If you listen to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) and their ilk, you might think that dangerous black bears are prowling northern and central Ontario, breaking into houses, killing people, and damaging property; thus, more have to be killed. Yes, hungry bears are in towns, attracted by landfills, food outlets, and readily available food improperly stored by residents. Bears in towns have been a fact of northern life both before and after the spring bear hunt. It is where bears live.
The spring hunt was cancelled in 1999 out of concern for cubs left to die in the bush, according to the government at that time, although hunt proponents charge it was a matter of political expediency. The two motives are not mutually exclusive and I think both apply.
Ignoring his own scientific advisors, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) Bill Mauro is currently sitting on data from a two-year "test" spring hunt in eight Wildlife Management Units (WMUs). (It's restricted to Ontario residents, although the majority of people who hunt our bears come from the US, plus a small number from Europe.)
Many hunters oppose the spring hunt. It targets bears emerging from hibernation who are very hungry, having lost some 15 to 30 percent of their body weight over winter, and draws them to food-baits in front of blinds, to be shot.
The outfitters, who are paid to lead hunters to the blinds, as well as OFAH, were livid at the cancellation of the spring hunt, claiming it led to an explosive increase in bears and bear encounters. However, when the spring hunt was cancelled in 1999, the fall hunt was expanded with the net result that, overall, about the same number of bears was killed as before.
The MNRF's own research verified that, although hunters were not supposed to kill females with young during the spring hunt, they mistakenly did so - too often leaving cubs to starve or fall prey to the elements or predators. It was estimated that about 270 cubs were orphaned by the spring hunt, and the then-Minister of Natural Resources ("Forestry" was added later) stated:
"The government made the decision to move to end the spring bear hunt because it will not tolerate cubs being orphaned by hunters mistakenly shooting mother bears in spring ... We have reviewed current practices and considered modifications; but none provide assurance that young bears and their mothers would be protected as they emerge from their dens in the spring. Stopping the hunt is the only protection for the animals."
Not all that much protection, since cubs do remain with mothers well into the fall hunting season.
In 2003, Ontario commissioned a "Nuisance Bear Review Committee" to examine the concerns that the cancellation of the spring bear hunt resulted in more conflicts between bears and people. But, looking at hard data, the committee found no such correlation, and advocated for focusing on education and awareness. The next year, Bear Wise was implemented as a program designed to use the ministry's own expertise to reduce conflicts between bears and humans.
There are two overriding sources of these conflicts. One is that some seasons' weather patterns delay or limit the occurrence of natural food sources, such as berries, and the bears, hungry, disperse further. The other is that people attract bears, if unintentionally, by providing food in open landfill sites, unsecured garbage, barbecue leftovers, and bird feeders. These "attractants" lure hungry bears to where they are unwanted. The Bear Wise program provided information on how to address these problems so as not to attract bears into close proximity with people.
Politicians love to garner votes by cutting taxes, thus cutting social spending, and they love to suggest simple solutions to complex issues while scapegoating others for their own policy failures. And so, the same Ontario conservative government that banned the spring hunt also "downloaded" (or "transferred") the costs of numerous provincial programs onto regional municipalities. Big ticket items, such as the Ontario Disability Support Program, land ambulance services, child care, and transit funding for big cities were now to be paid out of municipal coffers, at a three billion dollar savings to the provincial government.
The whole system of reporting "nuisance" bears changed in 2004, by directing calls from regional to a centralized call center in Sault Ste. Marie, often hundreds of miles from the callers' locations. MNRF's policy of relocating "nuisance" or "in-town" bears was phased out in 2012 to 2013, as part of so-called "modernization" changes within the agency. Meanwhile, OFAH and the outfitters were encouraging everyone to believe that the number of bears was increasing, along with the number of encounters that allegedly put people or property at risk. And, all of this resulted in the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) increasingly fielding calls that would have previously gone to MNRF, and, most productively, to the expertise that resided within the properly funded Bear Wise program.
In November 2013, then-MNRF Minister David Orazietti announced the two-year "test" spring bear hunt for the next two spring seasons. Either he did not consult with his own experts or he ignored them: the very people whose research had already determined that the spring hunt does not reduce complaints about bears.
But, remember; facts don't matter. It's all about politics.
We are now trying to get the results of the two years of killing bears in spring. All indications are that it failed to reduce bear "complaints"- and thus failed. And, no wonder. The spring hunt killed bears out in the woods, not in the towns and cities where most complaints about bears originate.
But, 2014 was a terrible year for the production of natural food because of a cold, wet spring, forcing bears to search harder and further for food ... thus increasing the number of bear sightings and complaints.
It's a perfect setup for the Ontario government. If they think northerners can be duped into believing that a spring hunt will stop bears from accessing food in town, they can have a "quick fix."
But, northerners cannot all be so easily fooled. In spite of the absence of MNRF in the debate and the rhetoric of OFAH and outfitters, the conflicts will continue to occur unless communities commit to the strategies advocated by Bear Wise.
Local and provincial politicians want to lure hunters, mostly from the US. They argue that the spring hunt will bring additional cash into communities in return for the pleasure of bear-killing. They are banking on the belief that killing lots of bears will reduce human/bear conflicts and make money at the same time.
But, what the politicians refuse to acknowledge is that northern municipal governments have been handed a big expense because they are now responsible for resolving conflicts with bears, mostly through their policing bodies and the OPP. And, the liberal government has simply chosen to sacrifice hundreds of orphaned baby bear cubs for money and expediency.
From the perspective of scheming politicians, the really cool thing is that, when there is a problem - when risks to people continue in response to an improperly funded Bear Wise program - the police get the blame.
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,