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:

Reflections on a Black Bear Hunt

This post originally started as a general discussion of the basics of black bear ecology, which was inspired by my upcoming bear hunt, and was intended to be a simple recap from the hunt. I worked on this post before the hunt, while sitting in my stand a couple times, and finally, completing it once I returned from the hunt. The nature and purpose of the post took a different turn on the third day of our hunt. It’s come to be about something deeper and more important than a “hunting journal” of sorts. Now, I need to explore a topic that I think many hunters have encountered, but that few of us know how to talk about, certainly with the public.

I debated posting this, because it focuses on a difficult topic, one that opens me up for criticism. My experience in life has been that it is better to deal with the negative reactions that might come from owning your actions with honesty, than to try and sidestep the truth for the sake of protecting your ego. Although being open about something can lead to some difficult consequences, at the end of it all, I’d rather be able to say that I took those consequences on the chin with honesty and humility.

Here’s how the post originally began…

There are three species of bears in North America: grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), polar bear (Ursus maritimus), and black bear (Ursus americanus). Across their range, each species can be divided into distinct populations and subpopulations.

Black bears range throughout pretty much the entire province of Ontario, except for the very southern portion. Black bear populations in Ontario are abundant and healthy, and they are not in any way listed as endangered or protected. It’s important to remember that each species of bears has a different ecological role, or niche, based on its habitat, evolution, and biology. The status of one population of one species is not necessarily an indicator of another population elsewhere. In Ontario, the black bear hunt is an important management tool in maintaining sustainable numbers of bears in different regions of the province, depending on the local environment, resources, degree of urbanization, and the impact of bears on other wildlife.

Black bear range and density in Ontario.

Black bear range and density in Ontario.

Black bears are an extremely adaptable species, and they are an important part of Ontario’s ecosystems. Black bear cubs are born in a den in January-February after a 6-7 month gestation period, generally weighing less than a pound. Typically, a sow (female bear) will give birth to 1-3 cubs. The cubs and sow come out of the den in the spring and begin actively eating. While nursing in the den, sows can lose a great deal of their body weight, so the  spring is an important feeding time for bears. Cubs will stay with the sow for the first year of their lives, throughout their first full winter, after which they will leave the mother and be on their own. A sow will breed every two years, skipping the years she has cubs. Black bears breed in June-July, but interestingly, actual implantation depends on the body condition of the particular sow. If a bear is healthy and has been able to feed enough throughout the summer, she will become pregnant in the fall.

Black bears are omnivores and opportunistic eaters whose diet depends on the season. They will eat grasses, berries, insects, small mammals, fish, young deer and moose, and males have been known to eat cubs. Throughout the summer, bears will follow and actively seek the various berry crops as they ripen (raspberries, juniper berries, blueberries, etc.). These are a staple summer food for bears. In the late summer and fall, bears are focused on eating as much as possible to put on fat stores for the winter, and mast crops (acorns, beech nuts, etc.) are a favourite. At this time of year, foods high in carbohydrates are important for bears to develop extensive fat reserves for the winter, sometimes doubling their body weight in only 4-5 months. Competition with other bears for food (referred to by ecologists as intraspecific competition), a reduction in habitat from urban and other human developments, and seasonal availability of food sources can have impacts on human-bear encounters.

In discussing the black bear hunt, it’s important to understand that black bears don’t have a “territory” or “home range” in the same way one associates with wolves or deer. A black bear will determine the size of the area in which it lives based on the availability of food. An individual bear (and black bears are generally solitary) will follow food sources throughout the seasons, sometimes traveling over 100 km for favoured food sources. In areas where food sources are more spread out, so too will the area over which a bear moves. In areas surrounded by urban developments, a bear’s range will be contracted. Bears may very well defend individual food sources from other bears, but their territory is generally too large to actively defend. Bear movement and habitat use patterns can change based on the local bear population and the annual productivity of berry and mast crops. Given this, it can be difficult to pattern bears in the same way we talk about patterning deer.

Bears live by their incredible sense of smell. The area of nasal mucous membrane in a black bear is about 100 times larger than humans. No one knows for sure how well bears can smell, but they have one of the best senses of smell of any animal. Being opportunistic consumers that lack a strict territory, bears will just move to new food sources if one runs out, and their sense of smell is how they locate food. Most black bear hunting is done by baiting, with bait stations being filled continuously throughout summer and fall (old baked goods, dog food, old meat and fish scraps, etc.) in order to keep bears in the area. While I’ll save a more in depth discussion of baiting for another post, it’s important to keep these basic facts about bear ecology in mind when discussing hunting strategies.

When I’m hunting, I’m not thinking about the animal as some generic individual existing in a vacuum. I think about the animal I’m hoping to see as part of a long and complex history of its species and ecosystem. It’s very important to me to be knowledgeable about the animals I hunt, to ensure that they mean something to me and that I understand their cultural and ecological significance. So with this background, I’ll turn to the bear hunt I was on last week, and how the nature of this post changed.

We were bowhunting near Tweed, Ontario with a friend and local guide from September 1-3. We didn’t see anything on the first two days, so we wanted to put in a good long day on our last day. We went out on the morning of our third day, and at about 7:35 a bear came in to my stand. It initially came in at about 36 yards, but I wanted it at 30 yards or less. There was a bait barrel at 26 yards from me, so I waited for it to close a bit of distance. FullSizeRenderWhen it moved behind a tree that was in between us, I drew my bow, stood up, anchored in, and got ready. The bear came out from behind the tree and started walking totally broadside to me, heading towards my left. It slowed down in front of the bait barrel, under 30 yards now, and moved its near side leg forward, opening up the vitals a bit more. I took the shot, and heard the arrow hit the bait barrel on the other side of the bear, giving me an entrance and exit wound. It looked like a good shot, but right away I worried that the arrow was a little back from where I wanted it.

An archery shot on a black bear can be tricky, because the heart is low and fairly far forward. When the front leg is back, the heart can be somewhat buried behind the top of the humerus, and the scapula (shoulder blade) can block much of the lungs.

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We waited two and a half hours before going out to track, hoping to let it die without being pressured. We spent about two hours tracking it initially, following blood through the forest for about 250 yards. We found a final drop coming out into a bit of a clearing in a logging road, and then the blood trail totally dried up. We went in for lunch, and went back out to try to find more blood and then to start combing the forest. We looked for another three and a half hours that day. We went out at sunrise the next morning and searched the forest more, at this point just looking for a dead bear.

I couldn’t recover that bear.

Being unable to find that bear is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know how big it was; whether it was a male or female; how old it was; or exactly where my arrow hit it. I wasn’t able to deduce with any certainty what it experienced after I shot. This is a feeling I think other hunters have felt, and though it’s a difficult issue, I think it’s an important discussion to have. As hunters, we don’t want to present this kind of image of ourselves, and by and large, this is not the norm. The vast majority of animals that are shot are recovered. I want to be clear about that. But it’s also important that we come to terms with the cases where animals can’t be recovered and figure out how to understand and articulate these experiences.

When I realized that it was likely we weren’t going to find the bear, it felt to me like that moment from Go Set a Watchman, when Scout realizes that Atticus is not perfect, that he’s not the man she thought, and that something she had counted on her whole life was just not true. She felt like everything she knew about her world was turned right upside down.

The difference between my situation and Scout’s, however, is that she was naive to think there was certainty and predictability in life. I was never under the illusion that hunting is free from disappointment and uncertainty. Hunting is a blood sport; it’s an activity of life and death; we are trying to kill a wild animal. I like to have all these philosophical conversations about hunting, but hunting is unpredictable and chaotic. I doubt that any predator – human or animal – has ever been absolutely sure of the outcome of a hunt. Making the call that we couldn’t find the bear brought all of this home to me. I needed to figure out how I was going to understand the emotions I was feeling and how I was going to use this experience to better understand hunting and my role and identity as a hunter. I’m still working on this.

One of my biggest personal questions was how to simultaneously express my own guilt and my persisting conviction in the importance and positive impact of hunting. How do I express both the emotion and the rationality in what I am feeling? The two feelings are not mutually exclusive, but at that moment were difficult to articulate. At a purely rational level, I know that this is just the risk we take. We do everything we can as hunters to ensure we kill animals quickly, but sometimes, this is just going to happen. It’s an unfortunate reality of an activity that involves something as profound and final as trying to take a life. I never doubted hunting, and I told myself that I shouldn’t doubt my involvement in hunting. At an emotional level, on the other hand, these facts don’t let me off the hook. I can’t help but feel like I wasted a life, and maybe something about this should be telling me that I have no place in hunting. I have been replaying that few seconds in my head repeatedly, and I blame myself and doubt myself.

I won’t pretend that I don’t also worry about people’s perceptions of me. Of course I worry about people thinking that I just didn’t care to prepare and practice enough. Maybe I’m just worried about a bruised ego, but I also don’t want my experience to reflect poorly on bowhunters as a whole. Bowhunting is an effective and honourable way to hunt. Scientifically speaking, an arrow kills very efficiently. It concerns me that anti-hunters could use stories like this to fuel stereotypes or negative images of hunters. What I can say with absolute confidence to those people is that I care about this particular bear, and bears as a species, more than they ever could, and in a way that they will never fully understand.

When I decided to hunt, I made a commitment to practice, to be certain about the functioning of my equipment, to learn everything I could about the anatomy of the animal, and to only take a shot that I felt was going to be effective. Could I have done more? Maybe. I’m not so arrogant that I won’t honestly question this and be sure that I do more next time; however, I spend all year preparing myself and my equipment for the hunts I do. I think about them every single day of the year, and I’m reluctant to label myself as reckless. At the same time, I will absolutely use this as motivation to be better next time.

I have no real answers in this post. The purpose was really just to acknowledge the conversation and make the request that it be opened. I think it’s important for us to discuss experiences like this. For one, laying bare the wide range of our experiences gives us opportunities for honest and humble reflection, something that should be a source of pride for a community. Having the strength to discuss our weakness also gives us the ability to speak with absolute certainty and confidence about the positives of hunting. In an important way, being open about some of these experiences disempowers those who want to discredit us. Second, anyone else who has experienced something like this knows the awful feeling in the pit in my stomach, and I think we need to help one another understand how to deal with this – to become better at what we do and to sort out the emotions. I’ve spoken before about the unique ability of hunters to embrace complexity and paradox, and I think experiences like this are perfect examples.

In the end, I’m left with an intense set of emotions that I don’t think will ever go away – and to be honest, I don’t want them to. Bears are tough animals. They’re predators, and there is no way a bear is going out without a fight. I’m amazed and humbled by the strength and resolve to live in that bear. It would be a disservice to the bear and to the deep thoughtfulness of hunters for me to try to forget the experience or ignore the emotions. At the same time, I’m thankful to be part of something that involves meaningful risks and conversations. There are many mundane activities I could participate in that don’t involve any important emotional or ethical risks. I could avoid these situations altogether. Hunting is not one of those activities. It takes a willingness to engage with a tremendous amount of risk to hunt, and to open oneself up for the extreme highs and lows that are at stake. It’s at once humbling and a source of pride to be part of that tradition.