Bear With Me


On February 19, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) announced a major expansion of the pilot spring bear hunt (SBH). In short, there’s going to be a SBH much like it was before the cancellation of it in 1999 (the hunt will go on for 5 years as proposed and then be ‘evaluated’).

There are some new restrictions, particularly with respect to bait, namely:

  • Bait must not be placed within 500 metres of a residence unless written permission is obtained from the residence’s owner
  • Bait must not be placed within 500 metres of a public building
  • Bait must not be placed within 200 metres of a right of way for public vehicle traffic or a marked public recreational trail.

The SBH was cancelled in 1999 for almost entirely political reasons. The government of the day, the Harris Progressive Conservatives, were being threatened by the owner of a business called, I believe, Husky Molding, to finance opposition members in swing ridings unless the spring bear hunt was cancelled. Polling at the time suggested the conservatives would lose those ridings; polls also said most residents of Ontario, including resident hunters, weren’t in support of the SBH, or were indifferent to cancellation. However, once it was cancelled, resident hunters had a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone’. Over time, the calls for reinstatement of the SBH grew louder and louder. Resident hunters wanted it, loss of the hunt resulted in a significant loss of revenue for MNRF (formerly, just MNR) and it had a large and negative impact on the northern Ontario tourism industry, so they wanted it. For a while, none of that seemed to matter much, but in recent years several things happened that eventually made the politicians change their minds, and decide it was in their interest to bring back the SBH.

What changed the politicians’ minds were: 1) the continued deterioration of Ontario’s economic situation; 2) a nuisance bear problem in many northern Ontario communities that just won’t go away; 3) the decline of both moose and deer populations; and, 4) growing dissatisfaction with the party in power (in this case, the Liberals).

Let’s address these:

  1. Bringing back the SBH will pump, potentially, millions of dollars (and mostly US dollars) into MNRF, the tourism industry and the Ontario economy in general. That’s a good thing.
  2. I don’t think it will do much to address the nuisance bear problems, since there have always been nuisance bears (the nuisance bear problem might be reduced if bear populations get really whacked, but that might lead to an even bigger problem; see below). When there’s a food shortage (i.e., a failure of the blueberry crop), bears migrate to wherever the food is, like towns and cities, as lots of people have gardens and there’s almost always garbage somewhere. Removal of these bears by shooting and/or trapping/relocating bears in built-up areas will remain problematic. On the other hand, the government can claim they’re ‘doing the best/all we can’, positive from their perspective.
  3. Killing more bears (and wolves, which is also being ‘addressed’, see my Jan. 1 post ‘Missing the Mark’) might increase moose and deer calf and fawn survival to a small degree, but wildlife biologists believe the recent declines in moose and deer have lots of issues, including over-harvest, disease and parasites, weather (including climate change) and deteriorating habitat quality. Revenue to the MNRF from the sale of bear licenses, however, will help make up for at least some losses from the declining sale of moose and deer licenses (the MNRF budget is heavily dependent on license sales).
  4. How much bringing back the spring bear hunt helps the electoral prospects of the Liberals is debatable. It might make hunters happy, but may not translate into votes.

Personally, I think the return of the SBH is okay, maybe even a good thing, but I’m not entirely satisfied with the ‘new’ hunt for the following reasons:

  1. When the spring bear hunt was cancelled, the fall bear hunt was increased in length. It used to open (before the SBH was cancelled) September 10 over most of northern Ontario; after the SBH cancellation, the fall hunt opening was moved to August 15. With both a spring and fall hunt, the open season is now longer than it’s ever been in recent times. In addition to having to be concerned about camouflaged bear hunters in the blueberry patch in August (which many, including me, have never been too appreciative of), there’s the following point ‘2’;
  2. There’s still no quota on the bear harvest. Although the current harvest is well below what is believed to be sustainable, the number of bear hunters that could flood in, especially from the USA, is virtually unlimited. The result could be a significant over-harvest in some areas. Where I live, that was a big issue in the years immediately before the cancellation of the SBH;
  3. Although you can’t shoot a mother bear in the spring if it’s accompanied by cubs (or the cubs themselves), most places don’t have the same restriction in the fall. However, cubs often spend the 1st winter with their mother. I have serious doubts that small bear cubs orphaned in August have much chance of survival (the data that says it’s OK to orphan cubs in the fall is skimpy); and
  4. While mandatory reporting of black bear harvest is in effect, Ontario has never laid charges with failing to fill out a mandatory hunt report. In governmentspeak, it will be  “a challenge” to keep harvest levels to what’s sustainable, based on available data, especially at the Wildlife Management Unit level.

How this all plays out, who’s to know? My biggest concern is that if there is a large influx of non-resident hunters and the bear population over the next 5 years gets hammered, there’s a good chance of a huge hue and cry and the SBH gets cancelled once again. Given the lightening speed of communication via social media – coupled with the fabulous currency exchange rate that favours American hunters – I believe the potential for an onslaught of bear hunters is very real.

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