Tanya Pulfer figures she’s seen a black bear in the forest behind her family farm once every three years since she was a kid. "You'd see it when you were out on the tractor," she says, "this bear all of a sudden wandering out onto the cornfield." Although the noise of the engine kept it at a distance, the bear would linger for the duration of the season, appearing now and then to forage in the blackberry bushes that grew along the fields’ edges. Today, Pulfer is the conservation science manager at Ontario Nature, a charity representing more than 150 naturalist and conservation groups. But her cousins still work the same family farm, near Hastings, half an hour east of Peterborough. And last year, yet another bear turned up.
Black bears live primarily in northern Ontario, but in 2016 there were frequent sightings in the province's more densely populated southern regions. Bears were hit by cars in Wellington and Middlesex counties; six were admitted to Rosseau’s Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in a single month, and almost 30 were spotted in Huron County — up from 15 just three years prior.
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"I'm an old fella, you know," says Robert Trick, animal control officer for six of Huron County's nine municipalities. "About 60 years ago, we had a few bears in the area, and they got into the honey yards. And then, for a period of time — 40 years, I'd say — we had nothing. Now, all of a sudden, we're starting to see them again."
Trick blames drought conditions for a bad berry crop in 2016, which sent bears wandering south to find the nourishment needed to prepare for hibernation. A 2003 report from the Ministry of Natural Resource's Nuisance Bear Review Committee supports Trick's theory, noting that bears will migrate more than 100 km to eat and that the availability of their preferred foods is inconsistent from year to year. "Blueberries can vary from less than 10 kg per hectare to more than 1000 kg per hectare," writes committee member Martyn Obbard. "The potential for nuisance bear activity increases in years when berry crops fail and the animals search for alternate food sources."
Some face longer treks than others. "If a big male is occupying a home range with ideal habitat, he'll squeeze out the sub-adult males," Pulfer says. "They would have to go find their own spots, and sometimes that means they end up wandering farther south than we're used to seeing them." The paths they follow are often well travelled and well documented. "There's always been animals coming down the Lake Huron coast," Pulfer says. "And there's a breeding population up in the Barrie-Orillia area, and sometimes the juvenile males will trickle down to Newmarket from there."
An increase in sightings may provide insight into the state of the bears' habitat and range, but Mike McIntosh, founder and president of Bear With Us, a sanctuary in Sprucedale, says it tells us nothing about their numbers. "If you look at the data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, there's no indication that the bear population overall has increased," he says. "They spread; they disperse. And from my experience of releasing well over 450 bears since I started this, and tagging a lot of them, I know that they wander."
Bear With Us is housing 42 cubs this year, 10 fewer than last year, but many more than the one before that. Once they’re old enough, they'll be taken back to where they came from and set free, to determine for themselves just how often it's safe to be spotted as they try to scrounge enough food to last the winter.
"If we have a dry summer, and a lack of berries, there's more bears seen. Doesn't mean there's more bears, just more bears seen," McIntosh says. "They go where the calories are — it might be somebody's bird feeder, it might be apple trees. Or, if there's an abundance of berries in the bush, you'll never see them."
Daniel Sellers works as a journalist and lives in Toronto.
Photo courtesy of Calypso Orchid and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)