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The American Black Bear in Canada

Published 09/15/10
By Barry Kent MacKay, senior program associate

The American black bear is the most “successful” of the modern bears. Indeed, with a very roughly estimated population of about 900,000, there are something like three times more American black bears in the world than there are individuals of all other bear species combined.

That is a rather sad datum when you estimate how many humans there are in any given medium-sized city, how much more of the Earth’s finite resources we use than do bears, and yet how often members of our species want to kill members of their species because there are “too many” bears. Anywhere that American black bears and humans cohabit there are, among the latter, always those complaining about too many bears.

It is estimated by scientists that there are about 16 subspecies of American black bear, although that figure could change in the light of future genetic comparisons. Among these forms is one on the west coast of Canada known by the scientific name Ursus americanus kermodei, the so-called “Kermode” or “spirit” bear.

"Kermode” or “spirit” bear

The spirit bear can be white in color, including the normally brown snout. Such animals are not albinos, but are a distinct color phase, or morph. About nine out of every 10 kermodei are normally colored. The others are either pure white, or a creamy white, often with yellowish or golden tints, especially on the back. All members of the subspecies can be called the Kermode bear, named by William Temple Hornaday, a controversial scientist (he once put a Congo pygmy on display in a cage in the Monkey House of the New York Zoological Park, now the Bronx Zoo) as well a poet and museum collector. In 1905 Hornaday named the white bear after British Columbian naturalist Francis Kermode. Kermode was a former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum and the first person to formally recognize the bear as something different and report it to science, although aboriginal people were well aware of its presence. At the time, both Hornaday and Kermode thought the white bear was a distinct species. Kermode mounted specimens of the bear that bears his name and that still are on display at the museum.

Because only one in 10 Kermode bears is white, and because the density of their rainforest habitat limits viewing opportunities, spirit bears are very rarely seen. They are found only along a section of the British Columbia coast, from Princess Royal Island north to Prince Rupert, and inland as far as Hazelton, at the junction of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers, just a few hundred miles inland from the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. The spirit bear was apparently venerated by aboriginal people, who called it “moksgm’ol” and placed it within their mythologies. Moksgm’ol means the spirit of the rainforest. The Tsimshian people believed that the raven, having created the world, sought to remind people that the planet was once covered with ice and snow, and so after creation he flew among the black and brown bears and turned every 10th one white, to live forever in peace and harmony. The white form is sometimes called “ghost” bear.

White or blond bears may occur in other subspecies of the American black bear, but much more rarely. Slate-gray bears also appear, but most members of the species are black or dark brown.

Because of the great rarity and distinctive appearance of white-phase animals, the Kermode bear has become an iconic symbol of the threatened coastal rainforests that are its home. It is the subject of books and films, and several conservation organizations have championed its protection. On April 4, 2006, the British Columbia legislature formally declared the spirit bear the “official provincial mammal.”

A recently discovered peculiarity of the spirit bear is its fishing prowess. Two researchers discovered that during daylight the white bears were about 30 percent more effective at catching salmon than the dark bears, in a region where 25 percent of the bears are white. In darkness the normally colored bears have a slight edge. This is an important discovery from a conservation perspective as it illustrates that the white bear’s ability to survive is linked to the health of the salmon population, and salmon are heavily compromised by deforestation and overfishing in the region.

Spirit bears in British Columbia

On Feb. 7, 2006, the British Columbia government announced new land use decisions affecting the range of the Kermode bear, protecting a total of 1.8 million hectares (almost 7,000 square miles) of land from logging, including more than 200,000 hectares (about 775 square miles) of spirit bear habitat. Within that designation is the 103,000-hectare (about 400-square-mile) Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy, on Princess Royal Island, where the greatest concentration of spirit bears is to be found.

Anyone who flies over the vast mountains of British Columbia on a clear day and looks down will see just how devastating the province’s forest-cutting practices have been. Huge regions of clear cuts can be seen from the air, although usually there is a screen of trees left along roadsides so that the ecological damage is not so evident to those who drive or take a train through the mountains as it is to those who view it from above.

The destruction leads to cascading effects on a wide variety of wildlife. Salmon, for example, are made vulnerable when cutting leads to siltation of spawning streams and to the removal of overhanging vegetation that is the source of shade and insects for hatchling salmons, just as the spawning adults are nourishment for various predators and scavengers. Songbirds, small mammals, amphibians and insects — most being species the average person has never heard of — suffer and die from lack of food and shelter in the wake of such aggressive deforestation. Subsequent erosion defiles previously pristine streams, to the detriment of small organisms at the base of the food chain.

Loggers already have moved in on much of the habitat of the Kermode bear and diminished the habitat available to it and a host of other species dependent to varying degrees on intact coastal rainforests, including the brown bear, salmon, wolves, pumas and numerous less-well-known species.

Bear Smart Community Program

The Bear Smart Community Program, initiated in British Columbia and adapted in Ontario as the Bear Wise Program, has been an important development in protecting bears in Canada. These programs seek to help communities resolve conflicts between humans and bears. The Get Bear Smart Society also is working hard to promote Bear Smart programs across Canada.

