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The Season of Sorrow: Spring Bear Hunts

Published 03/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 1, Spring 2004

NOVEMBER: She is hungry. She is alone. Snow is falling. But the bear’s sole focus is the hole she digs under the trunk of an ancient yellow birch that had toppled over, two years earlier, during a windstorm. This would be a good place to spend the winter — and, perhaps, to give birth to the cubs that are slowly growing inside her.

DECEMBER: She is asleep. Her heartbeat and body temperature have dropped. If disturbed, she might be roused from her torpor, but her metabolism has slowed enough so that she survives only on her generous store of fat, which also supports her embryonic cubs.

JANUARY: She unknowingly gives birth to two tiny infants, weighing about 10 ounces each, 210 days after their conception. The cubs attach themselves and suckle milk, produced by the bear’s
ever-dwindling reserves of body fat.

MARCH: She is awake and ravenous. Over the winter, she lost a third of her body weight. Much of the meager food available — a few acorns, a hibernating frog — are hidden under the snow. Her survival, and that of her cubs, hangs in the balance.

APRIL: She smells food. From nearly a mile away, she detects a sweet, strange odor and quickly moves in its direction. Her cubs follow.

Soon the smell — an enticing mixture that includes the odors of fish fat and honey — is overwhelming. Even though she is literally starving, the bear pauses. Hungry male bears would be attracted to the same food, and the largest of them might be dangerous to her or, more likely, her cubs.

When the mother bear signals, her babies instinctively know to climb into nearby tree. There they stay, hushed and nearly invisible.

Slowly, the bear enters a clearing; a pile of food beckons from the ground directly in front of her. She approaches, still cautious, but so very hungry that she is drooling. As she leans forward for a bite, an explosive sound erupts from the nearby woods and jagged agony rips through her body. She roars, blood hot in her throat, muscles jerking in a sharp spasm. No breath can enter her collapsing lungs. She wavers, the forest blurring, her senses twisted into chaos, beneath which lingers an image of her two cubs. And then she dies.

Carnage in Canada

The horrific scene described above, of a bear being baited and shot, is one that has taken place all too frequently in Ontario, Canada, where spring bear hunting has been a regular occurrence, taking the lives of thousands of bears each year.

This populous province is also the site of API’s operations in Canada, and of collaborative efforts to end the slaughter of bears. As this article was in production, the coalition learned that its many years of effort had paid off: Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that the spring bear hunt would no longer take place in the province. How grassroots activists managed to defeat a dishonorable “time-honored” tradition can serve as inspiration for other animal activists across North America.

API is one of several animal protection organizations that have worked together for several years to abolish bear hunting in Ontario. In 1995, API learned that it had a powerful ally: Wealthy industrialist Robert Schad also wanted to protect Canada’s bears, and was willing to commit large sums of money to the cause.

At that time, Ontario was governed by an extreme right wing party, the Progressive Conservatives (PCs), which had a dismal record on social and environmental issues. The premier of that party was an avid, and proud, hunter. In 1999, however, the provincial government faced tremendous pressure from polls indicating that the majority of Ontarians opposed the spring bear hunt. Further, Robert Schad threatened to dedicate his formidable economic resources into defeating PC candidates up for election. The combination of public outcry and pressure from a politically connected individual was potent. The premier had a private meeting with Schad, and shortly afterward terminated the spring hunt, citing ethical concerns.

These concerns were sizable. For example, each year, as a result of the spring bear hunt, the small number of Ontario wildlife rehabilitators able to work with bears was swamped with orphaned cubs, only some of whom could be released back into the wild. At first, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) denied that any cubs were being orphaned by the spring bear hunt; after all, officials claimed, female bears were "protected" from hunting.

But hunters could not always distinguish female bears from males, so many females were killed by mistake, "errors" easily covered up given the sparse enforcement of hunting laws in the vast, northern forests of Ontario. Eventually, the MNR estimated that, on average, about 275 bear cubs would be orphaned during a typical spring hunt. API and other organizations believe that even that figure is too low. So in addition to the immediate victims — the hundreds of bears killed and injured — the hunt also caused considerable “collateral damage” to cubs.

