Vancouver: Canadian environmentalists are calling for strict conservation measures as the controversial grizzly bear hunt begins over the Easter weekend in Canada`s westernmost province.
A report by scientists at two environmental organizations said the kill rate in past seasons exceeded provincial limits and will endanger the animals considered a keystone species in the nation`s ecosystems.
"The number of grizzlies being killed in British Columbia is excessive," Faisal Moola of the David Suzuki Foundation said in a statement.
"The government`s own data show that humans are killing more grizzly bears than allowed, and the greatest cause of death is trophy hunting."
Figures of the existing bear population remain inexact, but the environmental report noted that even at best, it has now halved from an estimated 35,000 bears a century ago.
Part of the difficulty is that bears are solitary beasts, whose range extends over thousands of square kilometers.
Provincial figures have varied hugely, from an estimated 6,600 bears in the mid-1980s to about 16,000 cited in 2008.
The report, released Thursday, called on British Columbia to stop trophy hunting of bears in parks and other protected zones, and to protect bears from all harmful human activities by setting up zones of inter-connected habitats for the furry beasts.
"In some cases, the number of grizzlies -- which no longer exist or are at risk of extinction in parts of the world -- killed by humans was more than double the number deemed allowable by the government," the Natural Resources Defense Council said.
The report, published by the Suzuki Foundation of Vancouver and the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, cited opinion polls that suggest a majority of provincial residents support a ban on hunting.
It included a letter from eight biologists warning that without strong measures, "The viability of grizzly bear populations and their habitat continues to erode."
About 25 percent of the giant bears left in North America live in mountainous British Columbia, according to the report.
"Grizzlies have already been eliminated or are currently threatened in about 18 percent of the province," it said.
The species is considered threatened or endangered in the United States, and hunting is banned in the Canadian Prairie Provinces.
Scott Ellis, a spokesman for professional hunting guides, said about 339 grizzlies were killed in British Columbia each year.
He disputed the findings that trophy hunting threatens grizzly survival.
"There are some good points raised, and some alarm bells that are rung unnecessarily," said Ellis of the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia, whose members are required by law to be hired by out-of-province hunters.
"The grizzly bear hunt is probably the most intensively managed hunt on the planet," he said.
He said among those animals killed on an annual basis were 100 felled by out-of-province trophy hunters working with professional guides, 175 killed by hunters who live in the province, and 60 that are destroyed by conservation officers or police. Others were killed in vehicle or train collisions.
He argued that hunting guides -- who have relied on healthy wildlife populations since the guide industry started here in 1870 -- would demand stronger conservation measures if they thought the bears were threatened.
The provincial government said Friday it had received the report and was analyzing it. But Environment Minister Barry Penner told a local newspaper the hunt kills two percent of the grizzly population annually, below the nine percent kill rate it could withstand.
The report also blamed the bear decline on hunting, road-building and "unsustainable levels" of forestry, mining and oil and gas development, as well as on converting what had once been prime grizzly bear habitat into agricultural production, towns and cities.
Declining salmon populations, food for coastal bears, were also to blame.
Grizzly bears are the second-largest carnivores on the North American continent, after polar bears. Bigger males can range in size from 135 kilograms (300 pounds) in inland locations, to 550 kilograms (1,200 pounds) on the Pacific coast.