The Role of Place and Local Knowledge in Ontario’s Spring Bear Hunt Debate: Fifteen Years Later

A marauding black bear near the author’s home in Sudbury, Ontario. Photograph courtesy of Marthe Brown.

A marauding black bear near the author’s home in Sudbury, Ontario. Photograph courtesy of Marthe Brown.

by Mike Commito

Ontario had its last spring black bear hunt fifteen years ago. Dating back to 1937, the province’s spring hunt was primarily for non-resident hunters. But spring hunting picked up in 1961 after the Department of Lands and Forests declared the black bear a game animal. By the mid-1990s, spring bear hunting had been well established as a significant revenue generator for northern Ontario communities and an important management tool.

Around this time, however, opposition flared up over the spring hunting season, largely over the ethics of bear baiting and the fate of orphaned cubs after the accidental shooting of mother bears. Consequently, an amalgam of animal welfare, animal rights, and conservationist groups – colloquially known as the “Bear Alliance” – organized a campaign to have the hunt repealed. By 1999, following aggressive marketing and political lobbying, the Bear Alliance succeeded in convincing Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government to abruptly cancel the hunt.

In the immediate aftermath of the decision, hunters, outfitters, and residents in northern Ontario charged that emotion and politics had trumped science and conservation. They called supporters of the decision, “bleeding heart liberals” and denounced their opponents’ authority on the matter because of their overwhelmingly non-rural residency. Throughout the debate and afterwards, critics referenced “urban southern Ontario” and even “Toronto” in a derisive manner. The idea that people living in areas far removed from bears had influenced government policy was viewed as unacceptable; even more so because it was done using emotionally charged arguments about orphaned cubs. As a result, the idea of local knowledge and place forms an interesting part of the debate that still persists today.Many hunters and outfitters are not university-trained biologists but they still possess an extraordinary amount of technical knowledge about the animals because they reside or work in black bear habitat. Meanwhile, the provincial government also has a cadre of professional scientists with years of technical expertise learned on the ground. Despite the government’s competency in deciding wildlife policy, as well as its ability to exercise the authority in cancelling hunting activities that are deemed unethical or problematic, the conversation always seems to boil down to northern Ontario residents versus bureaucrats at Queen’s Park. Neither group possesses superior knowledge over the other, but who is in a better position to make policy decisions? People living in bear country or those living outside this realm? Do we need to accord greater significance to the perspectives of people whose understanding has been informed by place? For example, does living in Sudbury versus Mississauga make your pronouncements about bear management more valuable?

Black bear crossing the highway near Killarney, south of Sudbury. Photograph courtesy of Marthe Brown.

Black bear crossing the highway near Killarney, south of Sudbury. Photograph courtesy of Marthe Brown.

Currently, the idea of proximity of place forms an interesting facet to the conversation about bear management in general and spring hunting in particular. People who live, work, or vacation in bear country are obviously more likely to encounter bears than those who primarily reside in urban areas where bears have been extirpated. Although encounters with bears are usually benign, their large, powerful bodies means there is always the remote chance of an attack. In April, a black bear nearly killed Joe Azougar at his cottage in Cochrane. More recently, a bear charged an Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) biologist in Foleyet.

After these respective incidents, many people in northern Ontario took to social media and suggested these negative encounters were proof that the province sorely needed to reinstate the spring bear hunt to keep bear numbers in check. However, no correlation exists between frequency of attack and spring hunting to suggest that this would have mitigated these recent episodes or even others in the past. Yet living in these areas inherently requires a higher degree of personal responsibility and understanding of risk and danger. Consequently, those in close proximity to bears often have a different understanding of the animal and as such, possess different expectations over questions of safety and management.

Although there is no evidence to link a lack of spring hunting to the occurrence of attacks, these concerns should not be trivialized. Rather, such concerns should be carefully analyzed in concert with current scientific studies. Residents that share their homes with bears have genuine concerns about the protection of their property, pets, and family that are informed by their places of residence. These issues, of course, differ from their counterparts elsewhere in the province.

There are also times, however, when one’s local knowledge and proximity to wildlife can skew perceptions. Since the hunt’s cancellation, a recurring argument from people living in northern Ontario is that the bear population has erupted from decreased hunting pressure. While less bears were harvested in the initial wake of the moratorium, the current number of bears culled annually is just slightly less than the pre-spring bear hunt levels, or roughly six to eight percent of the population per annum. Currently the OMNR estimates the province has around 75,000 to 100,000 black bears, around the same range provided before 1999. Moreover, black bears have very low reproduction rates and high sensitivity to change in adult survival. Even with decreased hunting in the early 21st century, then, it is highly improbable that the population has explode.

