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Ontario’s politically convenient plan to revive spring bear hunt: Walkom

Photo Dreamstime  In 2012, the cash-strapped Liberal government cancelled its only substantive program for handling nuisance bears, something called trap and relocate, writes Thomas Walkom.
Photo Dreamstime
In 2012, the cash-strapped Liberal government cancelled its only substantive program for handling nuisance bears, something called trap and relocate, writes Thomas Walkom.

National Affairs, Published on Fri Mar 07 2014

Pity the bears. It seems they’ll be collateral damage from Ontario’s political wars.

The issue is the spring bear hunt. Premier Kathleen Wynne is proposing to start up this dubious practice again for a two-year trial period

Tim Hudak’s Conservatives want the hunt reinstated, period. Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats walk a delicate line of deliberate obscurity.

But all three parties are running scared — fearful that any opposition to a renewal of the spring hunt could endanger their chances in key northern ridings.

Conversely, if they appear too eager to see bears killed, they might lose southern votes in an election that could come this spring.

There are up to 105,000 black bears in Ontario — virtually all of them in the north. For several weeks each fall, it is perfectly legal to shoot and kill them.

Until 1999, licensed hunters could also shoot and kill bears each spring. Mothers and cubs were supposed to be given a free pass. But in the thrill of the chase, such niceties weren’t always observed.

The preferred method of hunting a bear is to entice the animal into a kill zone by planting bait — and then blast away from the safety of a raised platform.

Not very sporting perhaps. But effective.

Fifteen years ago, to the surprise of the sporting lobby, Conservative premier Mike Harris cancelled the spring hunt.

In part, Harris was responding to logic: in conservationist terms, it makes little sense to kill animals during the season when mothers raise their offspring.

In part, he was responding to pressure from a well-funded environmental group that threatened to mobilize voters against the Tories.

The hunting lobby grumbled. But, politically, the cancellation was working out — until two things happened.

First, the number of so-called nuisance bear sightings began to increase. Second, the recession hit.

Bears are omnivores. If they can’t find enough berries and bugs in the wild, they’ll wander into areas where humans live and chow down on garbage. In government parlance, they become nuisances

Exactly why bears couldn’t find enough natural food is unclear. Maybe climate change. Maybe something else. But for whatever reason, they began to look elsewhere.

What we do know, from a 2003 government panel, is that the increase in nuisance sightings had nothing to with the end of the spring hunt.

Bears weren’t suddenly emboldened by the fact that hunters were killing them only in the fall. Rather, they were responding to what the panel called “variations in the availability of natural foods.”

Even then the problem could have been finessed had the recession not hit. But it did.

In 2012, the cash-strapped government cancelled its only substantive program for handling nuisance bears , something called trap and relocate.

Under trap and relocate, a bear found bothering people in a built-up area would be captured by Ministry of Natural Resources officers, trucked far away into the bush and released.

The plan wasn’t foolproof. Some bears, particularly older ones, returned. But in many areas, trap and relocate — combined with efforts to contain human garbage — worked.

One study, published five years ago in the journal Wildlife Biology estimated that up to 70 per cent of Ontario’s relocated bears did not reoffend.

In relative terms, trap and relocate was cheap, costing the treasury less than $500,000 a year. But by 2012, the Liberals were bent on austerity. And so the program was axed.

As a result, the spring bear hunt is now back on the table. A period of public consultation ended this week. In selected areas that take in Timmins, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, the hunt is tentatively scheduled to resume May 1.

Right now, the seats in those areas are held by the Liberals and NDP.

All three parties in the legislature know that the spring bear hunt is a foolish idea. All three know that it won’t solve the nuisance-bear problem.

But politically, it is the easiest thing to do.

Unless, of course, voters who favour bears begin to pay attention.


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