Editor’s note: This post is part of a four-part series that Anne Casselman, a freelance writer and regular contributor to Scientific American, reported in early June during a rare opportunity to conduct field reporting on grizzly bears in Heiltsuk First Nation traditional territory in British Columbia. For more on her experience there, see this slide show and this story on ongoing research to gauge the nutritional impact of poor salmon runs on grizzly bears.
HEILTSUK TRADITIONAL TERRITORY, British Columbia—I land in the Great Bear Rainforest to hit the ground running to report a series of stories for Scientific American on local research on grizzly bears. The Jet Ranger Bell 206 helicopter that myself and photographer Dean Azim have hitched a ride on from Campbell River, an hour and a half flight from Vancouver Island over to Shearwater on the Central Coast, has barely landed on the lawn at the Shearwater dock before the Raincoast Conservation field crew have trundled our gear into their 17-foot boat, Wyatt, to begin the day’s work: finish the last round of sampling and dismantle grizzly bear hair-snagging stations for the year (Raincoast is singular as a BC environment non-profit in its remit to conduct conservation science research and publish it in peer-reviewed journals).
My nose starts quivering. This means I get to smell the infamously stinky and wretched “stink sauce” for myself. Ever since first hearing about this fetid research bait, a mix of fish guts and blood, from Raincoast scientist Chris Darimont in 2009 (read more at at “Grizzly Details: Salmon Collapse Could Be Bad News for Bears,” a story that Scientific American editor David Biello sicced me on), I’ve been itching to get up to this remote gem of BC’s wilderness and see the country—and smell the stink sauce—for myself. Soon, my wish it to be granted.
The researchers collect hair samples from the first two sites. The next two are strike-outs. “Any love?” Darimont asks Kyle Artelle, one of the Raincoast crew. “No, except for the tough kind,” Artelle replies as he gingerly coils the barbed wire that formed a perimeter around the stink sauce-drenched pile of brush which still packs a potent punch. (Check out this slideshow and article to learn more about Raincoast’s grizzly bear research.)
After that it’s back to the field station and a visit to the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD) to follow up on my application to report on science and environment stories within Heiltsuk Traditional Territory. Not only was my application given the green light but thanks to the help of individuals such as Desiree Lawson, the Guardian Watchmen coordinator at HIRMD, and Harvey Humchitt, Research Liaison at HIRMD and Heiltsuk hereditary chief, I was given a lucky glimpse into this nascent organization and the community of conservation-minded individuals that supports it.
“The picture becomes clearer when you look at the broader picture,” Mike Reid, who directs Heiltsuk Fisheries and Co-Management at HIRMD told me on my first day on the ground. They were prophetic words. I spent eight days in the Great Bear Rainforest and by the end of it I just began to see the big picture of this singular region and the indigenous people who have inhabited it for 10,000 years. “We’re part of the ecosystem and when we try to take ourselves apart from the ecosystem we fail,” Reid says.
I visited Bella Bella, the Heiltsuk town on Campbell Island, to find the Heiltsuk poised to assert their indigenous rights to manage their natural resources now more than ever. The Heiltsuk I spoke with all had such fierce pride of place and a palpable sense of ownership over their territory that struck me as the antithesis to the tragedy of the commons, wherein a shared resource runs dry from short-sighted greed.
During my week’s stay, I laid eyes on unparalleled scenic beauty and the final tally of wildlife wound up being obscene. I saw grizzlies, black bears, humpback whales and was blessed to spend a giddy hour with a superpod of Pacific White-sided dolphins on the Pacific coast. I visited with the leaders of HIRMD, the field classes underway at the Hakai Beach Institute, the tireless and dedicated Coastwatch boys, who conduct research and environmental monitoring for HIRMD (with whom I scrunched my index finger between a dock and their 26-foot punt boat, much to my chagrin and the town’s bemusement. After I had the injury checked out by a doctor, people I had never laid eyes on were asking me with a twinkle in their eye: “How’s the finger?”), and the Raincoasters were gracious enough to make me feel like one of their tough and geeky own. At one point, during my interview with hereditary chief Gary Housty, I admit that I choked up.
(What can I say? When you hear Housty speak about the hardships his people have endured and the ferocity with which they continue to fight for their land’s welfare, it’s moving stuff.)
Which takes me to my last day in Bella Bella. I’m hanging out at the Qqs Cafe, a cafe, shop and library all rolled into one, located just off the government dock (my swollen finger is finally starting to bruise purple at this point and inspires a nickname: Frankenfinger). Collin Reid, a member of the Coastwatch field crew, is there, too. He’s headed to the HIRMD office to go clean clams from this morning’s survey and is wearing his new Coast Guardian Watchman parka. (Coastwatch is a member of the Watchman Network, a coalition of First Nations environmental watchdog groups.) There is little doubt that the 28-year-old is one of the “Coastwatch boys” through and through. Talking to him, it’s clear that he’s found his calling. We talk about how blessed he feels to be able to study and explore his territory for a living and how he’s seen the number of fish decline even over his lifetime.
“What we’re raised to do is protect our lands,” he tells me. Over his head, the walls of the Qqs cafe are lined with signs from a recent protest against the proposed Enbridge pipeline : “Fish oil NOT crude oil”; “Our Territory Our Choice!” (For more details, see Bruce Barcott’s piece in the August issue of National Geographic: “Pipeline Through Paradise.”)
Together with all the coastal First Nations, the Heiltsuk oppose the pipeline, which would introduce crude oil supertankers into the Central Coast’s stormy waters in addition to tankers loaded with condensate, a toxic chemical diluent that is mixed with heavy oil to lower its viscosity and make it more transportable.
“We’ve worked really hard to keep it clean,” Harvey Humchitt, a hereditary chief and research liaison at HIRMD said, in reference to his people’s land. Now, with the threat of oil tanker traffic looming on the horizon, it looks like the Heiltsuk peers have their work cut out for them.
Images: Anne Casselman in the field, for this story; courtesy of Dean Azim