Spring bear hunt proposal pits hunters against wildlife conservationists

A proposal to permanently bring back the spring bear hunt in Ontario after its cancellation two decades ago is pitting conservationists against hunters as the provincial government seeks public feedback on the plan. 

Province asking for public feedback on making hunt permanent

The Ontario government is seeking public feedback for a proposal to once again make the spring bear hunt permanent. It was cancelled in 1999 but was resurrected as a pilot project in 2014. (CBC)

A proposal to permanently bring back the spring bear hunt in Ontario after its cancellation two decades ago is pitting conservationists against hunters as the provincial government seeks public feedback on the plan. 

The hunt was cancelled by the Progressive Conservative Mike Harris government in 1999, but under Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals reinstated it as a pilot project in 2014. 

With that pilot set to expire after this spring, the Doug Ford government is proposing to make the hunt official as of 2021, with reviews of its impact on bear populations each year.   

John Yakabuski, the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), made the announcement in Peterborough, Ont., Friday to a friendly audience at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters' (OFAH) heritage centre.

"This is definitely something we've been working on for quite a few years," said Keith Munro, OFAH's wildlife biologist. 

"I think it's a great, great news story for the hunting community and all Ontarians."

'Emotional rhetoric'

The original decision to cancel the hunt was not based on science, Munro said, but "emotional rhetoric." OFAH fought it in court, he said, but lost.

"We spent about a million dollars on it," Munro said.

Keith Munro with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters welcomes the province's proposal to bring back a spring bear hunt. (Submitted by Keith Munro/OFAH)

The hunt's return has proven controversial, however, with both sides presenting their own scientific evidence.

Part of the dispute is over the impact of the spring hunt on female bears with cubs. Mother bears are off-limits to hunters, because of their importance to the health of the population.

The new proposal includes fines for offenders of up to $25,000 and a year in jail. 

"Ontario is home to a healthy bear population," said Yakabuski in a statement.

"The province will continue to monitor black bear populations, harvest results and sustainability indicators to inform an annual review and ensure bear populations are managed sustainably."

The OFAH points to an MNRF study from 1998 suggesting only a small number of bears are affected by the spring hunt.

However, opponents highlight another MNRF research study published the same year showing hunters had a hard time differentiating female and male bears.

"Females are shot by accident because it's hard to tell the difference, especially if she's parked her cubs somewhere, " said Ottawa naturalist Michael Runtz, who has written a number of books about bear behaviour. 

"And so really, it's ethically wrong."

Naturalist Michael Runtz regularly takes photos like these of bears as a naturalist and writer, and worries about how a permanent spring hunt could affect mother bears and their cubs. (Michael Runtz)

Runtz said he will be opposing the hunt in his feedback to the province, and he's not alone.

Conservation groups like Ontario Nature and the Animal Alliance of Canada have been loud opponents, calling the issue a political attempt to appease a constituency driven by economic interests and the concern over human-bear conflict in rural Ontario. 

Boost to tourism

The economic contribution of the spring hunt — which was slated to wrap up as a pilot project after 2020 — also isn't clear.

The province reports it generates $2.4 million annually, through the sale of about 25,000 bear licences.

A 2017 MNRF report showed bear hunters spent $50.6 million on the spring and fall hunt, with the spring pilot project season accounting for $13.1 million. It also noted that hunters from outside Ontario spent much more per capita on bear hunting than residents do.

According to Munro, the province's new proposal calls for an annual hunt from May 1 to June 15 to begin in 2021. Hunters will still be restricted to one bear each per year, he added, "so on the ground it's not much of a change, except for the certainty." 

That certainty could translate into tourism gains, Munro added.

"The tourism industry [hasn't] been able to take advantage of the pilot, because tourist outfitters were understandably hesitant to invest in things like advertising for a hunt that was going to end," he said.

Runtz, seen here on the left, says he'd prefer the province focus on eco-tourism instead. (CBC)

Naturalists like Runtz, however, say they'd prefer eco-tourism promoted as an alternative. 

"Instead of having a few hunters shoot black bears, have people come to see black bears and photograph black bears," said Runtz.

"I think the number of photographers who would clamour to see the bears would outnumber the hunters." 

The public can offer feedback on the proposed hunt on the Environmental Registry of Ontario until Feb. 18.