13 min read

Myth and the Ontario Government: Condemn Bear Cubs to Cruel Deaths

<p>©<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/92325441@N05/14564616689/" target="_blank"> Bryan Wilkins</a></p>

I recently attended a seminar in Washington, D.C. on large predatory animals of North America (specifically cougars, wolves, and bears). Canadian issues were little addressed, and yet, there was a sad commonality between the experiences of conservationists and animal defenders in the U.S., and what we experience back home in Canada. Put simply, again and again, we heard that "facts don't matter" in wildlife management issues relating to the antipathy so many people have against so many species of wildlife. And, while science frequently shows that culling predatory animals does not achieve desired results, and that it is, at times, counterproductive, most folks support culling. Politicians, whether they know better or not, acquiesce.

I already knew this from my own work for Born Free USA and from my research into human cognition over the last few years. I have been trying to understand how wildlife management (and much other) policy is determined, even when it is counterproductive, and we had a perfect example of it unfolding in Ontario. But, that will be discussed in separate blogs.

Two years ago, the Ontario government instigated a two year "test" or "pilot" program wherein it reinstated, in a limited way, the spring bear hunt. It had been cancelled in 1999. Spring hunt proponents say that cancellation was entirely a political decision (as if all decisions made by governments were not political). Then-Minister of Natural Resources, John Snobelen, reportedly said at the time, "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 the spring."

Yes, it was illegal to kill a female with cubs. But, the females, ravenous from their winter hibernation and nursing cubs, would, upon approaching bait put out by outfitters for the hunters in their blinds, first hide the cubs some distance away, typically sending them up a tree well out of sight of the bait. By the ministry's own calculations, more than 270 cubs were orphaned in the last spring bear hunt before it was cancelled. The party then in power in Ontario was the Conservative Party, under right wing premier Mike Harris.

Ironically, perhaps, at the same time Canadians dumped the extreme right wing federal government of recently defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper-a government infamous for muzzling federal scientists and turning its back on fact-based policy overall-the current Ontario government, under Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, pulled a Harper-like stunt by moving from the two year "test" hunt (which involved only Ontario citizens and a few "wildlife management units") to a five year "pilot" spring hunt that will be open to non-residents and will involve virtually all of the province where bears occur. Wynne also ignores the science that shows that the spring bear hunt does not appreciably reduce human/bear conflicts.

First, Wynne's government had to post the decision on the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) webpage so it could claim, with a straight face, that it was not a "done deal." That's because the EBR invites public opinion, with a November 30 deadline. The EBR consultation with the public is mandated in such policy changes.

But, the EBR, a good idea in theory, is a sham. Apart from some possible minor tweaking, the EBR reflects a done deal. If organizations and individuals like ours don't spend time on it, the government will claim that there was "no interest." If we do respond, it will say that there "was wide consultation" with all "stakeholders." But, the Ministry, now called the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), will go ahead with what was planned.

Days after the EBR was posted, the acting Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) released the commission's annual report, obviously in the works for some time. It is extremely critical of the MNRF, with special reference to the two year "test," or "pilot," spring hunt. The report, titled "Small Things Matter," pointed out, just as we have, that the MNRF acted with incomplete information, ignoring its own biologists and research, and disregarded the advice of a committee convened specifically to address the issue of human/bear conflicts.

Knowing that EBR listings indicate done deals, we can try to protect as many bear cubs as possible by advocating, for example, the elimination of the use of baits. These baits, put down in advance of the hunt and in line-of sight of blinds where concealed hunters will wait, usually consist of discarded bakery goods and other foods of human origin. Thus, the bears get used to the idea of humans being a source of food: the opposite of what is required to reduce human/bear conflicts, most of which involve hungry bears searching for food discarded or poorly stored by humans.

And, we could oppose the use of hunting dogs, who disrupt mothers and cubs. But, that would force hunters to... well... hunt for bears. They prefer to ambush the bears because, while they claim that there are "too many" bears, there are not enough of them to make hunting an option where they literally have to hunt.

There is another problem. Baits, by bringing the bear close to the hunter to pause and feed, give the hunter a better chance to determine if the bear is a lactating female, thus illegal to shoot in the spring. We can argue that all female bears should be protected in the spring hunt (and females with cubs in the fall hunt), but experience has already demonstrated that, for a percentage of hunters, the urge to kill is so great that they just don't take the time to get a good look at the gender of the bear (which is not always easy to determine from a blind eye at any rate, but even harder to determine if the hunters actually have to hunt for bears). Away from bait, bears tend to be seen fleetingly, as they normally avoid humans.

There is also the problem that the Wynne government, also mimicking far right wing political tactics, downloaded costs associated with resolving human/bear conflicts to communities. We did have a very sensible "Bear Wise" program, but its budget was severely slashed. And, instead of having a contact number with trained MNRF staff to respond to concerns about bears, people now have to call the police, who are not trained in handling such calls (and get blamed for shooting bears who could have been safely removed or chased). The problem is that it is easier, and less costly, to shoot a bear than to take the effort to reduce risks in the first place (for example, by securing "attractants," fencing in landfills, providing bear-proof garbage containers, and enacting and enforcing bylaws accordingly).

And, the public is thereby duped. It is not really being protected. Bears most often become a "nuisance" or a threat when there is a small amount of natural food sources in combination with availability of attractants, such as garbage, or bird feeders, or barbecue and picnic residues, near where there are people.

As well, the spring hunt brings in money. Non-resident hunters must use local outfitters who benefit from the cash, thus eliminating the need to provide tax-funding for something that actually works so much better. And, they may not care about starving orphaned bear cubs when there is money to be made.

Keep wildlife in the wild,
Barry