Why the spring bear hunt isn't about public safety

By Jeremy Appel, Special to TVO.org - Published on November 17, 2015
Public safety is a key government rationale for bringing back the spring bear hunt.

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After a summer with more than 2,000 bear sightings around Sudbury alone, many northerners will be relieved that the spring black bear hunt is coming back to northern Ontario. following a 16-year hiatus.

But how effective is the hunt in keeping people safe from errant bears? Are there other ways to curb bear wanderings without resorting to force?

Hunters will now be able to shoot male black bears between May 1 and June 15 for at least the next five years in 88 hunting regions across the province. A hunt this size will be the first since 1999, when Mike Harris’government banned the spring hunt in response to pressure from environmentalists and animal rights activists concerned about the welfare of vulnerable female bears and their cubs. Under the new spring hunt, it will still be illegal to hunt bear cubs and females with cubs.

Public safety is a key reason the government is giving for the return of the spring hunt. Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Bill Mauro says that renewing the spring hunt will address “concerns voiced by northern communities about human-bear conflicts” and serve as a boon to tourism and economic growth in the region.

Mark Ryckman, senior wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), applauds the return of the hunt, for which he has advocated since its abolition, but sees any public safety benefits as tangential.

“If we were to list in order of importance all the benefits of a spring bear hunt, then public safety would be down near the bottom." The socioeconomic benefits are huge, Rychman says. "We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars annually spent in areas that really rely on those outside tourism dollars to sustain their businesses.” 

“If we were to completely ignore the public safety benefits, we believe that the spring bear hunt has the merit to stand on its own.” 

An August 2015 report from the Northern Policy Institute similarly casts doubt on the efficacy of resurrecting the spring hunt to protect people from potential bear attacks.

"Black bears are smart, large and powerful animals that are capable of being dangerous, but conflating the spring bear hunt with public safety promotes a misunderstanding of the animal that has ramifications beyond the hunting season," the report states.

The report supports the reinstatement of the hunt, but not for public safety purposes. Its authors want to use the hunt to provide a boost to northern Ontario tourism by opening it up to non-residents.

So what explains the government’s emphasis on the public safety angle?

Dylan Gordon, a University of Toronto PhD candidate in anthropology who researches the Canadian trade of wild food products, says the government’s focus on reducing human-bear conflict is a product of Ontario’s rural-urban divide.

Ontario’s southern, city-dwelling majority is mostly not familiar with hunting as a way of life and may not be so supportive of a bear hunt seen as a cash grab. They’re more likely to support it if it’s framed in terms of keeping them safe, he says.

“A lot of people who are pro-animal rights would still agree that a human’s life is more valuable than a bear’s,” says Gordon.

Mike McIntosh, founder of Bear with Us, a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre, calls both the government’s justifications for resurrecting the hunt “a bunch of malarkey.”

He blames hunting lobbying groups like OFAH for pressuring the government into supporting a policy that ignores the issue at hand – baiting. It’s not that there are too many bears wandering northern Ontario, McIntosh says, but that they’re being drawn into cities by hunters.

 “If there were more regulations referring to baiting, it would make it a much more legitimate, honest and ethical hunt,” he says

“The bears aren’t the dangerous ones,” says McIntosh. “The hunters are.”  

Ryckman rejects the notion that baiting leads to unnecessary deaths. He says it has no impact on bears' use of natural food, and that they are still going to come into cities looking for food, regardless of where hunters lay their bait.

Instead of putting the focus on baiting, Ryckman suggests a few supplementary measures to keep northern cities safe from bears: strengthening garbage bylaws, translocating errant bears away from cities and better informing the public about safety.

"Proper bear management requires the use of all available tools,” he says, “including regulated hunting." 

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