Far more likely is that the increase is merely perception. Poor summer berry and fall mast crops, along with unseasonable weather was reported in the early 2000s and that might have driven bears out of the forests in search of alternative food sources.

Humans are also continually encroaching into the home ranges of bears. For example, more people are living in cottage country year round and often in areas that were once prime bear habitat. Therefore, we must also consider the increase in the number of permanent and summer residents in bear country as a factor, as more bear sightings or nuisance bear reports do not necessarily indicate more bears. However, there are also times when local knowledge can be appropriated by groups or individuals that have an overriding agenda. Organizations that favour bear hunting might often tally up anecdotal sighting information from across the province along with junk science to forecast a higher population. Some groups in the province have asserted that the black bear population is closer to 150,000. Unsurprisingly, the claim comes from ardent advocates seeking a reinstatement of the spring hunt.

Issues about the future of bear management in Ontario are important because the province is home to the third-largest black bear population in North America. Fifteen years after the ban, spring bear hunting remains a controversial issue, especially in certain locales where residents view it as a panacea to rising nuisance bear complaints. Many people consider the spring bear hunt be unethical because of the method of shooting bears over bait sites and how cubs are often left orphaned when their mothers are accidentally killed. Indeed, no other large game animal in the province is hunted during the spring when its young are still dependent and vulnerable, so it is only commonsensical that this same logic was applied to black bears. If a particular type of hunting is perceived to be cruel and unsportsmanlike by the majority of hunters and non-hunters in the province, do we not have the moral responsibility to cancel it, provided that doing so will not deleteriously affect ecological sustainability?

The spring bear hunt debate is far from over. While it seems as though the Wynne government is not keen on reopening this issue at the moment, it is not inconceivable that the hunt might be reassessed at a later date. When and if it is, we should remember the significance of local knowledge, tradition, and place. At the same time, we must listen to the opinions and views of those that live beyond the boundaries of bear country.

Mike Commito is a PhD candidate in the history department at McMaster University. His dissertation focuses on the history of big-game management, notably bears, deer and wolves, in Ontario and New York state.

16 thoughts on “The Role of Place and Local Knowledge in Ontario’s Spring Bear Hunt Debate: Fifteen Years Later

  1. Phil

    Not only has the bear population risen but the size of them too. There are many trophy bears around and many monster bears too. The black bear has lost fear of man.They have a different caracter now. I think when you shoot at them in the spring they remember more deeply since they just woke up.LOL

  2. commitz

    Not sure there is definitive proof to suggest that the bear population has increased. The MNR uses a number of techniques to extrapolate the population, so a precise number is impossible to obtain but we can certainly approximate it. As noted in my essay, I believe the government’s estimate is still somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000.

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  5. Tom

    I grew up on the rural fringes of Thunder Bay. Nuisance bears were always an issue in the 1960s and 1970s. But people learned to live with them. Some were shot by neighbours for sure. But it was simply common sense that you paid attention, especially if you had pets or fruit trees near the house. The current claims about the increase in nuisance bears seems to reflect sometimes a naivete about living in areas adjacent to bush. Back in the day we didn’t report every nuisance bear sighting or interaction. We just dealt with it. Now that the whole situation is thoroughly politicized by both sides in this debate, there is likely little hope of achieving anything approaching an “objective” understanding of how serious the issue is or is not.

  6. Mike Commito

    Thanks for your comment Tom! Things have definitely changed all around in terms of our attitudes and approaches to black bear management. I would agree, I don’t think we will ever find an objective viewpoint on these issues. Like most wildlife management decisions, there really is never a purely objective approach that is guided solely by science or conservation. Often times these policy decisions are very messy and are a combination of political, economic, and social considerations. I think that once we accept that the spring bear hunt will never be a black and white issue, the better we can work towards implementing a policy that benefits the greatest good without doing so at the expense of conservation.

  7. Res Krebs

    Enjoyed the read Mike. Were you aware that the SBH has been reinstated for a 2 year pilot study? I’ve read quite a few statements from OFAH that human-bear conflict has risen exponentially, but I have a hard time believing their figures. Do you know of any reliable figures on human-bear conflict since the end of the SBH? Are communities tackling this issue proactively (e.g. providing bear-proof garbage containers) as Whistler, BC has done?

