Khutzeymateen

The Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Conservancy & Sanctuary

After years of work, the conservancy opened in the mid-nineties.  Created by the foresight of local first nations leaders, biologist Wayne McCrory and other conservationists including Charlie Russell – this area now represents Canada’s only wild grizzly bear sanctuary.  Managed in partnership by BC Parks and the Gitsi’is First Nation this is the one place where the bears ‘come first’.  The whole 450km2 conservancy is protected from hunting and logging and access is strictly controlled to ensure the minimum disturbance to the habitat and its wildlife.

This truly is the gem at the crown of the Great Bear Rainforest and I’ve been fortunate to visit the area for the last three years. Access to bear viewing is limited and only permitted by boat, there are no viewing platforms or land access, but the viewing is exceptional in the ever changing channels and tributaries of the estuary system.

I was awestruck by the magnificence of the surrounding area – with mountains over 2,000 metres high that even at the end of May still had massive ice slides touching sea level, (note how small the kayaker appears on the ‘Ice Slides’ image below).  Numerous waterfalls of differing sizes cascade down off the mountainside to the waters edge on both sides of the inlet and river.  Eagles sore overhead, seals bathe in the cool waters, springtime blooms gleam with colour on the river banks and songbirds such as hermit and varied thrush sing their early morning chorus.  Bears abound and could feed easily on the grasses, sedge and clams, safe in the knowledge no hunter was about to come around the corner in the river.

On the creek and river estuaries new bears were arriving daily from their winter dens and new sub-adults were getting used to life alone having recently parted ways from their mothers.  In turn, their mothers were now on the look out for a prospective mate – the winner of the battles between males for the right to be the ‘King of the Khutzeymateen’ for that year.

Meanwhile other mothers, still with cubs, were on constant alert to the threat of large adult males to their cubs.  One mother I observed got the scent of a male and took her young charges on alert, clearly teaching them the smell of danger before chasing them up a tree to safety.  From the time she first got a whiff of the large male, to the time he appeared in view at the rivers edge was a good five minutes! (see image ‘On Alert’).

Access to the area is several hours by boat or roughly 45 minutes by float plane from Prince Rupert, there are no roads here.  Other restrictions to access are the tides, the sanctuary is only accessible when the tides are right.  All independent visitors to the Khutzeymateen Conservancy and Sanctuary must report to the ranger station either by radio or in person.  The ranger station is based towards the end of the 22 or so kilometer Khutzeymateen Inlet, adjacent to the white buoys that mark the conservancy/sanctuary boundary.  The ranger station also houses a small interpretive centre, which is well worth a visit if you get the chance.

Much more information on the Khutzeymateen can be found on the BC parks website at: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/khutzeymateen/

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