“Get the f— out of here. Get out of here.”
You can hear the anger in Mike Willie’s voice as he records a video of a helicopter slowly flying up a river towards him.
He’s the owner of Sea Wolf Adventures in Port McNeill. It’s a wildlife viewing company that’s worried about the effect helicopters have on grizzly bears as they fly low along rivers on the mainland near northern Vancouver Island.
“So all of a sudden this big, roaring helicopter comes in, hovers really low and in the video you’ll see the bear totally get scared hiding behind rocks,” Willie told CHEK News.
He shared videos with CHEK News that he recorded on the Kakweiken River in Thompson Sound, east of Port McNeill.
In the video you can see a bear appearing to act nervously before eventually trying to hide behind a big rock.
Story continues below.
“The impact of that is they won’t come back right away either, like they get scared off,” he said.
“I mean, everything we do has impacts on wildlife, flying choppers has a huge impact,” added Angus Reid, owner of Sailcone’s Grizzly Bear Lodge, located on Minstrel Island.
What bothers them most is that the helicopters seen flying low are chartered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as part of annual fish counts on B.C. rivers.
“That bear may not return for, I mean depending on the bear, may not return for days or weeks to that area which is a prime feeding spot,” Reid said.
They say if the bears don’t properly feed when their most important food source, salmon, is available in the fall, then the impact on their lives long-term is likely being impacted.
They say the choppers are bad for bears and bear watching businesses too.
“If I didn’t have understanding (clients), my clients would be asking for a refund because now their bear viewing is shot for the day,” said Willie.
Story continues below.
Mike Willie is Indigenous and says First Nations do their own, more accurate fish counting by swimming in the rivers, but that DFO isn’t interested in taking their data or working with them.
“That’s another question that they need to answer, and because we’re on the ground why not be a part of the better solution?” he said.
The BC Government is currently working on a grizzly bear stewardship framework but it doesn’t deal with issues like this.
“And this is an example of a glaring omission from that report, is, how is the province going to work with federal agencies? And that’s just not included in any detailed way in this report,” said Nicholas Scapillati, executive director of the Grizzly Bear Foundation.
The province says it’s looking into the complaints.
“This interaction and question about grizzly bears, I’m checking with our staff to figure out what’s going on, if anything, to make sure we’re doing good conservation and we’re not disturbing wildlife when we do it,” said Nathan Cullen, Minister of Land, Water, and Resource Stewardship.
Public input on grizzly bear conservation in B.C. is open until Oct. 31.
Meanwhile DFO says it’s been using helicopters to count fish for decades and it’s often the only way to do it in remote areas.
The department also says it seeks to minimize impacts of any work it undertakes for fish counting.
“We move as quickly as we can through the river system. Sometimes bears do disperse off the river, but far more commonly we see bears either staying in place, or moving slightly away and returning once we pass,” said Matthew Clarke, stock assessment biologist for DFO in the Port Hardy area.
“One of the first principles of conducting good biology is to have the least impact on the animals you are working with. This is also true of incidentally encountered species,” added Clarke. “Our counts are conducted every couple of weeks from August until October. A survey of an eight to 10 kilometre system takes around 25 to 35 minutes. We move as quickly as we can through the river system.”
Clarke says DFO is actively working on piloting an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) method to count salmon.
“Although these methods require more study, we have seen some early successes,” he said.
On working with First Nations in the area, Clarke says:
“We have been working closely with local Nations to develop capacity for this work, and where capacity exists, we employ Nations directly to enumerate salmon. This isn’t an exception, this is the rule. In some locations it is just not feasible to conduct counts directly from the ground; either access is poor, the survey area too extensive, or there are safety concerns.”