  8. commitz

    Thanks Res! Yes, I’ve been following the announcement pretty closely since November. I’ve been able to see the MNR’s tracking of nuisance bear complaints from 2004-2013 but interpreting these is difficult, especially since it is hard to tell how each complaint varies. My sense is that this year was particularly bad for negative encounters with bears. There was a gentleman in Cochrane that sustained life threatening injuries and an MNR biologist apparently had a standoff with a bear near Folyete. Couple these with the usual nuisance reports then 2013 seems like a pretty notable year, which is why the MNR is marketing the pilot project as a public safety issue. Elliot Lake has actually made itself Bear Wise through the passage of bylaws and I think it’s a pretty good example of how communities in northern Ontario can mitigate negative interactions by promoting responsible behaviour and attitudes in bear country. Unfortunately, Bear Wise in the official sense was limited (gutted) in 2012. I believe that a more enhanced program to promote education and responsibility would address some of these issues but this of course would carry a price tag (albeit money well spent, in my opinion) that governments might not be willing to foot the bill for.

  9. marianne

    Good article. Does anyone know of any proposals to ban the practice of bear baiting in Ontario? It is my understanding that it is not allowed in most states that have bear hunting and is also banned in B.C. Since it contributes to the problem of bear habituation, it seems like a logical strategy to eliminate it. It’s pretty evident that bears will come to where there is food. I remember going to the dump near Dwight in the 80’s on a weekend, night. it was more popular with bears, and the humans watching them, than a drive-in..

  10. commitz

    Hi Marianne,
    Thanks for your comment. There have definitely been some proposals to ban baiting in Ontario over the course of a number of years. Members within the MNR have been calling from more stringent regulations or an outright moratorium on baiting as early as the 1970s and animal rights/animal welfare/conservation (some of these) have also advocated for an end to baiting as part of their platforms against spring bear hunting. Baiting is definitely a grey area, for many, in terms of hunter ethics but the artificial feeding of bears under any circumstances is also a significant issue that merits some consideration in this conversation as well.

  11. Eldon Hawton

    I read somewhere that habitat ‘carrying capacity’ (overpopulation) today has two important area’s of consideration, ‘natural or ecological’ (food source, shelter etc.) and ‘cultural carrying capacity’ (the limit that human populations are willing to accept), Given that sufficient, constant ‘food supply’ or lack of it is key to bear good/problematic behaviour; natural food supply being dependant on seasonal variable conditions combined with the ‘habituation problems’ due the fact that most landfill sites are now natural habitat for an extremely large portion of the bear population here in Ontario.

    Also I agree with Phil …” Not only has the bear population risen but the size of them too. There are many trophy bears around and many monster bears too. The black bear has lost fear of man. They have a different character now. I think when you shoot at them in the spring they remember more deeply since they just woke up.”

    It is also stated OMNR population numbers are questionable to say the least, Given their closest best guess remains unexplainably static over the years at between 75,000 -100,000; considering that OMNR funding is gutted and sadly a back burner issue for the Liberal government, arguably the real numbers could in fact be 100,000 -125,000 or indeed 150.000 as the proponents with a vested interest in the return of the spring bear hunt suggest.

    I believe the dilemma people living, working, & visiting Ontario’s bear country face,in terms of public health & safety; demonstrating their lack of ‘due diligence’ OMNR and the parliamentarians stemming from their ignorance combined with ‘political gamesmanship’ are playing Russian roulette with a ticking time bomb!

  12. commitz

    Thanks for your comments Eldon, much appreciated. I have from others about the lack of fear that bears are exhibiting and some have even stated that there are more aggressive bears. I do not know if this is true or not or even how we can gauge this so I’m skeptical about this claims. Also, it is still difficult to assert that 150,000 could be the current marker especially because the MNR’s annual harvest numbers for the fall hunt in the last few years are almost equal to the pre-cancellation era. The numbers show that on average we are only legally harvesting 883 less bears per year, which would make it difficult to argue that the population has exploded by over a third, especially since black bears have an extremely low reproductive rate. Granted the numbers that the MNR has are not complete, mandatory reporting for residents was only instituted in 2006 and there are an untold number of bears illegally killed each year and legal kills that go unreported. Which is why we should be very cautious when deploying population numbers and harvest numbers since at best, these are educated guesses and often incomplete. If you would like, we can discuss this more in detail via email. You can reach me at commitma (@) mcmaster.ca

