We have all seen the uplifting videos on social media. With humanity under lockdown across much of the globe, nature is coming back. There are deer in city parks. Bunnies in backyards. There’s even one great video of a couple of hikers in Newfoundland having a surprising but pleasant encounter with a pair of moose. Perhaps — for city dwellers, at least — one of the effects of this pandemic going forward will be an enhanced appreciation for nature. Having lived in more frequent contact with wildlife, and having known quieter cities and cleaner air, perhaps we will resent moving backward into life as we once knew it: smog, noisy traffic jams, and nature banished far from where most of us live.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. Ontario is going to have to worry about bears.
Bears are never not an issue in Ontario. They exist, and encounters between people and bears happen. Fatal encounters (fatal to the humans, that is) are rare. Late last year, an American tourist was killed by a black bear in Ontario — the first known fatal bear attack in the province since 2005. Still, one of the reasons fatal encounters are so rare is that bears and humans normally stay out of each other's way, more or less. And part of that generally successful arrangement is a controlled, regulated culling of the bear population: an annual hunt.
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The spring hunt has been allowed to continue this year, but, given the economic disruption and travel difficulties, it's unclear how many bears will actually be culled. That raises the danger of a larger number of bears seeking out food in areas they’d normally avoid — the more bears, the farther each must range to feed.
This topic came up last month in an interview for TVO.org with Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario. The interview was about how the pandemic is affecting Ontario's tourism sector. Hunting and fishing are major tourism industries in the province, and I asked Marcil whether a missed season would have a noticeable impact on the ecosystem:
Marcil: We looked at that. With angling, it’s probably not a problem. We very carefully manage removal of fish from our lakes. We conserve the fish stocks. So, in many areas, you can’t take the fish out. You catch and release. So a year with no fishing, if anything, will have a small positive impact for the fish stocks. But the problem is bears! The spring bear hunt would normally be starting around now. We already have issues of bears wandering into populated areas. A year without a bear hunt, yes, that could mean problems.
Gurney: As if we don’t have enough problems right now. Now we’re going to have bears invading the cities.
At the time, my comment was intended to be tongue in cheek. It's proved prophetic. Just this week, I heard from relatives north of Peterborough, in cottage country. A large black bear had raided their bird feeder (which has now been removed!) in the middle of the night. Bears are not unusual in that part of the province, but this is the first time they recalled ever having seen one come right up to the house (the bird feeder is right next to the side door — eight feet, tops, from the home's outer wall). I've heard anecdotal reports and seen social-media posts suggesting that this is not the only hungry bear on the loose.
You all know what they say about anecdotes and data. So I asked the Ministry of Natural Resources whether it’s seen a jump in the number of reports of bears in populated areas. It has. So far this year, a spokesperson told me in an email, it’s had 300 calls; last year, at this time, it’d had 218. (They note that one bear can result in multiple calls, but that's true in any year.) They said that bears hadn’t been observed getting up to any unusual behaviour to date but granted that some might move into areas that are normally occupied by humans but are currently, due to the pandemic, quiet. Further, they added this: "Some ... areas, such as open spaces, will have clearings where vegetation (grasses) will grow that might attract deer, geese or bears. It is unlikely that this will change habits of wildlife in the long-term; bears and other wildlife will quickly learn to avoid those areas again when the presence of humans returns, provided attractants are managed properly."
Beyond that, the usual advice applies: don't leave food (including pet food) outside, take garbage out in the morning on pickup day and tightly secure the bins, take down bird feeders from May to November, and keep your barbecues free of grease and food remnants, which the bears will smell.
It's good advice. As nice as it's been to see nature returning these last few weeks, sometimes it's better for both the natural world and the human one to have a little bit of distance between them.
Note: in its statement to me, the Ministry of Natural Resources included this link, which leads to advice for Ontarians regarding black bears. You’ll really want to practise physical distancing.