AFTER A SALMON RUN virtually gave out, starving grizzly and black bears invaded a remote British Columbia village in search of food. The native people were left with an awful choice - uneasily tolerating the invasion or killing the bears to eliminate the risk. What's happened at Rivers Inlet is an ecological disaster, scientists say, with no solution in sight.
RIVERS INLET, B.C. - The bones of grizzly bears litter the town dump in scattered piles. A skull here, a jawbone there. A rib cage picked clean by scavengers. Teeth as long as a grown man's fingers.
The first of the grizzlies were shot in September after they broke into trailers on the west end of the village. In October, six more were killed, and by mid-January, the tally had reached 14.
Nobody in this tiny native village of 80 souls wanted it to come to this. Something had gone terribly wrong. Natives and grizzly bears had coexisted peacefully for centuries in this lush, wild country on the central coast, 250 miles northwest of Vancouver.
Every fall, as far back as human memory reaches, the bears would pass through the village on the way to the Wanuk River to eat salmon. Villagers had no record or recollection of a bear ever harming a person. "There was respect," said tribe member Jeanette ChartrandSmith. "The bears left us alone and we left them alone."
But this year, virtually no salmon returned to the Wanuk or any other river in the region. The inlet's sockeye run, once the third-largest in the province and the main food source for natives and bears, had collapsed.
Scientists call it an ecological disaster, with the usual culprits suspected: overfishing, a warming ocean, and the destruction of salmon habitat. But the investigation is just beginning. Canadian fisheries officials began meetings last week in Vancouver to plot a study and recovery plan, if recovery is even possible. Meanwhile, villagers fear an important aspect of their ancient way of life may be coming to an end.
Even before the tribe could absorb the magnitude of the collapse, the bears began showing up. Instead of passing through as usual, the animals raided porches and back yards and trailers, clawed windows and doors and refused to be scared away. They showed an uncharacteristic boldness. At one point, nine grizzlies wandered the village, going from house to house.
After the first several bears were killed and skinned, the natives confirmed what was suspected. The animals were starving. Said villager Donovan LeBlond: None of the grizzlies "had enough fat to fill a coffee cup."
Long history of men and salmon
Rivers Inlet has been home to the Oweekeno (pronounced Oh-wuh-kee -no) First Nation for thousands of years. The tribe, which at its height numbered as many as 2,000, lived off the salmon that once returned to the inlet by the millions.
The heart of the region is a 38-mile-long lake, after which the tribe is named, located four miles east of the inlet. At least 17 rivers feed into the lake, many of them unnamed. The lake and inlet are connected by the Wanuk River, on whose north bank sits the last remaining Oweekeno village.
Wars and smallpox decimated the Oweekeno, who belong in the same linguistic group as the better-known Bella Bella nation to the north. What Oweekeno culture survived the 1800s was destroyed by a spectacular fire in 1935. All the traditional long houses burned along with the tribe's sacred objects and heirlooms.
Today, the village of Oweekeno, not found on most maps, is made up of 22 homes in varying degrees of disrepair, all connected by a single dirt road that runs roughshod along the Wanuk. Phone lines reached the village only five months ago. Until then, two radio phones served the entire village.
The only way in and out is by bush plane or boat. The nearest town of any size - Port Hardy, population 5,000 - is a 45-minute plane ride or three-hour boat ride across the Queen Charlotte Strait.
Logging and tribal administration provide what few jobs exist, which is why only 80 people continue to live here. Many receive government support. But most of the 220 registered Oweekeno have moved away for school or livelihood or adventure in the big city, Vancouver.
One thing that hasn't changed for the tribe members who remain is their dependence on salmon. Villagers consume up to 3,000 salmon a year, much of it smoked or canned for the winter. This year, the Oweekeno have no winter salmon supply. Instead they've relied more on store-bought foods, which are flown in from Port Hardy at 60 cents a pound or shipped by barge for 18 cents a pound. Transport can easily double the cost of groceries.
Like everywhere else in North America, salmon numbers have dramatically declined along the British Columbia coast. The days of 3.4 million salmon returning to Rivers Inlet have long gone. The inlet hasn't had a commercial fishery since 1994, and the village has only one commercial fisherman left.
But even in the past five years, as many as 35,000 to 60,000 sockeye have returned - enough to feed the people and bears of Oweekeno Lake.