The criteria for Bear Smart communities in British Columbia, for example, are straightforward:

1. Prepare a bear hazard assessment of the community and surrounding area.
2. Prepare a bear/human conflict management plan that is designed to address the bear hazards and land-use conflicts identified in the previous step.
3. Revise planning and decision-making documents to be consistent with the bear/human conflict management plan.
4. Implement a continuing education program, directed at all sectors of the community.
5. Develop and maintain a bear-proof municipal solid waste management system.
6. Implement Bear Smart bylaws (ordinances) prohibiting the provision of food to bears as a result of intent, neglect or irresponsible management of attractants.

This plan can be adapted to any community, but often meets with resistance. Hunters want to think that killing bears will reduce complaints, but that is not so because hunting does not target the urban bears that are getting into conflict. Also, the Bear Smart/Wise programs require citizens to take some responsibilities, particularly in how they manage their garbage, barbecues, camp-food supplies and bird feeders.

But people tend to be resistant to change and often don’t believe that they are contributing to problems with bears or other wildlife. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that conservation officers often choose to kill bears that are deemed a “nuisance,” thereby removing the problem, temporarily, for the residents. In order to solve the problem long term it is important to address root causes of bear-human conflicts. Food and garbage that attract bears to urban areas need to be removed. If they are not removed, another bear will simply move in to the unused habitat, and the cycle of killing continues. To confound the problem even more, wildlife agencies destroy bears under the guise of implementing public safety, further reinforcing the fear many people have of bears.

American black bears in Ontario

One of the most contentious battles the animal protection movement has fought to protect wildlife concerned the American black bear and occurred in the late 20th century, in Ontario.

Ontario is a vast province, covering some 10,763,395 square kilometers (about 4.2 million square miles) with nearly that entire expanse quite suitable habitat for American black bears. Until it was finally stopped by an aggressive campaign by animal protectionists, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) allowed the American black bear to be hunted in spring and in the fall. During the spring hunt, hunters were only supposed to be allowed to shoot bears without cubs. The male does not care for the cubs (and indeed, although it is rare, they have been known to kill and eat cubs they have encountered).

The problem was that the hunters, usually shooting over bait (which helped teach surviving bears to seek out food left behind by humans; i.e., garbage1) or using dogs, often could not tell a male bear from a female. The female, upon smelling bait, would often leave the cubs behind while she, ravenous from her winter’s sleep and the metabolic cost of caring for her cubs, investigated the food. Cubs orphaned in the spring are too small to be easily found, and usually just die. Orphaned bears turned into wildlife rehabilitators were almost all from the “fall” hunt, which now commences in late summer.

The OMNR continually denied that cubs were being orphaned, and hunters and outfitters were indignant at the thought. A significant turning point came after one rehabilitator who specialized in helping bears claimed in a newspaper opinion piece that by his calculations about 1,000 cubs were orphaned by the spring bear hunt each year.

Not so, claimed one OMNR biologist. He did his own calculations and, in a letter to the paper, stated that he came up with “only” 274 cubs orphaned by the spring bear hunt. Canadian bear conservationist Ainslie Willock saw the letter. From that point on, animal protectionists had an “official” confirmation of orphaning by the spring bear hunt, and how many.

The coalition thereafter worked with the OMNR’s own figure — 274 orphaned cubs doomed to die if not rescued and rehabilitated. Hunters engaged in the spring hunt were, one hopes unknowingly, killing mother bears. Some hunters, even including some bear hunters, were certainly opposed to the spring bear hunt. All bear hunters formed only a small fraction of the population of Ontario, and a large percentage of the public was opposed to the killing of mother bears with dependent cubs.

Politics rule in wildlife management

All decisions pertaining to the management of wildlife are political in nature, and in democracies sometimes the will of the majority prevails. The pro-spring-bear hunt forces knew this. So did the politicians, once animal protectionists demonstrated strong opposition to the spring hunt. Ontario at the time had a very right-wing government. No general election for 1999 had yet been officially called, but it would happen and public opinion polls showed strong antipathy about the hunt, even in the north where it was a source of revenue for outfitters, with spinoff benefits for many others. Americans and Europeans were the main clients for the outfitters, perhaps in many cases because they lacked the opportunity to kill bears back home, and really wanted to.

And at that time there was a by-election planned for the province. Videos already had been produced and distributed in some areas showing the nature of the spring bear hunt. The idea of challenging the ruling party at elections was a no-brainer, but would strain the resources of animal protectionists. Enter Robert Schad, an extremely wealthy Canadian who also wanted to see an end to the spring bear hunt and could afford an expensive campaign. The premier of Ontario realized this, and with the outcome of the planned by-election in the balance (in one of the few Ontario constituencies lacking bears) and with a general election looming somewhere on the horizon, the spring bear hunt was summarily cancelled, amid howls of protest from hunters and outfitters that loudly continue to this day.

