By Peter John Ferris, North Bay.
The Ford government is proposing to permanently reintroduce the spring bear hunt, a year before the current five-year pilot program is set to expire and before its results are complete and made public. This proposal is being made under the guidance of the Ontario Big Game Management Advisory Committee, a body that is hopelessly weighted in favor of hunters, tourism operators, and outfitters.
In 1999, the Conservative government cancelled the spring bear hunt over concerns about cubs being orphaned by their mothers being killed. In the last spring hunt before the ban was enacted, the MNR estimated that at least 274 cubs were orphaned.
1n 2014, despite significant opposition, including a petition that garnered almost 100,000 signatures, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) approved a five-year extension to the spring bear hunt pilot program introduced in 2014. The expanded bear hunt was opened to non-residents in all wildlife management units with an open bear season and permitted baiting and the use of dogs.
The often-repeated rationale that the spring bear hunt serves to reduce human-bear conflicts had been discredited by the Ministry’s own research.
The Nuisance Bear Review Committee report (2003) concluded that evidence did not support the claim that a spring bear hunt controls, limits or reduces levels of nuisance activity by black bears. Nevertheless, the committee recommended that the spring bear hunt be reinstated for socio-economic reasons. In her annual (2015) report, the environmental commissioner of Ontario was highly critical of the Ontario government’s decision to reintroduce the spring pilot bear hunt in 2014, noting that the MNRF made the decision based on incomplete harvest data, ignored its own research that questioned the utility and justification of the pilot project and disregarded advice of the nuisance bear review committee.
These failures to base wildlife management policy on evidence should cause us to ask if the MNRF is really a credible manager of our natural resources and whose interests are being served by their policy decisions.
Arguments have been advanced by various parties that hunting represents significant potential economic activity (see the report “Does the Spring Bear Hunt Make Cents” by Dr. Mike Commito of the Northern Policy Institute).
As we follow these arguments, we should worry that economic considerations are driving Ontario’s wildlife management policy rather than ecological ones.
Currently, the black bear is the only big game species that can be hunted during the spring when animals are rearing their young. With strong economic motivations in play, we can be legitimately concerned that open spring seasons on other species may be allowed eventually. Will longer and longer seasons also be promoted? Will more provincial parks and protected areas be opened to hunting? If history has taught us anything, it is that the hunting community is always seeking expanded hunting opportunities.
It seems obvious that the expanded spring bear hunt was opened to non-residents under the expanded 5-year pilot program because spring bear hunting is an activity pursued by a relatively small percentage of Ontario residents. Consequently, the only solution to strengthening the sport hunting economy is to increase the number of non-resident hunters.
When such a small percentage of Ontario residents engage in hunting, the general public should be concerned about the degree of influence by the Ontario Federation of Hunters and Anglers (OFHA) and other vested interests on Ministry policy and decision-making. The wildlife and natural resources of Ontario “belong” to all Ontarians and the hunting lobby should not be allowed to exercise undue influence over public policy. There are many other users of our wild spaces (canoeists, campers, hikers, photographers, bird watchers, etc) who would prefer not to share the spring woods or protected areas with hunters.
I am offering my thoughts as someone who has hunted, lived, worked and travelled extensively in northern and northwestern Ontario and across Canada. I am not opposed to hunting per se. I understand that subsistence hunting is a necessary reality in many parts of Canada and that dangerous or nuisance animals must sometimes be destroyed. But based on my experiences, I also know that bear hunting is for most hunters a “sport” and not a primary or necessary food-gathering activity. We can be confident that the many Americans and other non-residents who travel to northern Ontario for the spring bear hunt are not coming because they need bear protein.
Economic considerations aside, the ethics of allowing sport hunters to kill animals for pleasure during a season when animals are reproducing and rearing their young is not the kind of ethics that support the need to address the many issues threatening the natural world. The ethical arguments around the reintroduction of the spring bear hunt point to many other related issues that concern growing numbers of people: the ethics of sport hunting in general, the weakening of legislation to protect species at risk, shrinking wildlife populations and extinctions worldwide, disappearing habitats, the systematic irrational targeting of predators as a failed wildlife management policy, and the constant economic justification for activities that do harm to other creatures and the natural world.
While the period for public input on the proposal to permanently reintroduce the spring bear hunt ended on February 19th, citizens concerned by our province’s approach to wildlife management may still make their views known by writing to their member of parliament, Vic Fedeli, and the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, John Yakabuski.
Peter John Ferris