A place of peace for the grizzlies Bears: In a wildlife-rich valley of British Columbia, ursine welfare takes priority over human concerns.


KHUTZEYMATEEN GRIZZLY BEAR SANCTUARY, British Columbia -- Clouds drift up against steep mountainsides. Eagles ride the updrafts overhead. Otters and seals backstroke alongside a rare sailboat gliding by. The only other signs of humanity are the occasional fluorescent orange buoys marking the prawn traps of commercial fishermen.

And then the largest grizzly bear in the neighborhood emerges from the tangle of spruce, hemlock and huckleberry and onto a beach alongside the river.

Biologists who study this area have named him Buffalo, and from the safety of a quarter-mile offshore, he does look as big as a bison. He is an 800-pound slab of muscle and mud-colored fur that moves with surprising agility among rocks and fallen timber.

Buffalo is exerting himself. He is in amorous pursuit of a younger, quicker, not entirely cooperative female, and his huffing and snorting can be heard mid-river.

Researchers believe that Buffalo, who is 20 years old or so, stands at the apex of a complex wildlife hierarchy in this befogged, rain-saturated valley. It may be the best place on the continent to scrutinize the grizzly bear, which once numbered in the thousands and ranged from the Pacific Coast to the Great Lakes and from the Arctic Circle to northern Mexico.

Floating closer to shore, visitors can see clearly the cross-hatching of scars on Buffalo's back, testimony to battles won over other grizzlies in his climb to dominance. Dan Wakefield, the guide on the boat, notes that even the valley's two wolf packs steer clear of this bear.

The main reason, however, that Buffalo has reached an advanced age for a grizzly is that he has been spared most contact with people -- early in his life by the valley's relative isolation and more recently by the decision of the provincial government of British Columbia to designate this area as Canada's first grizzly bear preserve.

"The Khut" -- the only place in Canada where the needs of the bears always come before the needs of people -- has become a showcase for Canadian conservationists, a place of pilgrimage for researchers and nature enthusiasts, and a symbol in Canada's struggle to reconcile the heritage of its vast wild lands with the expanding demands of its timber, mining and tourism industries.

Wildlife experts frame the question simply for visitors: In an era when the grizzly clings to its existence in North America, can the Khutzeymateen be the model for preserves stretching from the Yukon to the American Rockies? Or is it the last redoubt for the grizzly outside of Alaska?

"We in Canada have this myth of overabundance of wildlife," says Wayne McCrory, a bear researcher who was instrumental in persuading the government to establish the Khutzeymateen preserve. "I've been studying these animals for 20 years, and I can tell you the trend is not good."

Between 400 and 600 Canadian grizzlies are legally shot by hunters each year; the World Wildlife Fund estimates a similar number are killed by poachers. An even greater threat, experts say, is posed by development, logging and mining pushing ever deeper into the Canadian wilderness.

Wildlife protective laws here are weak compared with those of the United States, and scientific research is so sketchy there even is disagreement on the number of grizzlies in Canada. The most commonly quoted figure is 22,000.

What sets the Khutzeymateen apart from other parks is the way the government has minimized human intrusion. "In the Khutzeymateen, we set up a model, we set a priority that here was an area that was first for the bears, with some limited people use," McCrory says.

The 111,000-acre sanctuary surrounds a twisting fiord where the Khutzeymateen River flows into the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles from the nearest human habitation -- an Indian village of 1,000 people called Port Simpson.

The area can be reached only by boat or float plane; the provincial government, which administers the preserve in partnership with the local Indians, closely regulates the 200 or so outsiders permitted entry each year.

About half the visitors arrive under the guidance of Wakefield, a sailor of 54 who brings people into grizzly country on a home-built 40-foot ketch, Sunchaser. He is one of two licensed guides into the park.

A journey into the Khutzeymateen with Wakefield brings you into a near-pristine expanse of woodland, water and wildlife, accompanied by a running commentary. Wakefield delivers it in a sort of New Age Canuck: "The bears just want to be left alone to do their own thing, eh?"

He talks about grizzlies sensing the "good vibes" of eco-tourists and the "killer vibes" of hunters. He gently lectures on the "therapeutic value" of looking at trees.

Researchers acknowledge that the legendary ferocity of the grizzly has contributed to Canadians' ambivalence toward its preservation.

This is an animal that can cover 100 meters in two-thirds the time of an Olympic sprinter and can kill with one swipe of a paw. There are one or two fatal grizzly bear attacks most summers in Canada. But wildlife biologists say that most attacks can be avoided and maintain that the grizzly's killer instinct has been exaggerated.

Like most researchers, Wakefield avoids carrying firearms around bears, favoring as protection a cayenne pepper spray that has proved an effective repellent. But he maintains that in 10 years as a guide, he never has faced a charging grizzly.

The more frequent experience is the camera-friendly posing of the Khutzeymateen bear Wakefield calls Lucy, a grizzly so comfortable with photographers that she has become a staple of postcards, coffee table books and hundreds of private picture albums. Wakefield recognizes Lucy in part from a distinctive circular scar on her backside, acquired, he speculates, from a fall down a rocky slope.

Lucy was the object of Buffalo's attentions this spring, which may yield her first cubs next year. But that is far from certain. Grizzlies are among the slowest mammals to mature and reproduce. Once females begin to breed, they do so only once every two or three years.

The Khutzeymateen bears have had some sort of protected status for more than a decade -- the area was placed off-limits to hunting and logging even before it was officially designated a preserve. Yet its grizzly population has increased in number by only five to 10 bears over that period.

The entrance to the Khutzeymateen is marked by a wedge in the spruce forest, evidence of the logging that was planned before the government imposed a moratorium. As the Sunchaser sails upriver, Wakefield points to recent gashes in the shoreline where pirate loggers have illegally cut trees and floated them out on barges under cover of night.

His current campaign aims to outlaw fishing in the Khutzeymateen River (the protected zone encompasses only land areas). When a passing trawler startled some bears onshore by loudly dropping a hatch cover, Wakefield remarked, "The Khutzeymateen is saved, but not completely saved, eh?

"Until they're out of here, there still won't be any peace for the bears."

Pub Date: 8/15/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad