New Brunswick

Wildlife watchers think it's a bear-y good year

Some wildlife observers in New Brunswick say they’re seeing more bears than ever, including mothers with three or four cubs. A provincial wildlife biologist says he doesn't think there's been a big population spike, but it seems to be a “fairly good” year.

Spring harvest cut in half by border restrictions

Wendy Wilson says she took this photo of a black bear and four cubs somewhere in the Miramichi area July 1. She said she didn't want to be specific about the location in the interest of protecting the wildlife. (Wendy Wilson/Facebook)

Some wildlife observers in New Brunswick say they're seeing more bears than ever, including mothers with three or four cubs.

A provincial wildlife biologist says he doesn't think there's been a big population spike, but it seems to be a "fairly good" year for the animal.

Matt Carter said he spotted nine bears within a distance of about 100 metres while driving near Lake George, a popular cottage area west of Fredericton, this spring.

The first four were together in a field.

"You could clearly tell by the sizes it was a mama bear and three cubs," said Carter.

Matt Carter says the tiny dots in the middle of this photo are four black bears, spotted in a field in the Lake George area in May. (Matt Carter/Facebook)

The next field, separated from the first by a small tree line, had another large bear with three cubs.

Then Carter looked across the road and saw yet another bear.

"Nine bears in one sighting … it was pretty cool," he said.

Carter has only been spending time in the Lake George area for a few years, but says he'd never seen anything like it before, anywhere in the province. 

"I've been hunting and fishing all my life and been all over New Brunswick and just haven't seen the bear activity like that before … Something's happening."

Wendy Wilson is a keen observer and photographer of wildlife in the Miramichi area. 

She said she's already seen 20 to 25 bears this year. Last year she saw about 10 to 15.

This bear spotted in the Miramichi area earlier this month appears to have a litter of four cubs, which is larger than the average of two or three. (Wendy Wilson/Facebook)

"Overall, I think it's a pretty good year for them," said Kevin Craig, manager of the big game and fur bearer section in the fish and wildlife branch of the Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development.

Craig said he's seen "quite a few" multiple-cub litters this year. 

The average litter size for a black bear is between two and three cubs. Sometimes they can have as many as six, although Craig has never heard of a litter that size in New Brunswick.

Cub production is a function of the previous year's food availability, he said.

Bears are omnivores. Their diet includes succulent grasses, emergent leaves, insects such as ants and grubs, berries, apples, hazelnuts and acorns.

Flowering plants had a good yield in 2019, said Craig, which was likely a response to dry conditions in 2018 and 2017.  Plants respond to drought by producing a lot of seed.

DNRED biologist Kevin Craig says the bear population in New Brunswick appears to be very healthy. (CBC)

It's not uncommon for the crops that bears eat to fail every few years because of weather conditions such as late frost, he added, but that doesn't seem to have been a factor last year. So bears had plenty to nourish themselves and their fetuses.

The provincial government has been modelling the bear population for more than 35 years now.

All bears that are killed by hunters have to be registered. The sex of the animal is noted, as well as where it was found, and a premolar tooth is extracted to examine its rings, which, similar to the rings of a tree trunk, are an indication of age.

Normally, about 1,200 to 1,400 bears are harvested during the spring portion of the hunting season, Mélanie Sivret, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources said in an email.

But this spring, with borders closed to tourists, the number was down to 618.

That's not probably not enough to make a noticeable difference, she said.

"Reduced hunting pressure over such a short period (two months) would be unlikely to have any significant effect on bear population numbers."

The season just ended June 27, and data is still being analyzed, but on average, a quarter of the bears hunted are adult females, said Sivret.

Under the New Brunswick Fish and Wildlife Act, bears accompanied by cubs are protected from harvest.

One trend that's become apparent through population modelling, said Craig, is that bears seem to have successful births in the same season.

Black bears breed every couple of years, so you might expect about half of the breeding females to give birth in any given year. But that's not the case.

Instead, there's a phenomenon known as synchronized breeding, he said, wherein a large proportion of the population is breeding every couple of years.

This black bear was spotted May 8 near Lake George. (Matt Carter/Facebook)

This is tied to food supply and crop failures, said Craig. If food has been scarce, a pregnant bear will often reabsorb the embryos.

The current population estimate is about 18,000 bears.

"It appears very healthy," said Craig.

But he doesn't think there's been any significant population spike.

That's because bears have relatively long lives — usually into their late teens or 20s. Females live longer than males. Some in the New Brunswick harvest were found to be in their 30s. The oldest Craig recalled was 34.

They aren't "overly productive" and they don't sexually mature until they're four years old.

"So the idea you could overnight have a population explosion from one year to the next doesn't really exist," Craig said.

However, the numbers have "increased somewhat" over the long term.

Koughibouguac National Park had to relocate several bears in recent years because they lost their fear of humans. (Submitted by Parks Canada)

One factor that could be contributing to that is an increase in available habitat.

"Certainly land wise, there's more opportunity for them," said Craig.

Going back centuries, he recounted, when Europeans settled in the area, they cleared a lot of land for small farms. 

By modern agricultural standards, much of that land is considered "marginal farmland" and it's "reverting back to primary or secondary forest growth," he said.

"Over the last 200 years there's probably more available habitat for black bears in New Brunswick than there has been in the previous 150 to 200 years."

Craig said he has no immediate concerns about a bear population increase.

But it's possible there will be more "nuisance bear" concerns in a couple of years, when the mama bears are ready to breed again and drive away their "teenagers."

The Village of New Maryland is one of the places that has occasionally had issues with bears foraging in residential neighbourhoods. (Village of New Maryland)

Every year, a few juvenile bears end up in "marginal habitats' such as residential neighbourhoods around the province, foraging on things like garbage and dog food.

Whether or not there are conflicts depends a lot on local conditions, Craig said.

Carter said bears don't seem to be much of an issue in the Lake George area.

People are pretty good about locking up their garbage and not leaving food around, he said.

"The raccoons are probably more of a problem than the bears."


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