No, black bears aren’t a serious threat during COVID-19

OPINION: A smaller spring bear hunt won’t put Ontarians at risk. The hunt isn’t about public safety — it’s about profit and votes
By Camille Labchuk - Published on May 20, 2020
Doug Ford’s government made the spring bear hunt permanent this year. (iStock.com/RT-Images)

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As humans stay put to halt the spread of the COVID-19, it’s heartening to read stories about animals venturing into spaces once dominated by us — the internet-famous family of foxes living under the boardwalk at a beach in Toronto is just one example. I’ve been enjoying an abundance of birds in my backyard, although it’s hard to say whether there are more birds or whether I’m just home more often to see them. 

It’s also worth cheering for the countless wild animals in Ontario who will escape being shot to death by sport hunters this year, given the likely drop in hunting due to economic concerns and travel complications, including border closures. Black bears, for instance, may avoid being gunned down during the controversial spring bear hunt.

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm — the usual public-safety fearmongering over black bears typical of recent years has already emerged. Last week, Matt Gurney wrote on TVO.org that “culling” the bear population through the spring bear hunt could keep people safe and that less hunting this spring could lead to an increase in human-bear interactions and put people at risk.

But such assertions just aren’t based on evidence. The truth is that bear attacks — which the province describes as “extremely rare” — simply aren’t a serious risk to public safety, and hunting bears does nothing to further address an already minor concern. It’s time for a reality check and a history lesson.

The spring bear hunt was banned in 1999 by the Mike Harris government for a decent, compassionate reason — concern over orphaned bear whose mothers were mistakenly shot by hunters. Left to fend for themselves, vulnerable babies are likely to die of starvation or be killed by predators. For 16 years, Ontario black bears and their cubs lived free from worry about being gunned down when they emerged from hibernation in a weakened state and went foraging for food.

This changed in 2014, when the Kathleen Wynne government reintroduced the hunt as a five-year pilot program, billing its reinstatement as a public-safety measure. But the 16-year ban didn’t make us less safe, and government studies give no indication that the spring bear hunt reduced human-bear conflict. When Doug Ford’s government made the hunt permanent this year, it didn’t even mention public safety. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters also makes no claims that its intense lobbying effort to bring back the hunt was about safety: its primary motivation was profit for sport hunters.

While governments often represent the hunt as a public-safety issue, its return was only ever about winning votes in northern communities, where there’s money to be made from sport hunting. American trophy hunters will pay big bucks to guide outfitters for the chance to shoot an Ontario black bear and use our province’s beautiful natural spaces as a lethal playground. 

It’s no wonder that some would cynically choose to emphasize misleading public-safety claims instead of acknowledging that the spring bear hunt is mostly about profit and votes. A 2019 poll reveals that an overwhelming 87 per cent of Ontarians oppose sport hunting, so governments stand to lose support if they can’t successfully convince people that the hunt is somehow about public safety. Most people would never hunt, but they do want to be safe.

So what can Ontarians do to reduce human-bear interactions and minimize the already-low risk? Fluctuations in food availability due to climate change affect bear sightings; people generally report more bear sightings in years when food is less abundant. Gurney cites an increase in bear sightings in 2020 compared to 2019 as evidence of potential risk, omitting the fact that bear sighting were down last year due to a good natural food crop. 

Experts say that the main cause of human-bear conflict is such attractants as garbage, barbecues, and other human food. Leaving out food is precisely the strategy many spring bear hunters rely on to attract bears. They set up “bait” sites, leaving out day-old baked doughnuts, dog chow, or other junk food to gradually habituate bears to relying on the bait site. Hungry and thin after a winter in hibernation, bears eager to put on body weight become sitting ducks. Baiting is considered irresponsible and unethical by many, and the practice may further habituate black bears to venturing into human-centric areas in search of food.

So if you’re worried about bears, don’t be. They have far more to fear from us than we do from them.

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