knows more than anybody.”

A grizzly in Mamalilikulla Territory in western Knight Inlet. (Photo: Javier Frutos/Can Geo)

Telegraph Cove, a small Broughtonfacing community on Vancouver Island. (Photo: Javier Frutos/Can Geo)

Billy Proctor, of nearby Echo Bay, has fished and lived in the Broughtons his whole life and is widely regarded as a living encyclopedia of knowledge about the region’s flora and fauna. He is a self-educated observer of sea life, and his book about the life cycle of a female pink salmon — Full Moon, Flood Tide — continues after many years in print to be one of the most admired nature books ever written in B.C. He agrees it’s not all doom and gloom, “But the pinks and the chum salmon are getting too much pressure, no question, and these fish farms have been the last straw,” he says. “Wherever there are salmon farms, you have trouble with wild salmon. This year, I’ve never seen such a poor run of chum salmon. The Ahta River usually has somewhere from 10 to 15 thousand chums. This year there were only a hundred or so.”

K’odi Nelson is similarly convinced that the salmon farms have damaged the wild salmon by infecting them with exotic diseases and sea lice, attacking juvenile wild salmon before they have a chance to get to their adult stage. And in 2016, his guiding partner Moon, along with other Indigenous protesters, served a local Cermaq Canada salmon farm with an “eviction notice.” The protesters, backed by the Sea Shepherd vessel Martin Sheen, occupied the salmon farm and ultimately succeeded in persuading Cermaq and Marine Harvest to withdraw 27 farming operations from the archipelago. But whether that will turn things around for local salmon stocks is a matter of opinion. “There are many other factors hurting the salmon: a tremendous amount of logging damage to the spawning creeks, overfishing and too many predators,” says Proctor. “The seals and sea lions have just exploded in numbers, and nobody wants to talk about that. But if we don’t look at the facts and get busy with fixing some of these problems, the salmon are going to continue to decline.”

Like Proctor, grizzly bear biologist Wayne McCrory points to ongoing unregulated logging practices as a factor in failing salmon returns. “I’ve seen the landslides [resulting from the loss of trees] coming down into the spawning creeks. I have recorded them on video. And I’ve reported them. But no one does anything. If you kill off that creek, those salmon are never coming back.” 

An emaciated grizzly photographed by guide Rolf Hicker in the Broughtons in 2019. The images sparked international debate about the link between the bears’ condition and failing salmon runs. (Photo: Rolf Hicker)

'Grizzlies are not native to Vancouver Island, but in recent years

they've been sighted near Port Hardy and Telegraph Cove.'

The failed salmon runs have coincided with a spike in the number of grizzly bear sightings — in and even beyond the Broughtons — with grizzlies showing up in places they’ve never been seen before. Local newspapers have posted photographs of the bears and reported that wildlife officials are “scratching their heads” for an explanation. Grizzlies are not native to Vancouver Island, but in recent years they’ve been sighted near Port Hardy and Telegraph Cove and as far south as Campbell River.

Some believe the bears are just random transients — juvenile male bears roam widely after being shown the door by their mothers, and grizzlies are effortless swimmers. But large males, siblings and sows with cubs have also been spotted on the island. There are different theories about the causes of the increased sightings. The trophy hunt for grizzlies was cancelled by the provincial government in 2017, and some locals argue that the migratory bears are evidence of a growing population. McCrory disagrees. “The population of grizzlies is not suddenly increasing because the trophy hunt has ended,” he says. “They don’t multiply that quickly. They’re not rabbits. Personally, I don’t think the population is increasing, but I can’t offer definitive data. It’s very complicated and expensive to try to count grizzly bears, and population estimates involve a lot of educated guesswork. We need the data, but we don’t have it. I think the outflow is being caused by something else.”

According to Nelson and Moon, the grizzly migrants are being driven by hunger. But scientists like McCrory are cautious when it comes to making definitive pronouncements without recent data.

