Perception Versus Reality
Clearing up the misconceptions around the Spring Bear Hunt in Ontario
The spring bear hunt is in full swing, and its opponents have cranked up their misleading and often inaccurate information and portrayal of people who participate in it. As one of Ontario’s leading non-profit conservation-based organizations, and a long-time advocate for the reinstatement of the spring bear hunt, we feel it’s necessary to weigh in.
Common concerns raised include the sustainability of an additional hunting season, its ability to reduce human-bear conflicts, wasting of bears, the orphaning of cubs, and undue influence from hunting advocates like the OFAH.
These are topics definitely worthy of discussion. However, a few opponents of the spring bear hunt have been very vocal, reaching bogus conclusions and deliberately spreading misinformation in an attempt to sway public opinion.
Some people have accused the OFAH of having undue influence on the MNRF’s wildlife management decisions and criticized the government’s decision to expand the hunt despite significant public opposition on the Environmental Registry. Realistically, if this was true, then the spring bear hunt would never have been cancelled in the first place, nor would it have taken 17 years to bring it back. 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 a popular opinion poll, the spring bear hunt never would have been cancelled. It needs to be understood that public opinion is only one small factor in sustainable resource management decisions.
The government promoted the spring bear hunt as a tool to stimulate economic activity in northern and rural communities. The economic value of the spring hunt is undisputable, so opponents of the hunt don’t bother to address it. In 1996, the economic contribution of the hunt was estimated at over $40 million per year – a lifeline for many small business owners. Based on economics, there is no doubt that the return of the hunt is not just defensible, but warranted.
BLACK BEAR SUSTAINABILITY
In saying that, economics is not the only thing driving wildlife management decisions. The most important consideration is sustainability of the black bear population. Currently, hunters harvest approximately five-to-six percent of the provincial black bear population each year – well within the sustainable harvest limit of 10 percent. With the introduction of the spring hunt, we don’t foresee a significant increase in participation or harvest because both resident and non-resident hunters will still be limited to harvesting a single bear per year in most Wildlife Management Units. Instead of a dramatic increase in participation, what we will likely see is a shift in when people hunt because hunters now have to make a choice whether they will hunt in the spring or fall.
The government also promoted the spring bear hunt as a means for managing human-bear conflicts. Will the spring hunt eliminate conflicts between humans and bears? Of course not. There is no single tool that can eliminate conflicts. The only metric available to measure human-bear conflict is the number of calls to the Ontario Provincial Police and the BearWise Reporting Line, but research has demonstrated that the number of reports received is heavily influenced by social bias, which makes it an inaccurate way to gauge the level of conflict. For instance, if black bear conflicts are repeatedly reported in the media, public awareness of bears and reporting options will increase and lead to a spike in reporting, irrespective of changes in the bear population or behaviour. Opponents of the hunt often cite an MNRF research paper that found hunting had no effect on levels of human-bear conflict. However, this research only analyzed the fall hunt, and therefore it isn’t useful for drawing conclusions about the spring hunt. Interestingly, that research paper also found that “the BearWise program had no detectable effect on human-bear conflicts”, a conclusion that is conveniently omitted by those who claim that this program will solve all of our bear problems.
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 as our towns, cities, and recreational activities continue to expand into bear country, unless we completely eliminate bears from the province (which should never be our objective), there will always be a certain level of conflict.
Some groups try to convince the non-hunting public that the spring bear hunt orphans hundreds of bear cubs. That would be a shocking statistic if it were true. MNRF’s own bear biologist has stated emphatically that the orphaning of black bear cubs was an extremely rare event. In any given year, about 30 percent of the bears that are harvested are females. But female black bears don’t produce their first set of cubs until they are five years old at the earliest, only produce cubs every second year at most and a certain proportion will experience partial or total litter loss from natural causes or cannibalism prior to or during the spring season. It is also important to note that studies have shown females with cubs exhibit protective behaviours and patterns that make them less vulnerable to hunting. Let’s also not forget that killing a bear cub or a female with cubs is illegal and 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.
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
Anti-hunting groups love to characterize hunters as trigger-happy, blood-thirsty killers that shoot bears for the thrill of it. The reality though, 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 one singular goal – acquiring delicious, free-range, organic protein to supplement or replace commercially-available meat in their diets. We as a society do not always share the same perspectives and beliefs, so that requires all of us to show tolerance for others. Religious, cultural, racial, gender and other forms of discrimination are not tolerated in Canada today, so why is it acceptable to discriminate against members of the hunting community for pursuing legal and beneficial activities?
We live in a society that values diversity of opinion and constructive dialogue about hunting. But without input from both sides of the issue, we risk wildlife management decisions that are made by a misinformed public.