The spring bear hunt is in full swing, and anti-hunting groups have cranked up their rhetoric in local media outlets. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters is Ontario’s leading non-profit conservation-based organization and a long-time advocate for the reinstatement of the spring bear hunt. As the OFAH wildlife biologist, I feel compelled to weigh in on some of the recent misleading media coverage of spring bear hunting and the people that participate in it. Common concerns include the sustainability of an additional hunting season, its ability to reduce human-bear conflicts, wastage of bears, the orphaning of cubs, and undue influence from hunting advocates like the OFAH. These are valid concerns and worthy of discussion. But a few anti-hunters have been very vocal in their opposition to the spring bear hunt, reaching bogus conclusions and deliberately spreading misinformation to sway public opinion (ironically, this makes them guilty of the very thing that they are accusing the government of doing – deliberately misleading the public to achieve a particular goal).
No one has done more to promote the benefits of the spring bear hunt than the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, and the issue has come to define ‘OFAH advocacy’. This has led some people to accuse us of having undue influence on the MNRF’s wildlife management decisions. In a recent opinion piece on BayToday.ca, the author, Mr. Ferris, takes issue with the government’s decision to expand the hunt despite significant public opposition on the Environmental Registry, and erroneously concludes that the OFAH has too much influence on the government. Realistically, if the OFAH was as influential as he suggests, the spring bear hunt never would have been cancelled in the first place, nor would it have taken 17 years to reinstate. And a quick search of the Environmental Registry reveals that, in 1999, 64% of respondents opposed the cancellation of the spring bear hunt. If the public consultation process operated as Mr. Ferris desires, the spring bear hunt never would have been cancelled in the first place.
The government is promoting the spring bear hunt as a tool for managing human-bear conflicts and to stimulate economic activity in northern and rural communities. The economic value of the spring hunt is undisputed, so opponents of the hunt don’t even bother to address it. In 1996, the economic contribution of the spring bear hunt was estimated at over $40 million per year – a lifeline for many small business owners. If economics is the only important consideration, there is no doubt that the return of the hunt is defensible.
But economics shouldn’t be the main driving force behind wildlife management decisions. The most important consideration is the sustainability of the black bear population. Currently, hunters harvest about 5-6% of the provincial black bear population each year – well within the sustainable harvest limit of 10%. We don’t predict a significant increase in participation or harvest as a result of the reinstatement of the spring hunt, because both resident and non-resident hunters will still be limited to harvesting a single bear per year in most WMU’s. Instead of a dramatic increase in participation, we will likely see a shift in hunting effort as some hunters choose to hunt in the spring instead of the fall.
But will the spring hunt eliminate conflicts between humans and bears? Of course not. There is no single tool that can eliminate conflicts. Part of the problem is the lack of a reliable indicator of the number of bear problems. The only metric we have available to measure human-bear conflict is the number of calls to the Ontario Provincial Police and the Bear Wise Reporting Line. But research has demonstrated that the number of reports received through these channels is heavily influenced by social factors, such as perceived risk from black bears or a lack of trust in the government’s ability to manage wildlife. This bias makes it an inaccurate way to gauge the level of conflict. For instance, if black bear conflicts are repeatedly reported in the mainstream media, public awareness of bears will increase. Likewise, society becomes more aware of their options to report these sightings. This can lead to a spike in reporting, irrespective of changes in the bear population or their behaviour. Anti-hunting groups often cite an MNRF research paper which concluded that hunting had no effect on levels of human-bear conflict. But this research only analyzed the impact of the fall hunt, not the spring hunt, and therefore isn’t useful for drawing conclusions about the ability of the spring hunt to reduce human-bear conflicts. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Interestingly, that research paper also found that “the Bear Wise program had no detectable effect on human-bear conflicts”. This conclusion is conveniently omitted by anti-hunters, because it doesn’t fit with their view of Bear Wise as a silver-bullet solution to all of Ontario’s bear problems.
When talking about bear management, it’s useful to view it as managing two different bear populations – the bears that live in rural areas away from human settlements, and bears that live on the frontier between developed and undeveloped areas. Regulated hunting (including spring hunting) can help to maintain bear populations within a range that can be supported by the available habitat and within society’s range of tolerance – there is literally no other tool that can do this. This in turn will minimize the number of bears that need to seek out alternative food sources in developed areas. But our towns, cities, and recreational activities continue to expand into bear country; unless we completely eliminate bears from the province, there will always be a certain level of conflict. If we can’t accept that fact, then there is no solution.
Some groups try to convince the non-hunting public that the spring bear hunt orphans hundreds of bear cubs, which would be a shocking statistic if it were true. Surely, if thousands of bears are harvested every year, it’s not a stretch to think that hundreds of cubs would be orphaned, right? Actually, no. First, we need to consider the breakdown of the harvest and the bear population itself. In any given year, about 30% of the bears that are harvested are females. But female black bears don’t produce their first set of cubs until they are 5 years old at the earliest, and sometimes not until they are 7 or 8 years old. Also, female black bears only produce cubs every second year at most, although sometimes that interval extends to 3-4 years. Furthermore, a certain proportion of female bears will experience partial or total litter loss from natural causes or cannibalism prior to or during the spring season. This means that there are a lot of female bears on the landscape that do not have cubs with them and are therefore legally harvestable in the spring. Also, females with cubs exhibit protective behaviours and movement/feeding patterns that make them less vulnerable to hunting. Killing a bear cub or a female with cubs carries a fine of up to $25,000 and up to one year in prison, a penalty that is substantially greater than other wildlife-related infractions. These severe penalties force hunters to carefully consider which bears to harvest, further reducing the vulnerability of females with cubs. The minimal number of cubs that are orphaned by hunters are accidental, and should be penalized as such according to the law.
I have also seen several instances where opponents of the hunt have deliberately lied about the new baiting regulations, capitalizing on the fact that the average person won’t bother to fact-check their arguments. AnnaMaria Valastro is the lead campaigner for the Peaceful Parks Coalition and a former political candidate in the 2011 federal election (FYI, she received 0.43% of the vote). In a recent Toronto Star editorial, she makes misleading statements about the practice of bear baiting, saying that it is “legal to bait as close as 500 metres of a dwelling, luring bears close to people’s homes”. To be clear, it is not legal to place bait within 500 metres of a dwelling unless you have written permission from the owner. This and other restrictions have been implemented to minimize the potential for conflict between bear hunters and other outdoor recreationists.
Anti-hunting groups love to characterize hunters as trigger-happy, blood-thirsty killers that shoot bears for the thrill of it. The reality is that, aside from a small number of bears that are killed by farmers in defense of property, Ontario’s bear hunters are motivated by a singular goal – acquiring delicious, free-range, organic protein to supplement or replace commercially-available meat in their diets. If you want my opinion on anti-hunters I’d be more than happy to give you one, but don’t expect it to be an unbiased portrayal. It would likewise be a mistake to seek an accurate portrait of hunters from groups whose only goal is to completely eliminate the use of animals in our society. We live in a society that values diversity of opinion, and I encourage constructive dialogues about hunting. But without input from both sides of the issue, we risk wildlife management decisions that are driven by a misinformed public.