Jule Koch Brison | Jun 24, 2010

Steven McNevin and Dr. Martyn Obbard at the bear seminar sponsored by the Frontenac Stewardship Council.

The term “research scientist” generally invokes a mental image of someone peering into a microscope or poring over documents and files. The image usually doesn’t include standing in the path of an angry bear who feels its space has been invaded and who, after putting on an intimidating display of its displeasure, is charging at the intruder.

Although Dr. Martyn Obbard, a research scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources, has undoubtedly done his share of the former, his long-term research into the lives and behaviour of bears has also included standing in the path of a charging bear “to see what would happen”, as he told the audience at a presentation on June 19 at the Northbrook Lions Hall. The talk was sponsored by the Frontenac and Hastings stewardship councils.

Since 1989 Dr. Obbard has conducted research on black bears in the Boreal forest near Chapleau, on the Bruce Peninsula, and most recently in Algonquin Park and vicinity. 

Bears doing these “bluff charges”, as Obbard called the behaviour, “always stopped - sometimes right in front of you, but they always stopped,” he said, explaining that what humans construe as aggressive behaviour is mainly to scare away the intruder.

Dr. Obbard’s talk was liberally illustrated with slides that he had taken of bears engaged in various activities, including eating dandelions and clover, which are among their main food sources in the spring, when the protein content of these plants is at its highest. Bears’ digestive systems are like ours; they do not have multiple stomachs to enable them to digest plants later in the year when the cellulose content is higher.

In relating his only encounter with a “predator” bear, he showed a slide he had taken of a bear eating clover. Without any snorting or display of anger, the same bear had started to stalk him with cold intent and ended up chasing him around his truck several times – he said he doesn’t know why it never occurred to him to jump into the truck – before he picked up a shovel and hit it over the head. While being chased he remembered a conversation with a fellow bear researcher, who said that the main thing when faced with a predator bear was to “disrupt its train of thought”, which the shovel did.

One of the focuses of Martyn Obbard’s talk was the feeding patterns of bears. Food is the main cause of human-bear conflicts. He said it is a popular myth that bears are starving when they come out of their dens. He said that if the previous year had a good supply of food they are usually in pretty good shape. However, they continue to lose body mass over the next few months before starting to gain it again. The food supply in the spring consists mostly of grasses, sedges, horsetails and nuts from the previous year, and does not vary much in timing or abundance from year to year. The summer and fall food supplies, however, can vary considerably.

Bears take between 8 to 10% of moose calves and are able to take down adult moose as well, though occasionally the moose will kill them.

Bears are driven to feed and gain weight because the bigger and stronger males are the ones that are chosen as mates by the females.

In some years bears double or even triple their weight before den up. One female that Obbard weighed went from 90 lb. to 270 lb. in one season.

The females range over 20 to 25 square kilometers, and the males perhaps 5 - 10 times that area. Once bears discover a food source, they remember it and will return to it.

Normally bears produce cubs every two years, which stay with their mothers until they are yearlings. They are chased away before the birth of the new cubs. However, even after mating and fertilization occurs, in a poor food year, the females may fail to reproduce. Bears have the ability to delay the implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus, and if the mother is in poor shape, the eggs are simply reabsorbed. A poor food year will produce breeding synchrony in the females, meaning they will all fail to reproduce. However, if the next year is good, they will all have litters, which will result in a population explosion of yearlings the following year. This can cause peaks in bear-human conflicts.

Presently, because of a food failure in 1995, most females are having cubs in odd-numbered years. Most of the “nuisance bears” are yearlings and young males, and over 50% of bear-human conflicts are over improperly stored garbage. Obbard commented that it’s ironic because by definition, garbage is something we don’t want ourselves; yet when the bears do want it, humans get very upset.

During a question period after the talk, Dr. Obbard was asked whether the cancellation of the spring bear hunt has resulted in an increase in the bear population. The questioner said that some groups have pointed to an increase in the number of reported human-bear conflicts since the cancellation. Obbard replied that while bears have been pushing southward, province-wide, there’s very little evidence that the population has changed overall since 1998. He said that only since 2004, when the Bear Wise program was instituted, has there been a central reporting number and with it a mechanism for keeping track of conflicts. Before then complaints were written on pieces of paper, which were discarded after the season. He said that every year between 6200 and 6300 bears (out of a population of roughly 100,000 bears) are harvested, which is about 200 fewer than when the spring hunt was in place.

After Dr. Obbard’s talk, Steven McNevin of the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Bear Wise program gave a presentation that reinforced much of what Dr. Obbard had said about the importance of removing all bear attractants. He said that if the MNR is called and asked to trap and relocate or destroy a bear, they will not do so unless the attractant is removed, because either the bear will return or another one will take its place. He said the ministry tries to be helpful to people in identifying and removing attractants, and also recognizes that farmers may have a more difficult time keeping their areas free of attractants.

One member of the audience commented that while the main message of the presenters is “Don’t feed the bears”, every one of us feeds them by using landfills and so causes them to become habituated to humans. Dr. Obbard agreed and said that some townships have started to use electric fencing, which is an effective deterrent.

His main advice on how to protect oneself in a bear encounter is to use pepper spray, which he said is available from outdoor stores. He also advised people to carry Foxpro whistles - and yes, to yell, to wave one’s arms, and make oneself appear as big as possible to the bear.

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