Immediately the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters began to claim an “overpopulation” of bears, even before it was biologically possible. Everyone in the north, where the spring bear hunt generated profits and where folks are most likely to actually encounter a bear in the woods or their back yard — an experience that can be disconcerting to some folks, while others take it in stride — was encouraged to complain about bears. Even the most casual sighting became a complaint, and to such folks any bear that stepped into view was deemed a “nuisance” bear.

But something strange and quite positive happened within the OMNR. As exemplified by its budgetary allocations, the agency has always been biased in favor of consumptive use of wildlife, but it has also done some good science. And the scientists did not back down, presumably having been given permission by the government to provide the facts. They patiently explained that hard data showed that there had been no increase in bear populations following cancellation of the spring hunt. It is, they explained, a demonstrable fact that weather patterns and conditions are changing. American black bears in Ontario enter a deep sleep during the winter. It is not true hibernation, but it does see a lowering of metabolism in a process known as “carnivorean lethargy.” Heart rates fall from 40 to only 10 beats per minute. The animals do not eat at this time and fat reserves are metabolized. But it is possible, if very rare in cold climates, for such sleeping bears to be roused by warm weather or by disturbance. It is about halfway through this winter dormancy that females give birth. The babies do not fully wean until the fall.

When the bears come out of this winter sleep in the spring, the OMNR scientists continued to explain, their fat reserves have been used up and they are literally starving for food. In “normal” years there is a timely succession of berries, insect larvae, nuts and other foodstuffs available to them, but if such wild crops fail or are delayed due to such weather events as late or early springs, severe draught or abnormally heavy rainfall, then the bears will wander farther afield for food and take chances coming into contact with people in search of garbage, or food in bird feeders or campers’ lunches. There is some suggestion from a preliminary study in the United States that given a choice between natural foods and the stuff that humans intentionally or unintentionally provide, the bears will choose what is natural. More research is needed, but at any time, and certainly if there is a scarcity of natural food, they can be attracted to hunters’ bait piles, which are often an assembly of sweet foods, such as jelly donuts, and organ meat that bears, with their acute sense of smell, find to be quite edible.

Unfortunately, in order to placate the powerful pro-hunting lobby, the Ontario government extended the fall hunt forward into late summer, so it is likely that quite a few cubs are still orphaned and starve, albeit when they are bigger. Hunters’ kills are now about the same number as before the ban on spring bear hunting, but still the claims are made by hunters and outfitters that there has been a dramatic and dangerous increase in bears.

A victory has been achieved by the animal protection movement in blocking efforts by the hunting and outfitting lobby to be allowed to sell parts of bears legally killed by hunters in Quebec and Ontario. There is an enormous demand for the gall bladders of bears, to be used in “traditional medicine” both in Asia and among the large Asian community in Canada.

The issue is not that American black bears are rare, either continent-wide or in Quebec, another vast province consisting mostly of good black bear habitat. But any legalized commercial trade in gall bladders, paws or other parts or derivatives of the bears both encourages the market and provides a potential screen for parts illegally taken from truly threatened or vulnerable populations of other bear species, particularly in Asia.

Quebec allows spring bear hunt

That said, the sad news is that Quebec, which has the more hunters than any other Canadian province, does allow a spring bear hunt. More than 5,000 American black bears were killed by hunters in Quebec in 2009, and they were about evenly split between males and females. Even if you are extremely conservative and estimate that only 10 percent of those bears killed were lactating females (and therefore mothers with dependent young), that is approximately 1,000 orphaned bears in one year left without the ability to survive. No effort is made to determine the actual number of orphaned cubs, and of course to avoid orphaning it would be better if no lactating females were killed, but experience in the Ontario spring bear hunt demonstrates the unlikelihood of that happening. Regulations prevent orphaned bears from Quebec from being sent to Ontario, where there are some rehabilitation facilities that can handle bears; orphaned cubs that are found in Quebec therefore often are killed.

Spears are not allowed in bear hunting in Quebec. However, as is generally true across the country, enforcement of such legislation is often very close to impossible due to the lack of resources sufficient to patrol vast wilderness areas. Funding for enforcement of game laws tends not to be a high priority among provincial governments. And more than in the United States, and much more than in Europe, Canada consists of thinly populated wilderness regions that are difficult and expensive, if not outright impossible, to effectively police. Indeed, the Quebec government does not even acknowledge poaching as a problem, thereby eliminating any need to budget for enforcement of game laws.

Spear hunting also was stopped in Saskatchewan once a video was found at a hunting show showing that it took place. No Canadian regional government condones spear hunting, but always the problem is the difficulty of enforcing laws against it. Proving that it does, or does not, happen is extremely difficult, which is why it helped bears and the animal protection movement when the promotional video was discovered.

Quebec is now experimenting with the use of dogs in bear hunting in 10 areas, with the support of the premier, who has allowed the hunting community — not his own wildlife agency — to monitor the results. This is a political, not science-based, decision.

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