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!)
As Bears Give Birth, Guess What's Waiting for Them...
Okay, I admit it; I was fooled. When the Premier of Ontario and leader of the Liberal Party, Dalton McGuinty, suddenly quit office in 2012 amid various spending scandals, he was replaced by Kathleen Wynne. Because Wynne was a bit of an outsider – Ontario’s first female and openly gay premier – I hoped that transparency and citizen democracy would benefit, and policy would derive from logic and compassion.
Prior to 1999, in addition to a fall hunt, it was legal in Ontario to hunt black bears in the spring. Bait, often sweet pastry and fats, would be placed in front of blinds or tree stands—and the bears, ravenous from months in their dens without food, would approach. They were easy targets. Although many local hunters opposed the practice, they usually remained silent because it did bring money into the more remote, northern areas.
Hunters were only supposed to shoot males, but too often they shot females. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) estimated, from the number of females shot, that more than 270 cubs were orphaned each spring. Cubs are dependent on their mothers; so, when orphaned, they tend to die from predation or slowly starve to death. The few who survived were brought to wildlife rehabbers—but most simply died, lost in the bush.
Concerned citizens were able to convince the Ontario government to end the spring hunt. But, the fall hunt was extended, and the overall number of bears killed by hunters was nearly the same as before.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) was outraged, and started a massive campaign of bear reporting. In 2003, a “Nuisance Bear Review Committee” recommended that the MNR take a lead role in responding to “nuisance” bear reports, including threats to human safety. Thus, the MNR’s Bear Wise program was born.
Although the program was successful, OFAH continues to claim it was not. And while there was, on average, no increase in conflicts between humans and bears, attacks on humans by bears, or the size of the bear population, OFAH and others somehow argued that all three increased. The campaign also pushed a very emotive button among people in northern and central Ontario, suggesting that the government was more responsive to the concerns of the larger population living in the more urbanized south (where bears are rare or absent, but votes are numerous).
In 2008, then-Minister of Natural Resources, Donna Cansfield, wisely ordered an assessment of Bear Wise. Published in January 2009, the assessment presented dozens of suggestions on how it could improve. The next year, McGuinty removed Cansfield as the Minister.
In May 2012, McGuinty quietly, and without consultation, conducted a massive scale-back of the Bear Wise program.
Then, in October, he abruptly quit, handing leadership of the party, thus the province, to Kathleen Wynne.
And what did she do? We were promised a better, more open, and transparent government. But instead, last July, her government exempted forestry and mining companies from compliance to the provincial Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists were outraged.
A few years ago, MNR formed something called the Human-Wildlife Conflict Advisory Group to advise on matters of human-wildlife conflict. I have since become a full member. Was that panel, which is certainly replete with hunters, trappers, wildlife managers, and an OFAH representative, even consulted? Nope.
Under Wynne’s blood-stained watch, we’ve also seen increases in deer culling. And, while the decision to allow the hunting of mourning doves in Ontario was federal, Wynne raised no finger to stop it.
But getting back to bears, here’s the irony. Apart from the sad fact that people seem to believe there are more bears and more conflicts (neither contentions supported by the MNR’s own research), there is simply no way that shooting bears attracted to baits in the bush will mean that the same bear that might concern humans later on is the one shot. Shooting, itself, creates the risk of wounding bears, who can become aggressive. Bears tend to avoid humans, and the moms will not attack if their cubs are approached. But, availability of human food conditions bears to search for such foods—ironically exacerbating the problems that concern people.
Even more alarming, if possible, is a private member’s bill that has had two readings, and is designed to reinstate the hunt overall: an act that will cause hundreds of cubs to die of starvation each year.
Now, in the winter, female black bears are in their dens. They are not truly hibernating, but their metabolism has slowed, and they will soon give birth to tiny cubs. Smelling bait, the females will move in, but will tell their cubs to hide. If a mother bear is lucky, she’ll be recognized as a female, and spared; but she may well be shot, and then her cubs are doomed.
And why? Kathleen Wynne may think that, by making it a “test” and restricting the spring hunt to several communities and to Ontario, she will not arouse too much criticism from compassionate voters (while placating those northerners angry at cancellation of the spring hunt back in 1999). What are a few hundred starving baby bears when there are votes to be had?