Science and Politics in Wildlife Management: Ontario Expands the Spring Bear Hunt

On October 30, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) announced that the province of Ontario would be expanding the spring bear hunt pilot project for another 5 years.

Like most issues related to hunting, the factors and considerations involved in decisions about the Ontario spring bear hunt are numerous and complex. The history of debate over the spring bear hunt is in many ways the perfect example of the challenge in balancing science and politics. There are economic interests involved; scientific studies; landowners who have safety and livelihood considerations; anti-hunting voices who advance certain public perceptions of the hunt; and of course hunters who have a vested interest in both the hunt and the species. I won’t pretend to know the nuances of the opinions of every voice at the table, but I find the science-politics part of this discussion interesting, and one that will likely continue to define hunting and wildlife management in North America.

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It is estimated that there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 105,000 black bears (Ursus americanus) in Ontario. The provincial population is healthy and is at no risk of being threatened. The Ontario spring bear hunt was originally cancelled in 1999, largely due to pressure from animal-rights organizations who claimed that the hunt left cubs orphaned when sows (female bears) were killed by hunters. Killing sows is illegal in the spring hunt, so this claim seems to rest on one of the following two assumptions: 1) hunters were accidentally killing large numbers of sows, or 2) hunters are willfully breaking the law and engaging in unethical hunting practices. I take great exception to the latter; convincing data has yet to be provided on the former. In fact, reports of an estimated 274 cubs orphaned in 1999 alone have been refuted by bear biologists. Many of the arguments by these organizations use emotionally-charged language, telling voters that bear hunting in the spring is done “when they are most vulnerable”, and that the hunt depends on baiting, a practice where hunters do little more than “sit behind blinds and shoot the bears“. These statements are a dramatic reduction of a much more complicated biology and hunting practice.

On the other end of the spectrum are groups like the OFAH who advocated for the return of the spring hunt. Representing hunters, these organizations worked to present evidence that supported the hunt as an effective management tool. Concerns over human-bear conflicts is one of the main issues presented by hunting organizations to advocate for a return of the hunt. These groups suggested that the former Bear Wise program, Ontario’s trap and relocation program intended to respond to human-bear conflicts, was largely ineffective at reducing conflict. They contend that harvest is a more effective management tool to control bear populations and reduce the incidence of conflict. The economic benefits of the hunt are also cited as an important vote in favour of its full return. Hunting contributes a great deal of money to local economies through the sale of licenses and income from tourism. A report published in August 2015, states that prior to its cancellation, the combined spring and fall bear hunts generated an estimated $30.3 million per year. Current estimates put the value of the spring hunt closer to $100 million.

Here’s where an interesting part of the science comes into the discussion. Were 274 cubs orphaned every year by spring bear hunters? No, according to Ontario’s leading bear biologist, Dr. Martyn Obbard. One needs to understand the reproductive cycle of black bears and appreciate the laws surrounding the spring hunt to realize that this claim is scientifically unsubstantiated. However, in a paper published in 2014, Dr. Obbard explains that human-bear conflict is not negatively correlated with harvest rates. This means that the data does not support the claim that increasing harvests will decrease conflict and problem bears. On the other hand, data from a study published in 2015 suggests that problem bear activity did increase significantly following the closure of the spring hunt, but says that food availability is a significant factor in human-bear conflicts. Dr. Obbard’s study also indicates that food availability is a major factor in human-bear conflict. So now what?

On the topic of dealing with “problem bears” (a term I dislike in itself), my opinion is somewhat self-contradictory. Our pattern of population expansion has in many ways been ecologically irresponsible, and if that has led to an increase in human-bear conflict, then that is the bed we’ve made. I’m not saying we should deliberately put people at risk simply because we may have brought the problem on ourselves; however, I don’t think it’s singular justification for a hunt. Having said that, the other side of that coin is that if we wish to continue to grow human settlements and expand industrial development, then like it or not, animal populations need to be controlled. In that regard, we’re all going to have to accept hunting as a management tool that is an important and successful component of our system of wildlife management in North America.

My own support for the bear hunt has generally little to do with the singular debate over its efficacy at reducing human-bear conflicts. We need to make informed decisions about hunts based on current and reliable data. But data is not enough; decisions need to be based on a critical, honest, and thorough consideration of all the factors involved. In the case of bears, both the studies I discussed above identify food availability as a main limiting factor for bears. This suggests that habitat needs to be protected. So if we want to make decisions about bear management, we should be honest about the realities of issues like climate change and the impacts of industrial activities, regardless of our political leanings. My main priority, always, is conservation – of habitat, of species. If the spring bear hunt is not putting the species at risk (and it is not, let’s be very clear about that), then I support the decision to extend it as part of a larger picture of supporting hunting. However, this does not absolve us of the responsibility to take strong action in other areas to ensure wildlife has healthy and abundant habitat.

As an aside, lest anyone think I’m just giving blind support for more hunting opportunities, I’ve used the same criteria for the opposite position with regard to the moose hunt in Ontario. It’s generally accepted at this point that moose are in some sort of decline throughout much of their North American range, and as a result, Ontario has seen a reduction in moose tags. In my opinion, some organizations have argued irresponsibly against this decision in order to protect hunting opportunities: a political move. My position is that the moose come first. Every time. I’ll gladly give up moose hunting for a time to ensure the stability and longevity of the population in the future. Again, we need to learn to accept the necessity of difficult decisions that we may not like in order to keep our most important priorities at the forefront.

So there it is, all that to say that I support the spring bear hunt for a range of more complex reasons than those to which the media on both sides have reduced this debate.

Well, as I’ve said many times in conversations with friends, one of the things I love so much about hunting is the way it challenges me both physically and intellectually. What all of this tells me is that this debate is reminiscent of so many others in our lives: we are pulled in many directions. We might have emotion pulling us one way, politics another, science another, and somewhere amidst all the confusion is the realization that we need to consider and embrace the complexity of the situation. It’s not a simple matter with a simple answer. We are dealing with a wild animal with its own biology and behaviours that don’t synchronize with human debate and political tides.

The full announcement can be watched here:

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