by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Why Ontario Is a Poacher's Haven
At 415,000 square miles, Ontario is smaller than Quebec (at 595,000 square miles) and Alaska (at 586,000 square miles) in size, and yet has nearly twice the number of people as the other two combined. It's still not crowded, at least not once you leave the population centers huddled along the northern edge of the Great Lakes that form Ontario's southern border.
Still, it is served with a network of roads that make it relatively easy to get around the southern third, weather permitting, and it does border on the United States, which is the largest market for, well, most things.
And yet, all those forests and lakes and thickets make it still a haven for black bears, lots of black bears, although exactly how many is simply a matter of guesswork. So is the size of the North American population, roughly estimated to be between 600,000 and 900,000. But it means that at least one in 10 and possibly one in six black bears is found in Ontario.
That would have included the four dead black bears found recently on a well-travelled highway (I have driven it myself, many times) — Highway 403, near Plains Road. Gall bladders and most paws were missing and at least two of the rotting animals had been shot.
There are no bears normally living in that region, although a nearby illegal dump could attract the odd one, so we can assume the animals were shot up north, their most valuable parts removed, the bladders to be sold from $2,000 to $10,000 each, probably to be retailed in powdered form. The paws, used either for medicinal purposes, or special cuisine, would have a value of hundreds of dollars.
And here is what makes it easy. Ontario (and Quebec) are next door to New York state, where it is legal to sell bear galls. We fought hard to get the law changed, pointing out that any legal trade caused a threat to bears elsewhere, but Ontario bears don't vote in New York state. Selling these products is illegal in Ontario, but that hardly matters. I mean, who is going to know?
The fact is that there have been enormous cutbacks to enforcement in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, which administers wildlife law. The most recent cut to the MNR is $50 million, with a subsequent reduction in bear technicians as well as enforcement officers. Were I a bear poacher I'd simply buy up a few thousand cheap acres of land, build a blind near a clearing, weekly fill the clearing with sweet donuts, and then shoot myself some bears. There is almost no chance of getting caught; if you can get the bear galls and paws to New York state, yes, there's a market, but no need to even cross the border.
There is a large Asian-derived population in Ontario, and while most are law-abiding Canadians with no taste for so-called “traditional Chineses medicine,” it does not take many, mostly old-timers, to create the necessary market to fuel the poaching that is mostly hidden from view, except when four rotting bear carcasses show up on the doorstep of us urbanites.