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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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