Nuisance? Nonsense!

The ending of the spring bear hunt in 1999 was both pyrrhic and short-lived. After the spring hunt was halted, the autumn bear-hunting season was extended by several weeks in order to placate outraged hunters and hunting outfitters. (Any cubs orphaned by the fall hunt, however, would stand a better chance of surviving on their own.) Despite this capitulation, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFHA) — an organization accustomed to having its interests reflected in government policy — sued the MNR for ending the hunt.

Although the OFHA eventually lost its court case, pressure was on to resume the spring bear hunt, with hunting proponents advancing rationales similar to those heard throughout the U.S., including, most recently, in New Jersey (see “Nightmare in New Jersey,” below). The accusation most commonly leveled against bears in both Canada and the U.S. is that they are “nuisance” animals whose numbers need to be reduced through hunting. Hunt proponents frequently cite incidents in which bears damage property and also claim that black bears pose a threat to human safety, although such dangers can be addressed through non-lethal means.

In the fall of 2002, the Ontario PCs appointed a panel to review “nuisance bear” reports and to make recommendations regarding bear management. One panel member openly stated that he joined the panel to promote a return to the spring hunt. Provincial elections in fall of 2003 in which the PCs were soundly defeated led some to hope that the bears would remain protected; the head of the newly elected Ontario Liberal Party has stated on the campaign trail that he would not reinstate the spring hunt. But when the panel’s report was published soon after the elections, it recommended a return of spring bear hunting on socio-economic grounds — in other words, to preserve revenues and jobs generated by hunting outfitters. The panel found no link between the cancellation of the hunt and increases in “nuisance” bear complaints.

But last December, when it seemed inevitable that the spring bear hunt would be reinstated, the Ontario government announced that it would maintain the ban on the seasonal hunt. Citing evidence that problems with “nuisance” bears are most typically caused by climatic conditions and availability of food, the government pledged to help communities faced with conflicts between bears and humans through means such as public education and municipal planning. Government officials also noted that loss of revenues due to the cancellation of the hunt could be offset by increases in tourism-related activities.

The Canadian spring bear hunt would not have been halted without the tireless efforts of animal activists. Although there is little doubt that a powerful ally such as Robert Schad helped the bears’ cause, it was the dedication of individual animal activists and animal advocacy groups that led to the hunt’s cancellation. Thanks to their work — which included media campaigns, lobbying, and assertive public outreach — countless bears and their cubs have been spared.

Nightmare in New Jersey

Sadly, black bears in New Jersey have been less fortunate than their Canadian counterparts. This past December [2003], the state allowed the hunting of black bears for the first time in 23 years.

As in Ontario and many other places, conflicts between bears and humans were cited as the rationale for the slaughter. But while Ontario and New Jersey have comparable human populations (12 million and 8.5 million, respectively), the two regions differ drastically in physical size. Ontario measures approximately 415,000 square miles, many of which are sparsely inhabited; by contrast, New Jersey measures a densely populated 8,722 square miles. Most conflicts between people and bears (as well as other wild animals) occur in recently developed areas or on the urban fringe — terms that aptly describe a hefty proportion of “The Garden State.”

Human-bear encounters have increased in New Jersey in recent years; this does not, however, mean that bear populations have become untenably large. By the time bear hunting was prohibited in the state in 1970, the species was almost entirely wiped out. In the absence of hunting, the bear population gradually recovered. By 2003, estimates of the state’s black bear population ranged from 1,350 to 3,200 individual animals, and bears were more commonly sighted in residential areas. Despite the increase in human-bear encounters, no person has ever been killed or seriously injured by a black bear in all of New Jersey’s recorded history.

