The first sign that humans’ attitudes toward black bears was changing appeared in the early 1960s, when various jurisdictions across North America elevated black bears to “big game” status, meaning that hunters were required to purchase a licence and abide by seasonal restrictions. Before that, bears were viewed mainly as a nuisance. Once the open seasons and bounties were abolished, bear populations rebounded. In Minnesota, for instance, bear numbers have tripled since the institution of big-game status in 1971. Continent-wide, the bear population has increased from 300,000 to 850,000 since then, though Rogers insists that the “carrying capacity” is much higher.

More bears, combined with sprawling urban development, resulted in an era of bear “management.” Shortly after he moved to Elliot Lake in 1996, Johnston realized that bears had the run of the place, largely because the town’s human inhabitants were not stowing their garbage securely. “The city was continuously setting [live] traps and moving bears,” he says. “Seven days later the bears would be back,” looking to score their next meal. Jacques Landry, an MNR fish and wildlife specialist in Sault Ste. Marie, explains that, in the 1980s and 1990s, citizens expected municipal or provincial officials to come in and remove problem bears. “There was no thought as to why these animals were here and why this was a problem,” says Landry.

As a part of his work with the Friends of Algoma East, Johnston, together with Dr. Josef Hamr, a wildlife ecologist at Cambrian College in Sudbury, developed a pilot program aimed at minimizing human-black bear encounters in Elliot Lake. His organization learned of the grassroots Get Bear Smart program in Whistler that focused on educating the public about bear behaviour and enforcing strict municipal garbage bylaws to keep bears away. The City of Elliot Lake agreed to change its own garbage bylaws, forbidding home- and business owners to put out garbage the night before collection and requiring that at other times it be stored in sheds, garages or closed dumpsters. Elliot Lake is the first community in Ontario with such legislation. Prevention, education and awareness formed the foundation of a similar province-wide program, called Bear Wise, which MNR inaugurated in 2004.

The Bear Wise initiative that the Friends of Algoma East administered in Elliot Lake was astoundingly successful. After the municipality trapped 20 live bears and killed three following “nuisance” complaints in 2003, no more traps were needed and no animals were moved or killed in 2004. The number of complaint calls about bears and the use of live traps has remained relatively low in the subsequent years, according to Johnston – proof that humans can share the same habitat as bears. “Our way of looking at it is, even if there were no attractants in town, there’d still be bears here because Elliot Lake is in the middle of a wilderness area,” he says. “There’s no need for people to be alarmed if a bear is just wandering through and back into the bush.” Landry’s experience in managing Sault Ste. Marie’s bear education and response team has been similar. “With education and increased understanding and acceptance, I’m convinced callers complaining about bears will disappear over time.”

Letting old prejudices come to the forefront when discussing bears is all too easy. While interviewing experts like Rogers and Willock, I embarrass myself by occasionally reverting to words such as “aggressive” and “dangerous” – terms bear researchers abhor. Such instinctive negative responses are “a huge problem,” says Willock when I apologize for tripping up. “Sometimes we have to catch ourselves.”

But far worse is the way hunting advocacy groups attempt to capitalize on this mentality by incorporating it into their arguments for reinstating the spring bear hunt. The fact that black bears are slowly reclaiming their traditional habitat in southern Ontario, where rich forests of oak, beech and hazelnut trees once supported some of the province’s highest bear population densities, can be viewed as a wildlife rehabilitation success story. OFAH, however, interprets sightings in Pickering, Aurora, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Peterborough and Guelph as “a serious threat to safety” and yet another reason to demand increased hunting to better “manage” bears.

Almost every black bear-related OFAH statement issued in the past decade alludes to bear overpopulation and its implications for human safety. “[The problem] is fairly self-evident from the complaints we’re hearing in northern and rural communities,” says OFAH wildlife biologist Ed Reid. “People are looking over their shoulders … [and] they’re seeing more black bears. They’re getting worried about the safety of their kids. These animals may be losing some of their natural wariness of people in some areas.” Reid believes that black bears were “underharvested” in the 1990s, which, possibly combined with warmer average temperatures, has allowed the population to grow. The cancellation of the spring hunt decreased the average number of bears killed by another 30 percent between 1999 and 2004. “In 1999, I expressed the view that the black bear population would increase, especially in near-north urban areas [such as Sudbury and Parry Sound] where there was traditionally more hunting pressure,” says Reid. “And that’s exactly what’s happened. When it’s precisely managed, hunting is the key to reducing conflicts in cottage country and the near-north fringe.”

But if safety is the prime concern about bears “invading” human habitat, research shows we have little to fear. The very rare instances of predatory bear attacks on humans tend to happen in remote wilderness areas and do not involve so-called human-conditioned bears that live near urban centres. And the old-fashioned approach of eradicating “problem” bears by culling them is ineffective in reducing the likelihood of encounters. Without taking care of what attracted the bear in the first place, Landry says, “Killing a bear is a last resort for us because it just opens up a niche for another one.”

In his Bear Wise presentations in Elliott Lake, Johnston cites a study by Dr. Edward Tavss, a researcher at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, demonstrating that public education and garbage containment – not hunting – are the most effective ways to minimize human–bear conflicts. In surveying the effects of hunting versus nonlethal means of bear management across North America, Tavss found that increasing hunting to control populations did not reduce the number of complaints about bears from residents. But in areas where education was used to manage human behaviour, negative complaints about bears decreased dramatically. “Perhaps the quantity of nuisance bears eating garbage is a function only of the quantity of garbage and not the quantity of bears,” theorized Tavss. In other words, it’s our behaviour, not bear behaviour, that needs management.

Good news bears
Dr. Lynn Rogers created the nonprofit North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., in 2007 to educate people about black bears through written material, displays and first-hand experiences. “Our sole purpose is to tell the truth about bears,” says Rogers. In conjunction with the U.S. Wildlife Research Institute, Rogers offers a series of four-day field-study courses throughout the summer months (2010 courses are already fully booked). Based at his Ely field station, the courses allow ordinary people to participate in Rogers’s ongoing research, which sometimes includes close interaction with mothers and their cubs. Most importantly, “you experience a lot of the misinterpretations of bear behaviour first-hand,” says Elliot Lake resident Jim Johnston, who joined Rogers on three field courses. “You quickly realize that what seem to be threats of an attack are really just displays of fear.”
C.M.

The return of black bears to their southern Ontario stronghold could be the tipping point in how humans relate to the animal. “There’s this whole issue of social carrying capacity,” says Obbard. “What are we as a society able to tolerate? In parts of Ontario, people haven’t had bears around since the 1800s, and habitat has been reduced tremendously since then. We’re going to have a challenge in getting people to adjust to seeing more bears.” If you ask Johnston, however, making this adjustment is not a challenge at all. It’s as simple as coming to terms with our fears.

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Regular ON Nature contributor and www.onnaturemagazine.com blogger Conor Mihell is an environmental and adventure-travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Visit his website at:  www.conormihell.com.