This year, only 3,500 sockeye returned to the inlet. Tribal fishery manager Tom Gottselig said the number is "at extinction level." Brian Pearce, a member of the federal task force in Vancouver last week, described the situation as "pretty dire."
But it wasn't until a Vancouver environmental group, the David Suzuki Foundation, publicly decried the shooting of grizzly bears that federal officials began taking notice. The tribe had been trying to get the attention of the government since summer - with no response.
"The grizzly bear in North America is like the gorilla in Africa," said Jim Fulton, director of the Suzuki Foundation and a former four-term member of Parliament. "They're magnificent animals that evoke emotion in people, and they are, in many ways, under a sentence of death."
Starving bears invade town
Nobody wanted to shoot the bears. Grizzlies were prominent in the tribe's culture: in songs and stories, carvings and totems and names. According to oral histories, one of the most exalted traditional dances was called the Grizzly Bear Dance, although no one remembers now how to do it.
Before this year, wildlife biologists estimated between 150 and 220 grizzlies lived in the Oweekeno Lake region. While this is considered a healthy number, grizzlies as a whole are classified a vulnerable species in British Columbia.
Once every few years, the tribe would be forced to kill a nuisance bear, but the bears and humans of the region generally regarded one another with mutual respect. Villagers got used to seeing the animals lumber through town in the fall on the way to the Wanuk.
The bears would fatten up on sockeye - each consuming an average of 700 salmon - before returning to the mountains to hibernate in December.
Donovan LeBlond remembers the day in September when he realized something had changed.
"I was watching TV with my kids when I heard nails scratching on the window," LeBlond says. "I thought it was one of the dogs. I looked outside and saw a bear, a small one, standing on my porch. I panicked because I thought the mother might come up and try to get in."
Outside, a sow and her two cubs rooted around the yard. LeBlond shouted and slammed his front door to scare the bears away, but the animals didn't budge. He loaded a rifle and watched through the window.
He noticed right away something was wrong. A pack of dogs snapped and growled at the cubs, and the sow did nothing. A mother grizzly normally would not tolerate such affronts to her young.
The villagers, on the other hand, tolerated the bears for weeks. Finally, after the bears had broken into several trailers, the decision was made, reluctantly, to shoot them.
The only one in the village with experience in such matters was Frank Hanuse, a 60-year-old wisecracking, leathery-faced elder, nicknamed "Fugg," who unhappily agreed to do the job.
"They're coming to the village because they're hungry," said Hanuse, gloomily. "They're innocent. They haven't done anything wrong except be hungry. It's hard to put an animal down just for that."
Mature grizzlies can weigh anywhere from 500 to 1,500 pounds, but the bears that invaded the village were scrawny, weighing no more than 300 or 400 pounds - small for grizzlies but even the cubs, at 150 to 200 pounds, were big enough to be dangerous.
Hanuse used a 12-gauge shotgun with slug-loaded shells. He had to get within 15 feet of the animals before shooting them. In most instances, he was able to drop the animal with one shot.
Bears' odd behavior sparks fear
By the end of September, four bears had been killed, and the tribe hoped the episode was over. But October proved even worse. At one point in the middle of the month, nine grizzlies wandered the village looking for food.
Villagers, realizing that something extraordinary was taking place, began documenting the invasion with video cameras. School children drew pictures of the bears while watching them outside classroom windows.
The villagers tried in vain to scare or lure them away. They loosed their dogs on them, but the grizzlies barely acknowledged their undersized attackers. The bears didn't respond or retreat. They were passive, Hanuse speculates, because they were too weak.
Residents killed harbor seals and used them as bait to lure the bears out of town. Some emptied the contents of their freezers into the woods. Many decided simply to wait and hope the grizzlies would leave.
The bears remained, sleeping on porches and under houses, and rooting through gardens. After a while, the dogs got used to their presence and stopped barking at them. One resident recalls coming home to find two bears sleeping on one side of her porch and her dogs sleeping on the other.
The villagers had never seen such behavior in bears. It frightened them. It got so that people were afraid to walk the village. "We had to drive everywhere or run from house to house," Hanuse said.
The tribe appealed to the province for help, hoping that game wardens could relocate the animals. The province responded on Oct. 21 by sending out several conservation officers who shot six of the bears and relocated three.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Environment said the six bears were killed because "they didn't have the fat reserves, and it wasn't likely they were going to survive."
