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August 11, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

What to do about bears?

by Jeff Green

Ever since the Spring Bear hunt was abolished, there has been much said and written about increases in the bear population in Ontario.

In response to concerns about encounters with bears in populated areas, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has established a Bear Watch program over the past couple of years. The program has included an ad campaign, information packages, some of which will be included with the 2005 final Tax bill for North Frontenac residents, and signage at dump sites and other locations.

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According MNR information, the bear population has been stable at somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 for many years. The cancellation of the Spring Bear hunt has led to a decrease in the number of bears hunted by sport hunters by about 1500 per year. If all of these bears survived, which the MNR says is improbable, “a 7.5% increase in the Ontario population over five years is possible, but extremely unlikely”, according to MNR literature.

The MNR claims, “there is good evidence that along the southern part of their range, that is the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the bear population has been slowly growing over the past 20 to 30 years. As abandoned farmland returns to old field habitat, it proves much better habitat for bears. Raspberry, aspen, and hawthorn all grow in this habitat to provide food and cover for bears. Mild winters may also have had an impact by improving the natural food supply for bears.

“In fact, it is the increase in the human population, particularly in ‘cottage country’ that is a credible explanation for more contact between people and bears.”

While there is disagreement between advocates of the Spring Bear Hunt and government officials concerning the root cause, the fact that more bear encounters seem to be occurring has led to a need for a more informed population.

Much of the information being promoted by the Bear Watch program is based on a common sense approach. It tells people to be careful about leaving food or garbage outside, avoid putting meat, fish, or sweet fruit in compost piles or bins, fill bird feeders only in the winter months, and pick all ripe fruit off fruit trees.

When encounters with bears do occur, it is rarely advisable to run, unless in very close proximity to a car or a house. When a bear is sighted, backing off and keeping the bear in sight is advised.

While Black Bear encounters can be dangerous, instances of Black bears killing humans are very rare; just over 50 people have been killed by Black bears in North America over the past 100 years.

Norm Quinn, a recently retired Park Biologist from Algonquin Park who conducts seminars on bear safety, said that most deadly encounters with Black Bears have been with full-sized adult males.

“About 40 of the roughly 50 deaths have been caused by adult males who have seen the human as prey.” Quinn said in an intrview with the News last week.

Other dangerous encounters occur when a bear is either cornered or is intently focussed on a food source and is disturbed, or when a human approaches too closely to bear cubs when a mother is present.

Mother bear encounters rarely progress to the point of danger, according to Norm Quinn.

The MNR agrees with this opinion.

When dangerous encounters do occur, with an adult male, a cornered bear, or female with her cubs, the MNR has the following advice:

“If the bear tries to approach you, stop. Face the bear . If you are with others, stay together and act as a group. Be aggressive, yell, throw rocks or sticks and use pepper spray if you have it. NEVER TURN AND RUN. If the bear continues to approach you, resume backing away slowly while continuing to be aggressive towards the bear. If a bear makes contact with you, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. Fighting back is the best chance of persuading a black bear to stop its attack. Use a large stick, a rock or anything else that you have on hand to hurt the bear.”

Black Bears range throughout Ontario, but their peak range, where there are between 40 and 60 bears per 100 km, extends to the northern half of Frontenac County, Addington Highlands, Lanark Highlands and Tay Valley. Most of South Frontenac is in a middle range, with a population of between 20 and 40 bears per 100 km.

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