Bowing to pressure from hunting proponents (who played on the public’s unfounded fears of possible fatal bear attacks), and reneging on a promise made during his election campaign, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey gave the green light to a black bear hunt in late fall of 2003. He did so in the face of strong public opposition; in the weeks prior to the hunt, polls showed that a majority of New Jersey residents opposed the killing of black bears.

The hunt also went forward despite the best efforts of animal advocates to halt it. On December 1, just days before the hunt was scheduled to begin, a coalition of wildlife groups, Native Americans, and outdoor enthusiasts filed suit in U.S. District Court.

The litigants — and the bears — lost. The hunt commenced on December 8, 2003 and resulted in the deaths of 328 bears in 6 days, a loss of between 10 to 23 percent of the state’s total bear population. More than 200 of the slaughtered bears were females, which means that dozens of cubs were likely orphaned.

It is possible that a public backlash against the hunt will give bears a reprieve in the future. Graphic images of dead and wounded bears appalled residents who saw them on the television and in newspapers. And in a horrific incident on a New Jersey highway, scores of drivers stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam witnessed a bear cub, gravely injured by a hunter, crawl to the side of the road, collapse, and die. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, several drivers pulled over and gathered around the cub’s body; many were sobbing.

Perhaps such tragedies will provide animal activists with the ammunition we need to stop further bloodshed and will spur legislation permanently banning the hunting of black bears. Currently, black bears are hunted in 27 U.S. states and 9 of the 10 Canadian provinces. Public anger could also lead to reform of regulatory systems in which fish and game programs are funded in large part by the proceeds from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses — a setup that creates an inherent conflict of interest for wildlife managers.

Irrational Rationales

It’s true: Black bears can be dangerous. But trees can be, as well. Each year, dozens of people (including many hunters) die after being struck by falling trees; few, if any, are harmed by black bears. And far more people perish in hunting-related accidents annually than have ever been killed by black bears.

When conflicts do arise between humans and bears, the cause is not an "overabundance" of bears, but rather easy access to sources of food and degradation of bears’ natural habitat — situations caused by human behavior. Lasting, humane solutions to such conflicts do exist, and are more effective in reducing conflicts than hunting (see sidebar for more information about how communities can live peacefully with bears).

According to many leading wildlife experts, hunting is not a useful way of managing black bear populations, which are largely self-regulating. Some believe that hunting may actually escalate conflicts between people and bears. A wounded bear experiencing pain, for example, may act aggressively toward humans. And the common practice of “bear baiting” — luring animals with piles of food — teaches bears to seek out people and draws the animals into inhabited areas. Further, because bear hunting tends to occur in remote areas, it targets the animals least likely to have been in conflict with humans.

In states and provinces across North America, bear hunting continues. But so will activists’ efforts to end the bloodshed and to advocate for humane solutions to conflicts between people and bears. We know that it is possible to protect both bears and humans, if we put our minds and hearts to the task.

Making Life Bear-able

Humans and bears can — and, with rampant human encroachment into once-wild places, must — learn to live together. But peaceful coexistence does take a bit of effort on our part.

The black bears that are most likely to bother people are those conditioned to finding easy food from sources such as garbage containers, dumps, bird feeders, and barbecues. As bears develop a taste for discarded human food, they can be found sniffing about garages, homes, and cars.

Communities must educate residents about the proper disposal of garbage, and enable people to secure their trash. And rather than sponsoring bear hunts, governments can enforce rules about dumping and garbage disposal.

If you live in bear country, avoid planting vegetation that may attract the animals, such as berry-bearing vines, shrubs or trees. Never offer food to bears; it is not in the their interest to become habituated to people. Do not leave pet food on porches or in yards. When camping, store food in special “bear-proof” containers.

An example of a community-based approach to this issue is the Tahoe Council for Wild Bears (www.tahoewildbears.org). The Council implements a bear education and conservation program that involves residents, property owners, visitors, government agencies, private non-profit organizations, and local businesses, and promotes the peaceful co-existence of humans and bears.

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