Bears increasingly present in Northern Ontario communities, large and small, are becoming a commonplace news item.
Until recently, it has been unusual for a bear to wander into a built-up community, particularly in one of Northern Ontario’s cities. But not now.
Until a decade ago, the numbers of bears had to a great extent been kept in check by the annual spring bear hunt.
Southern Ontario voices of protest led to the Harris Progressive Conservative Ontario government cancelling the popular spring bear hunt, replacing it with a late-summer season (something that has proved far less popular with hunters).
Those protesting the spring bear hunt, and using their concerns to successfully lobby the government of the day into cancelling the program, argued this was an inhumane practice because bear cubs were often left motherless and became part of the spring hunt’s collateral damage.
Presumably they were correct in their assumptions because with no spring bear hunt, people in the North are far more apt to see a bear.
The more bears there are, the greater their pressure on food resources and the more likely they will be to scrounge for food wherever they can find it, and increasingly that is in and around people’s homes and camps.
Following the end of the spring bear hunt, the process for dealing with a nuisance bear was to contact the Ministry of Natural Resources. A Conservation Officer (always more than one) would visit, assess the situation and make every effort to trap the animal(s), remove them to another locale and release them.
Typically, bears in urban neighbourhoods, especially when frightened by dogs, will climb trees seeking safety so it was often the practice of the MNR to shoot the treed bears with a tranquilizing agent and once they climbed down or, more often, fell to the ground, drag them into cages for their eventual relocation.
But not now. The Minister of Natural Resources, Michael Gravelle, stated this past winter that his ministry is no longer in the nuisance bear removal business.
Concerned citizens are told that rather than the MNR, they are now to call 911 and report the issue to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) as an emergency.
Unlike the MNR, the OPP is not equipped to trap and transport these large animals and so their only recourse is to shoot and kill them.
Over the past decade, this relationship with bears in Northern Ontario has travelled an ironic cycle.
The spring bear hunt was officially abandoned in spite of a fairly united front from hunters and tourist outfitters who predicted at that time precisely what has come about: that this change in hunting policy would lead directly to a nuisance bear problem.
The Ministry of Natural Resources stepped in, for a while, to deal with nuisance bears but ended this practice, doubtless on budgetary grounds.
And now, we’re back to officially shooting bears, at any time of the year, as they more and more invade the places where people dwell.
During the many years the spring bear hunt was in place (its appeal was almost exclusively to US trophy hunters) nuisance bears were more the exception than the rule.
Now, in many communities in the North, they’re becoming the rule and they’re being shot because that is the only alternative.
The spring bear hunt’s opponents advocated against the effect this practice had on cubs, in particular ones born that same year.
But the spring bear hunt was, in fact, an annual cull based on the number of licences sold and, in fact, some of the orphaned cubs would have survived anyway.
It’s becoming more and more clear that the old practice did a far better job of keeping humans and bears in balance, at least in Northern Ontario, and that the government is failing its citizens by relieving the MNR of its nuisance bear relocation role and failing the bear population as well by simply having a “kill” policy as a final default.
A brave and, yes, compassionate Ontario government will reconsider the spring bear hunt as a way of maintaining the balance of this aspect of man and nature in the North.