  13. Eldon Hawton

    Protecting bears to be ultimately shot and wasted serves no meaningful purpose; many more bears are killed/wasted as “problem bears” than the regulated harvest. Black bears once a valuable big game resource generating social, wildlife management and economic tourist benefits worth millions, bears are now shamefully considered ‘nuisance value’ and an expensive taxpayer liability. Laws geared to prevent over-harvest are therefore redundant, difficult to enforce, open to abuse and lead to vigil-anti management solutions to bear problems (shoot-shovel-shut-up).

    Out of sight, out of mind and to my/public knowledge in unrecorded numbers! Too many bears are killed/wasted and orphaned cub numbers rise; the test of time has proven Ontario’s “Bear Wise program” is ineffective, unscientific wildlife management, addresses the symptoms rather than the problem, costs tax-payers millions, promotes the indiscriminate killing/wasting of nuisance males, females and the subsequent increased numbers of orphaned cubs.

    In the pages of the following report you will learn …

    THE BENEFITS OF FIREARMS OWNERSHIP –
    HUNTING AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT
    Library of Parliament
    Bibliothèque du Parlement

    “When wildlife populations reach their cultural and natural carrying capacity, hunting becomes even more important.

    Page 33

    “To slow the growth of bear populations and reduce conflicts, over half of all states and most provinces have established regulated bear hunting seasons. Many wildlife agencies in jurisdictions without bear seasons, but where bear populations are close to reaching the ‘cultural carrying capacity’ (the limit that human populations are willing to accept), are beginning to put hunting seasons in their plans. The primary goal is to keep bear populations healthy yet keep their populations within cultural tolerance limits. Wildlife managers do not want bears returning to a nuisance/pest status. Therefore, managers need all of the tools available to them, hunting being one of the most important methods for controlling populations.”

    An historic example of the negative implications resulting from exceeding the “cultural carrying capacity” has proven devastating for Ontario’s bears …

    Infamous Government bounty eliminated southern Ontario bears; once a common denizen of Southern Ontario the Government of Upper Canada instituted a ten-dollar bounty on black bear in 1793 to 1796. In many areas bears were relentlessly killed (hunted, trapped and poisoned) until none were to be found in the major agricultural settlements of Ontario; and bounties remained in some areas of Ontario as recently as 1961.

    Before we blame the hunters & trappers … remember this is not regulated, recorded harvesting; they are paid by the government to deal with this overpopulation problem … as at this point in time bears are considered a threat to livestock & humans.

    In terms of reaching ‘cultural carrying capacity’ overpopulation … when you consider that many/most municipal councils in Ontario bear country are very concerned and struggling for answers about dealing with problem bears and the serious threat to public safety.

    I believe the problem is fast approaching crisis proportions and if history lessons have taught us anything, sadly the ultimate losers will be the bears.

    Therefore: “The Role of Place and Local Knowledge in Ontario’s Spring Bear Hunt Debate: Fifteen Years Later” remains relevant, crucial and of utmost importance.

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  15. tasse tessier

    What is not mentioned in this article, is that in the spring and summer of 1999 that the MNR under minister JOHN SNOBELEN SHOT AND KILLED OVER 100 BEARS and then dumped them in the bush to rot. Did JOHN SNOBELEM and his MINISTRY fill in the mandatory survey and questionnaire that the ministry wants every bear hunter to fill I think not. As far as the OMNR’S estimates on bear numbers how can they know this when they can’t ever predict the actual amount of MOOSE IN NORTHERN ONTARIO. In my opinion if the people of Toronto etc. love bears so much perhaps the MNR can trap them and drop them of on YOUNG STREET. Right that will never happen since the ministry is so short handed do to cutbacks, it’s now up to the OPP OR REGENAL POLICE to deal with this matter.

  16. Mike Commito

    I didn’t mention that because I’ve never heard of this, please share your source. The Ministry can “know” estimates because it is just an approximation. No one definitively knows how many bears there are, similar to how no one knows how many moose there are, again the number of moose is just an educated guess. Even if the MNRF had greater resources to trap and relocate, I don’t think it would be wise to move the bears to Yonge Street in Toronto, that’s a very busy thoroughfare!

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