Missing the Mark on Spring Bear Hunt

May 2, 2016 - This week marks the return of the spring bear hunt in Ontario. This past February, the province confirmed that it was extending the spring bear hunt for an additional five years, expanding it to all wildlife management units that currently have fall bear hunting, and offering hunting privileges to non-residents.

Previously, the government had introduced a two-year spring bear hunt pilot beginning in 2014, but it was restricted to eight wildlife management units in Northern Ontario and was only open to resident hunters. The current expansion of the hunt addresses concerns that the previous incarnation was too limited and that non-residents should be included in order to stimulate the outfitting industry in the North. The move echoed recommendations made by Northern Policy last August when we suggested that the province should reinstitute a complete spring bear hunt on a trial basis, on the grounds that the bear population is robust enough to support a more extensive spring harvest and that it would be a boon for the outfitting industry in Northern Ontario. However, the government’s policy diverged from our own when it continued to promote the spring bear hunt pilot as a way to address “concerns voiced by northern communities about human-bear conflicts.”

Our critique of the 2014-15 pilot program was that the government had marketed it as a public safety program and propped up the spring bear hunt as a panacea to the issue of "nuisance" bears. Instead, the spring bear hunt should have been reintroduced on considerations grounded in sustainability and economics, as the scientific literature suggests that spring hunting will not reduce human-bear conflicts, since these are chiefly caused by natural food shortages.

While Northern Policy Institute welcomes the return of the spring bear hunt, on the basis that the activity is sustainable and could support economic growth in our region, the government is still falling short in a number of areas with this policy.

Although it is still illegal to hunt females with cubs during the spring, with offenders facing fines in the neighbourhood of $25,000 or one year imprisonment, the government should be developing and implementing a mandatory black bear hunting education course. Hunter misidentification is still a concern and providing prospective hunters with the proper education and tools to better distinguish between male and female black bears could mitigate concerns that the spring hunt needlessly jeopardizes female bears and their cubs.

With the hunt now on the books for another five years, the government needs to begin scaling back the fall hunt. In the wake of the spring bear hunt cancellation in 1999, the fall season was extended in 1999 and 2004 to placate hunters and outfitters. In most wildlife management units in Northern Ontario, the fall season runs for approximately 12 weeks (August 15-October 31). With the return of a more expansive spring hunt, there needs to be a reduction in hunting pressure in the fall in order to avoid the potential for overhunting. Right now, the province’s black bears will be facing sustained, and almost continuous, hunting pressure from May to October as part of the spring and fall seasons. This is unnecessary and could detrimentally impact the population of Ontario’s black bears in the long-term. As a result, it would be prudent to review the length of the seasons and adjust them accordingly.

Finally, the government should give consideration to reinvigorating the Bear Wise program. Initially established as part of the recommendations of the Nuisance Bear Review Committee, in 2004, it was subsequently gutted in 2012. Once thought to be the Cadillac of educational programs, Bear Wise is now a shell of its former self and is no longer doing the important outreach it was once heralded for. Education is a powerful tool and it is essential that the government strive to maintain a framework that promotes coexistence in the long-term. While Northern Ontario communities such as Elliot Lake, Timmins, and Sudbury have taken additional steps to make their communities more Bear Wise through garbage bylaws, the government still needs to provide Ontarians with better resources and a proper support system to promote coexistence with bears across the North.

Moving forward, the government would be wise to abandon the rhetoric of public safety and the claim that there is a connection between a spring hunt and a reduction in human-bear conflicts. Its own committee reached this conclusion in 2003 and the current scientific literature does not support this red herring. Black bears are smart, large, and powerful animals that are capable of being dangerous, but conflating the spring hunt with human-bear conflicts promotes a misunderstanding of the animal that has significant ramifications. The spring hunt should not be seen as a substitute for more comprehensive management and the government needs to recognize this. Above all, Ontario’s black bear management program needs to adhere to the guiding principles laid out in the province’s 2009 proposal for enhanced management: “Black bears have an intrinsic value within natural ecosystem and positive socio-economic value when managed by sustainable use principles.” Regardless of the economic potential that they possess, black bears need to be managed in perpetuity so that they remain an integral part of Ontario’s rich natural heritage.

By Dr. Mike Commito, Research Coordinator with Northern Policy Institute.


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1 Reader Comments

  • A few comments

    Posted By Gerry K Cariou on 5/18/2016 11:49:18 AM

    There is actually much more to the fiasco that is the return of the spring bear hunt. This policy statement is limited in that it identifes some quite minor issues and it seems the primary recommendation is to limit the fall hunt and to follow "previous study recommendations" regarding bear management. Truth is the return of the spring bear hunt is actually turning out to be a bad thing - especially for the tourism industry, it has made things worse. Not noted by the author include some serious "new" regulations related to conducting the hunt including: 1) 200 meter setbacks (636 feet) for bait stands - a regulation that eliminates 95% of the current bear baiting sites in use by tourism outfitters. 2) there is a reduction in the number of "Form 33s" being issued. A form 33 is what an outfitter requires to harvest each bear. That's right the MNRF is reducing the number of Form 33s they issue while expanding the season - so we now have 2 seasons but less bears allocated.

    The major problem is these new regulations now apply to the fall hunt as well - ruining it for tourism outfitters as well. The aithor is incorrect in that the red herring is the nuisance bear issue, while that may be true, the real red herring here is the reinstaement of the spring hunt itself, and that no additional allocation (actually a reduction) in Form 33s are being issued to tourism outfitters. This kind of begs the question why was it reinstated in the first place and now, the new setback rules for bait stands has ruined the fall hunt as well. What kind of Government policy is that NPI? Before writing these policy articles, may I suggest the author(s) actually do some field "truthing" and that they examine a broader range of issues on the subject they are writing about. Maybe a "best practice" for those at the NPI would be to try talking to those most affected by the Government policies first before writing position papers on the issue.

    Economics are an important part of the issues we face in Northern Ontario and we need to ensure that tourism is recognized for the significant economic impacts it has in our remote and sparsely populated region. These policies related to the spring bear hunt certainly don't recognize any of that, in fact they make things a lot worse. Bear's can be managed sustainably as the author suggests, and hunting is and should be part of the management strategy. Making it impossible for outfitters to run a hunt is bad policy, plain and simple.

    Gerry Cariou

    Executive Director

    Ontario's Sunset Country Travel Association


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