In his many years of interacting with bears, Rogers insists that he has never encountered “aggressive” behaviour, only signs of agitation and fear. “Whenever I see bluster – charges, stomping, blowing air or anything that looks threatening – I feel safe,” he says. “Probably the biggest breakthrough in my thinking was when I began to interpret bears’ behaviour in terms of their fear of me rather than my fear of them. Their lives are ruled by fear and food.” Much more than polar and grizzly bears, black bears have learned to survive through caution and secrecy. “Black bears’ behaviour was shaped back in the Ice Age when they were a prey species,” says Johnston. “They shared the landscape with huge predators and learned to behave more like a prey animal than a predator. As a result, they tend to live in forested areas where there are escape routes. [For black bears,] fighting is the last resort.”
The range of the black bear extends across much of Ontario, with the exception of the James Bay Lowlands in the province’s far north. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), bear densities are highest in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence forest, which stretches in a band from cottage country north to Algonquin Provincial Park, west to the northeastern shore of Lake Superior above Sault Ste. Marie and along the Minnesota border southwest of Thunder Bay. In that area, black bears number 40 to 60 per 100 square kilometres.In the past, the black bear population was concentrated in southern Ontario, where foods such as nuts and acorns were abundant. But, with the exception of some ravines and river valleys, much of this habitat has been lost to agricultural and urban development, says MNR bear biologist Dr. Martyn Obbard. Some of North America’s densest bear populations occur in similar food-rich deciduous forests of the northeastern United States. “Food is the critical item for them,” says U.S. bear expert Dr. Lynn Rogers. “Litter sizes are bigger and bears reach maturity earlier in areas where there’s the food to support a denser population,” he explains.According to Rogers, a popular misconception is that bears will eat anything. “People think of them as generalists because they eat both meat and vegetation,” he says, “but, really, they’re specialists for getting the kinds of food that are digestible and rich in nutrients.” Green leaves, buds, berries and ant larvae and pupae – the items that constitute the bulk of an Ontario bear’s diet – are available only at specific times of the year. Rogers’s research demonstrates that only if their preferred foods are scarce will their hunger drive bears to seek other sources of sustenance. At such times, bears may venture into human communities in search of food, which may not meet their nutritional requirements. This can result in failed pregnancies and increased mortality in cubs, as Rogers discovered in a study he completed in 1974.
In their persistent quest for food, bears serve an important ecological function. Their two-part stomachs enable them to pass the seeds of berries, resulting in their spread across the landscape, explains Rogers. By uprooting stumps and deadwood in search of larvae and pupae, black bears also contribute to decomposition and nutrient cycling in forests.
Bears inhabiting the Superior National Forest and central Ontario begin their quest for food on leaving their den in mid-April. They re-enter a world that is largely devoid of sustenance, which forces them to get by largely on snowfleas – tiny insects, also known as springtails, that become active when the snow begins to melt. “I remember watching a bear feeding on snowfleas and thinking, ‘Here I am, this big mass of protein and fat, and the bear actually prefers licking up snowfleas,’” says Mansfield. Hunting advocacy groups often maintain that bears prey on deer fawns and moose calves, but Rogers has observed only a short, 10-day window during which bears can take down newborn deer. After that, deer are usually able to escape pursuing bears; moreover, this is roughly the time when bears’ preferred vegetarian food sources come into season. Research in Algonquin Provincial Park by Dr. Martyn Obbard, chief bear scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), backs that up. He concludes that bear predation on moose calves “is variable, but not a huge problem.” Grasses, clover and dandelions play a more important role in bears’ early-season diet and, explains Mansfield, “the real feeding frenzy kicks in in mid-July, when the berries ripen,” and continues through August and sometimes into September.
The emergence of vegetation corresponds with black bears’ mating season, which runs from late May until early July. In central Ontario, females begin mating around age six and do so every second year. In May, mothers with cubs from the previous year will separate from their 17- or 18- month-old offspring and become receptive to males. During this period, bears may mate with multiple partners; sometimes cubs in the same litter will have different fathers. While many eggs may become fertilized, implantation does not occur until November – a form of body fat-regulated birth control that ensures that mothers will be healthy enough to support their cubs. Gestation is rapid: in January, mothers will give birth to one or more hairless, blind cubs that weigh less than a loaf of bread. After feeding in the den throughout the winter, a healthy cub will emerge in the spring weighing about two kilograms.
What makes hunting bears in the spring so destructive is that it occurs when the tiny cubs are most dependent on their mothers. The spring hunt was “taking advantage of the fact that the bears are very hungry at that time of year and are easy to draw to the baiting sites,” says Mike McIntosh, a black bear rehabilitator who has cared for and released more than 300 bears, primarily orphaned cubs, at his private facility north of Huntsville. Hunters have difficulty distinguishing female bears from males, he adds. “If a mother bear is killed in the spring, the cubs’ chance of survival is very small.”
Yet spring hunting continues in parts of North America because the activity is a lucrative one that focuses on a widely disliked creature. “There’s a still a vermin mentality out there towards black bears,” says Rogers. “With any other game animal, we respect it enough not to hunt it when the young are dependent. But with bears, there’s money to be made by outfitters in the spring when there’s nothing else going on.”
More than a decade ago, animal rights activist Ainslie Willock joined Ontario Nature and other environmental groups in lobbying for an end to the province’s spring black bear hunt. In 1999, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) cancelled the early-season hunt, but for Willock, a founding director of the Toronto-based Animal Alliance of Canada, the ban was only a small step in her crusade to make bear hunting more ethical – or to outlaw it altogether.The majority of the 6,000-odd bears killed annually in the province’s fall bear hunt – which takes place in areas north of the French River from August 15 to October 31, and from September 1 to November 30 in most of southern and eastern Ontario – are shot at bait stations. Stockpiles of attractants such as grease, animal offal and doughnuts are used to overcome the species’ natural tendency to avoid humans. MNR-licensed bear-hunting tourism operators set up these stations to concentrate bears in specific areas to increase the likelihood of success for their guests. (Bear hunters from outside Canada are responsible for about two-thirds of Ontario’s bear harvest and are required by law to employ the services of local outfitters; according to MNR statistics, 93 percent of such hunters use bait as a primary hunting strategy.) Black bear hunting is an important economic boost for many northern Ontario communities. MNR estimates that bear hunting generated $27 million in “tourism benefits” in 2002; the ministry’s sale of hunting licences totalled nearly $2.5 million in 2007/08.But Willock says bear baiting is inhumane and hardly a “sporting” approach to hunting. She cites a 1996 Insight Canada poll, conducted for the Animal Alliance of Canada, in which 77 percent of Ontario respondents opposed baiting. “Even with bait, one in eight bears killed is wounded,” she says. If bear hunters are that inefficient at making “clean” kills, “[it] suggests to me that you shouldn’t be able to hunt bears legally at all.”
Abolishing the spring hunt also has not solved the problem it was meant to address, namely, killing mothers of young cubs. Willock says the fall hunt continues to orphan bear cubs because hunters can legally shoot “family groups” of bears. According to Willock, doing that does not make sense even from a hunter’s standpoint, because it reduces their chances of killing in the future. “These types of regulations should be in place for the hunters’ own protection, let alone good ethics.”
Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) wildlife biologist Ed Reid insists, however, that properly regulated, licensed hunting is vital in managing black bear populations. Reid says that an “untold number” of bears in rural Ontario are shot “legally and illegally in defence of property” – something that Reid believes could be avoided through improved bear management and regulated hunting based on area-specific population data. “We support hunting for multiple benefits it provides to individuals, families and society,” says Reid. “Done well, it’s a model for sustainable development.”