The 21-million-acre Great Bear Rainforest is part of the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. ©From the film “Great Bear.”

The Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia, Canada, has often been described as a “bastion of biodiversity.” Not only is it home to grizzly bears, black bears and spirit bears, it has a human history that goes back 10,000 years.

For millennia, the coastal First Nations peoples have maintained stewardship over the Great Bear Rain Forest. Although in the past the British Crown suppressed their traditions and restricted their guardianship over their territories, the First Nations are once again taking a leadership role in managing the forest’s resources. Today, in a partnership with the University of Victoria, the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nations are studying bear populations in the region. Together, they are monitoring what they call “grizzly bear-salmon-human systems.” In their view, you can’t understand grizzly bears without considering salmon or the bears’ relationship to people.

In one recent joint study, grizzly bear hair samples were collected from more than 70 remote locations and sent to the University of Victoria to undergo DNA analysis in order to determine the percentages of the bears’ food that comes from salmon, plant matter and other sources. With changing ocean conditions and habitat disruption to the south, the Great Bear Rain Forest has had less and less salmon over time. By pairing this scientific data with local, traditional ecological knowledge surveys, it has been determined that grizzly bears are moving to islands where they haven’t been detected before. Grizzlies are listed as a species of conservation concern in British Columbia, so where it can be shown that these bears exist, special habitat will need to be allocated for them. That means that more areas of the Great Bear Rain Forest can be protected.

A spirit (or Kermode) bear is a subspecies of the North American black bear. ©From the film “Great Bear.”

University of Victoria Professor Chris Darimont, also the science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, hopes that this partnership between the university and the First Nations will provide a new model for how societies and governments manage and interact with resources. Darimont quotes a recently published Stanford University study that showed that ecotourism provided more economic stability to the area than did bear hunting. While both trophy and the resident hunt proved to provide $1.1 million to the local economy, bear-viewing tourism was worth $15.2 million. Bear viewing also employs a lot more people on the coast than bear hunting does: while hunting created about four or five jobs, the bear-viewing industry provided more than a hundred.

Watch the 18-minute film titled Great Bear by clicking here. It was produced in participation with the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nations. As Darimont says in the film, in order to extract the most economic value from the bears in the Great Bear Rain Forest, “don’t shoot them once with a gun, but again and again with a camera.”

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,