What’s with the bears [northern Ontario]? – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal (October 1, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

ANOTHER bear attack; another call for resumption of the spring bear hunt; another defence of bears that are baited by shooters sitting in tree stands. It’s been 14 years since Ontario banned spring hunting for bears hungry after winter hibernation. In that time there have been a remarkable number of bear attacks on humans.

Is there a direct connection? Hunting advocates insist it is obvious while the Ministry of Natural Resources points to variations in natural food sources and carelessness by humans increasingly living or travelling in the forest.

The latest incident occurred Sunday near Peterborough. A 53-year-old woman is recovering after being attacked and mauled by a bear while walking her dogs on a trail. The dogs were also injured when they came to the woman’s rescue.

Bear attacks, including many fatalities, have increased with North American population growth and recreational intrusion into the wilderness. Most of the deadly attacks — 86 per cent — have occurred since 1960. In more than a third of those cases, improperly stored food or garbage likely attracted hungry bears. Which leaves almost two-thirds of cases unexplained.

While deadly attacks are uncommon, conflicts between bears and humans are on the rise, even as bear numbers drop. In 2001, according to the MNR, there were roughly 150,000 bears in Ontario. Today that number is down to around 105,000, says the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

Ontario urges people to resist using bird feeders while bears are active and to store garbage so that odours do not attract hungry bears. It insists there is substantial evidence of cub deaths when hunters mistake lactating sows for male bears in spring, leaving the cubs to die of starvation. Critics instead blame influential environmental groups for convincing the government to end the hunt, though a fall hunt remains in place.

Wildlife behaviour is dictated largely by its food. In 2006, when berries in the bush were plentiful, there were 7,016 reports of human-bear occurrences in Ontario ranging from sightings to contacts. Three years later in the midst of significant failure of bears’ natural foods, the number of occurrences nearly doubled.

A major North American black bear study in 2011 disproved the theory that protective mother bears are responsible for most attacks on humans. The vast majority of confrontations weren’t the result of chance meetings in the woods, either, as Sunday’s incident and others recently would suggest. Instead, they are the outcome of predatory behaviour, nearly always by lone black bears. Only 8 per cent of deadly attacks were by mother bears.

Which leads back to food variations (the berries were late this year) combined with increased human activity in wilderness areas. And suggests that restoring a second bear hunt each year may be simplistic in assuming it will lead directly to fewer dangerous encounters between bears and people.