John Yakabuski, Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, has announced the government is considering the introduction of a permanent, spring black bear hunt. The ministry is accepting public feedback on the proposal until Feb. 18, 2020.
The spring hunting season has been running as a pilot program since 2014, but the government is now proposing to make it a fully established program.
“From our side of things, this is the outcome of about 21 years of advocacy efforts,” says Keith Munro, a wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.
“We lobbied for the initial pilot program. We lobbied for the extended pilot program. With the pilot program ending this year, we were looking for the return of the full spring bear hunt.”
The spring hunting season was originally cancelled in 1999 under the Mike Harris government due to concerns about black bear cubs being orphaned at a time when they were dependent on their mothers. “The decision was very much a political decision based on public pressure. It was never supported based on any sort of evidence on sustainability concerns,” Munro argues.
In an article published in International Bear News soon after the 1999 decision, Martyn Obbard, a researcher with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, argued that the widespread orphaning of black bear cubs during Ontario’s spring hunting season was “perpetuated misinformation.”
He went on to write that the number of cubs anti-hunting organizations claimed were being orphaned did not take into account the ministry’s hunting regulations and, therefore, were misrepresentative.
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Munro argues that as long as the spring hunt is regulated, the black bear population is sustainable. The government estimates that there is a population of between 75,000 and 100,000 black bears currently in Ontario.
“You can safely harvest 10 per cent of that population,” he says. “That’s actually a pretty conservative limit. It recognizes the reproductive biology of black bears.”
To protect the population, the government imposed limits for hunters. They are allowed one black bear a year, and it is illegal to kill a cub or a female with cubs.
“That prohibition actually carries some of the most severe fish and wildlife penalties that we have,” Munro says. “It’s up to $25,000 in fines and up to a year in jail.”
But some organizations don’t feel these regulations go far enough. Liz White, the director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, a non-profit that played a major role in having the spring hunt cancelled in 1999, says that black bears are now being hunted when they’re most vulnerable.
“In the spring, they come out of hibernation and they haven’t eaten anything. They’re starving and the moms have young.”
She adds that this is compounded by the fact that the fall black bear hunting season, which was extended to compensate for the 1999 spring season cancellation, has not been adjusted back to its original dates.
The spring season will run from May 1 to June 15, while the fall season lasts from mid-August to the end of November. “They hunt them all fall when they’re eating ravenously, trying to fatten up for hibernation. So, they’re caught at both vulnerable times at which they’re hunted.”
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White also pins the reintroduction of the pilot project in 2014 under the Kathleen Wynne government on their need to garner votes rather than for wildlife management reasons.
“They felt that their votes in the north were in decline,” she says. “As a pitch to northerners, they said they’d reintroduce the spring bear hunt.”
With the current effects of climate change on wildlife populations, White is concerned that the Wynne government didn’t thoroughly consider the consequences of reintroducing an additional hunting season. “What we’re seeing in deer and moose are declines in populations, serious declines in populations because ticks, which used to die during severe winters, aren’t dying anymore.”
While she doesn’t have any data on black bears, she says it’s possible climate change will affect their population numbers as well. “Given what we’re seeing in extreme weather changes that are coming about as a result of climate change, we simply don’t know how they’re going to cope.”