The Suzuki Foundation condemned the shootings, and blamed the federal government for allowing the salmon run to collapse. Fulton, the foundation director, said the government did not do enough to restrict logging and fishing in the area. The tribe decided on its own to forgo sustenance fishing this year, yet federal fisheries officials allowed a 75-day sport fishery in the inlet during the summer that took an estimated 2,000 salmon.
Fulton also condemned the provincial government for being ruthless in its dealings with the bears. He said all the animals should have been relocated and given the chance to survive. The tribe, Fulton said, did what it had to do in shooting the bears, and in some ways was as victimized as the starving animals.
`It was getting dangerous'
The village, meanwhile, decided it could do the shooting on its own. There was no formal decision-making process; the village was small enough that if two or three households decided an animal was becoming too aggressive, a decision was made on the spot, and a call would be put out for "Fugg."
The adults of the village were saddened by the situation. "I get choked up when I think about it," said ChartrandSmith. But most traumatized were the children. Drawings of bears being shot or trapped began appearing in artwork. Some children wept over the killings.
"The kids were starting to think of them as pets, or as Yogi Bear, and they were trying to pet them," Hanuse said. "It was getting dangerous. All it would have taken was one swipe from a bear and we'd have a tragedy."
The last grizzly was shot in mid-November. After that, it was quiet for a while, presumably because the grizzlies of the region had gone into hibernation. Villagers, once again, hoped the ordeal was over, but then the black bears began showing up.
Grizzlies and black bears don't mix. The former is known to eat the latter. So it was only when the grizzlies faded from the scene that black bears, which also were starving, began wandering into town in search of food.
The last two bears killed in the village, in December and January, were black bears that normally would have been in hibernation. But like the grizzlies before them, they didn't have enough fat to survive the winter.
By mid-January, 14 grizzlies and two black bears had been killed in the village, and one more has recently been seen flitting from yard to yard. Villagers fear it may become victim No. 17.
Hanuse, who has lived in the region for more than 40 years, speculates that many other bears starved to death in the woods, and that more would die in late winter. Most vulnerable would be infant cubs, which are born in January or February while the mother is still hibernating.
Bears have one of the slowest reproduction rates of any land mammal in North America. Female grizzlies, for example, become sexually mature after their fifth year, and give birth to two or three cubs every three or four years. Of the 14 grizzlies killed, three were mothers and six were cubs under 2 years old.
"You won't find a bear biologist in the world who'd disagree that killing three sows and six cubs would have a destabilizing effect on the overall bear population in the area," said Fulton of the Suzuki Foundation. "What's going on there is a biological tragedy."
Herbicide use adds to problem
Among the causes of the salmon collapse are the familiar suspects: overfishing, overlogging, warming ocean temperatures, and toxins - from herbicides and pesticides - in rivers and streams.
The bears of the region, besides being deprived of their main protein source, may also have been deprived of their favorite plants. According to tree-planters and villagers, local logging companies used herbicides that destroyed vast stretches of salmonberries, elderberries and blackberries on which bears depend for sustenance before the salmon return.
With no plants or salmon to eat, the bears were desperate, and their desperation led to their demise, which, according to biologists, will affect the entire ecosystem. Bears bring salmon carcasses into the woods, which feed nutrients into the forest floor, and also feed insects and scavengers. The usual scavengers of the area this year have been noticeably absent.
Bald eagles, also a key figure in the tribe's culture, normally flock to Rivers Inlet by the hundreds when the salmon return. Hanuse said he once counted 80 eagles on a single tree by the river.
"It looked like a Christmas tree," he said. "The white heads were like ornaments."
But this year, few eagles returned, and those that showed up had nothing to eat but garbage. "It's a sad day," Hanuse said, "when the only eagles you see are at the dump."
The future seems full of foreboding for the Oweekeno. Great changes are upon them and many fear that little can be done. Five months ago, telephone lines reached the village in time to welcome the 21st century. But so far, the creeping of the outside world into this little patch of forest and sea has brought mixed blessings.
From the east, logging operations close in on the forests of the Coastal Mountain Range. From the west, resorts and boaters pour pollutants into the ocean. At Rivers Inlet, the skies are quiet, the great Wanuk River is empty, and the town dump is littered with the bones of grizzlies and black bears that were once the tribe's distant friends.
In response to questions about the future, Hanuse in slow, deliberate words evokes the past. "We've been here 10,000 years," he said simply and with no elaboration, as if sheer longevity by itself were a shield against things to come.
Alex Tizon's phone message number is 206-464-2216. His e-mail address is email@example.com.