The connection between the failed salmon run and the restless bears blew up in the global media in the autumn of 2019, when local ecotourism guide Rolf Hicker photographed an emaciated grizzly sow with two cubs and posted it on his Facebook page. International news sites ran the photo as shocking evidence of humanity’s destruction of wildlife habitat. Hicker says he got loads of positive feedback from people worried about the bears, but he also got hate mail from others who felt he was hurting the tourism industry. “Listen, I’m not an activist, and I’m not trying to make trouble,” he says. “But I’ve been out there almost every day for 20 years and I’ve seen the changes. The bears are thin, and the orcas are thin. I don’t believe everything is good right now.”

Some local guides believe the bear was elderly and possibly sick, but Hicker doesn’t agree. “Old, sick bears don’t have cubs. And two weeks later, we saw a different coloured sow with cubs and she was also thin. Then we saw a much darker bear in Thompson Sound with its ribs showing. This is the worst salmon year in history, and we have to do something.”

A grizzly in Mamalilikulla Territory in western Knight Inlet, where in 2019 the First Nation’s Watchmen delivered ice-packed salmon to hungry bears. (Photo: Javier Frutos/Can Geo)

'This year the salmon run was just a disaster,

and the bears are behaving in unusual ways. We've found black bears killed and eaten by grizzlies.'

As a short-term measure, Chief Richard Sumner of the Mamalilikulla First Nation decided to deliver 500 ice-packed salmon to places in the Broughtons where the skinny bears had been spotted. Jake Smith, who manages the Watchmen program for the First Nation, says some grizzlies came out of the woods as soon as they went ashore with the fish. “This little cub and his mother came right away. They were only about 10 metres from us.”

The Mamalilikulla First Nation band is based in Campbell River, and most of the band members live in towns along Vancouver Island. But they claim the archipelago as their nation’s territory and established their Watchman program to maintain a physical presence there, with employees Darren and David Puglas living in a cabin in the archipelago. Like fellow band member Jake Smith, they have been feeding the hungry bears. On a sunny autumn morning, David and Darren prepared for another emergency food delivery, hauling boxes of fruit down to their patrol boat. Feeding wildlife, particularly bears, is against the law, on the grounds that it trains wild animals to associate humans with food. And as they load the boxes of apples, peaches and thawing salmon into their patrol boat, they muse about whether the local conservation officer will come and arrest them. “The officer gave Jake Smith shit for feeding the bears,” David explains. “But somebody has to do something. We bought all this fruit with our own money. It was only a $140, and it feels good to give the bears some help.”

“I actually hope he does arrest us,” says Darren. “It would be good publicity, and this whole area needs a health checkup.”

Wildlife ecologist Scott Rogers has been living in the Broughtons and studying its ecology for 15 years. She agrees that a comprehensive “health checkup” for the area is long overdue. “Our local DFO guy is fabulous,” she says. “But the Harper government cut his funding in 2012, so we formed a group and started walking the creeks and counting the salmon ourselves. This year the salmon run was just a disaster, and the bears are behaving in unusual ways. For example, we have found the remains of black bears killed and eaten by grizzlies, and that’s concerning. Our senior fish monitor is extremely experienced in the bush, and she feels it isn’t safe for us to be walking the creeks anymore.”

Can the grizzlies of the Broughtons survive on other food sources if the salmon continue to decline? McCrory says there are places in B.C., like the upper Columbia River, where the salmon are gone but the grizzlies have learned to survive. And there are many other regions in Canada, like the barrens of Nunavut and the Alberta Rockies, where grizzlies subsist on other food sources.

Charlotte Gruneau, who works as a guide for Tiderip Tours, says she has seen adaptive behaviour in local bears. “There’s one little grizzly I admire. I first saw him a few years ago. The Glendale river was devoid of salmon, so he went on walkabout. He went island hopping and found a dead seal, so he was happy. We saw him again the following summer with another dead seal, so now he was on a roll. The last time I saw him he was walking the shore, looking out to sea, looking hopeful.”