Bear Management: Going
to the Dogs?
by Melissa Tkachyk
Bearing arms does not solve
the problem of nuisance bears.
Though the media has speculated
that the return of the spring bear hunt is at least a year
away, the debate over an Ontario bear crisis will not go away.
Being the second slowest reproducing land mammal in North
America, an overpopulation of bears is an unlikely situation.
However, there are still those who believe that the Ontario
bear population has increased significantly. Furthermore they
argue that the increase is the result of some 4,000 bears
being spared from the rifle every spring since 1999 when the
seasonal hunt was first cancelled.
To subdue the angry bear
hunters, Ministry of Natural Resources extended the fall hunting
season, which now runs from August 15 to November 30. This
compensatory move is not enough for those angered by the cancellation
of the spring bear hunt.
Outfitters and the organizations
that work to protect that business have been on a mission
to create a bear crisis in Ontario. Posters and ads encouraging
people to report and document any bear seen (bonus points
given to those who photographed the animal near their homes,
dogs and children) created an effective campaign. The result
has been the government-appointed Nuisance Bear Committee
and a new legislative proposal to allow for the chasing of
bears with dogs. While the Committee's purpose to review scientific
information and public input about nuisance bears is a positive
initiative, the latter proposal truly puts Ontario in the
Dark Ages when it comes to wildlife management.
There is little doubt that
there has been an increase in bear sightings, particularly
across the southern limits of this species' range. However,
an increase in sightings does not necessarily mean an actual
increase in the bear population. When natural food sources
such as berries are in short supply or the season is delayed
by drought, bear sightings go up. As more bears are forced
out of the bush to find food, it is likely they will be encountered
more by people.
There are many effective
non-lethal control measures that can be used to alleviate
nuisance bear problems. Reinstating the spring bear hunt and
allowing the use of dogs to chase bears does nothing to address
the problem. In all likelihood, these two initiatives, disguised
as nuisance bear management, actually exacerbate the problem.
Bears are primarily hunted
with bait. Since a bear's sense of smell is 100 times more
sensitive than a human's, bait stations can attract a number
of bears from far and wide, concentrating them in one area.
This practice habituates animals to human-generated food sources,
increasing public risk. The proposal to allow the chasing
of bears with dogs also increases public risk. The bears are
not only frightened by the chase, but are likely to become
very hungry after utilizing a tremendous amount of energy
during the chase. This proposal is nothing more than a new
recreational opportunity for bear hunters that can't pursue
their favorite sport in the spring.
It has been estimated that
there are 75,000 to 100,000 bears in Ontario, but no reliable
survey method has ever been employed. What is certain is that
this species has been extirpated from 50% of its former range
in North America due to habitat destruction and high hunting
pressures. Thousands of bears are killed each year in North
America because they are perceived as a nuisance. As the largest
jurisdiction for black bears, Ontario has an international
responsibility to play a leading role in bear management and
conservation. The need for a new, effective approach to alleviating
human-bear conflicts is heightened by the increased development
and human activity in bear country. Co-existence with bears
is possible, but it takes human tolerance and education.
At the time of writing,
Melissa Tkachyk, M.E.S. was a wilderness campaigner with Earthroots.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 42, Spring 2003. Copyright Melissa Tkachyk.
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