Bear facts, the basics
North American Black Bear: Colour: Body fur black, brown, blonde, or rarely white. Brown muzzle. White chest
patch on some not all, always unique. Eyes brown (blue at birth).
Adult Weight & Length: Males: up to 500 pounds common, depending upon age, season, and food. Females: 90 to 300 pounds common. 50 to 80 inches, nose to tail, depending on sex.
Birth Month: January.
Litter Size: Typically 3 in Ontario. First litters often 1 or 2.
Birth Weight: 1/2 pound.
Weight at 1 Year: 15 pounds to more than 100 pounds, depending on food supply.
Parental Care: 17 months (rarely 29 months), ending in June when mothers become ready to mate again.
Vision: Color vision. Good near vision. Vision appears to
Hearing: Smelling ability is extremely good.
Intelligence: One of the most intelligent North American mammals. Long-term memory excellent. Heaviest brain, relative to body length, of any land carnivore.
Sounds: Grunts, loud blowing, and a resonant "voice". Does not threaten by growling.
Swimming Distance: excellent long distance swimmer.
Running Speed: Lean bears may exceed 30 mph. Fat bears
in winter readiness tire and overheat quickly.
Daily Activity Period: Typically 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1 to 2 hours after
sunset. Prefer to be active during daylight hours, however may become nocturnal to
Home Range Diameter:
Yearlings: 1-2 miles.
Adult females: 2-6 miles. Adult males: 8-15 miles.
Preferred Foods: Fruit, nuts, acorns, insects, succulent greens, and meat.
Hibernation: 0 to 7 months depending upon food supply.
Potential Longevity: 21-33 years and more.
Why fear the bear?
Myth and misinformation have sullied the bruin’s reputation. In truth, the big mammal evolved as a prey species that learned to survive through caution and stealth.
By Conor Mihell
Jim Johnston’s efforts to redeem the reputation of black bears began with a close encounter in 1982 that left him stunned. The president of the Friends of Algoma East (a member group of Ontario Nature), based in the northern Ontario town of Elliot Lake, was napping at his campsite while on a moose hunting trip north of Sault Ste. Marie when he was startled by a shove. “I opened my eyes and there was a bear,” he recalls. At the time, Johnston was an avid hunter but had never hunted Ursus americanus. “I believed in a lot of the myths and misinformation, the stuff you learn from hunting magazines,” he says. “I thought that encounters equalled attack. I bought into the attitude of hysteria and fear. And I just couldn’t believe it when that bear didn’t eat me.”
That encounter changed Johnston’s attitude. He went from fearing bears to educating the public about their behaviour and ecology in hopes of ending the persecution of this species that has been going on since European settlers arrived in North America. Since Ontario cancelled its spring bear hunt in 1999, Johnston’s former colleagues at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) have lobbied hard for its reinstatement, arguing that early-season hunting is a “vital bear management tool.” In a 2008 press release, OFAH president Jack Hedman claimed that the ban on bear hunting was causing Ontario’s black bear population to spike out of control, endangering “the welfare of our children, the safety of our workers in the bush and people simply enjoying their camp or backyard.” Newspapers such as The Sault Star reinforce the fears with sensationalist accounts of “bold” black bears that have “multiplied over the years” and are “too big for other animals to cull.”
Johnston is eager to set the record straight. The fact is that the roughly 6,200 bears killed by hunters in Ontario in 2007 (the most recent statistic available) is only 9 percent fewer than the average number taken in the decade leading up to the cancellation of the spring hunt. Research also shows that Ontario’s black bear population is stable at around 100,000 animals. The species has the second-lowest reproduction rate of any mammal in North America, so OFAH’s claim that Ontario’s bear population has increased by at least 30 percent in the past 10 years is remarkably inaccurate. Furthermore, statistics show that black bears are rarely aggressive toward humans: only 61 black bear-related fatalities have occurred across the continent since 1900; humans are about 250 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a bear.
Humans have much less to fear from bears than bears do from us. Development increasingly shrinks black bear habitat, which historically covered most of the province, including all of southern Ontario. “We need to recognize that we’re the problem,” says Ainslie Willock, the president and director of outreach of the Get Bear Smart Society, a nongovernmental organization, based in Whistler, B.C., that created Canada’s first program to reduce conflict between humans and black bears in an urban area. “If we’re going to be petrified of them, then there’s no future for black bears,” warns Willock. “The reality is, they’re quite easy to live with once you understand them.”
At the end of a 90-minute telephone interview, Dr. Lynn Rogers, an international authority on black bear behaviour and ecology, says he has told me all that he has learned about black bears in 43 years of research. The affable 70-year-old is the founder of the North American Bear Center, an educational facility in Ely, Minn. Proof that Rogers is not exaggerating when he says that he is still just “scratching the surface” in understanding his subject is that I catch up with him while he is driving across the state to deliver a deceased female for the first-ever autopsy of a black bear that has died of old age. The procedure on the 30-plus-year-old bear at the University of Minnesota will give Rogers his first opportunity to study a mature bear that died of natural causes. “Almost every [black bear] death is human caused,” explains Sue Mansfield, Rogers’s research assistant. “Bears are killed by automobiles and legally and illegally by hunters.” The average age of bears taken in the state’s fall hunt is just two for males and three for females. “These bears aren’t even having the chance to reproduce,” says Mansfield. By analyzing the aged bear’s heart, muscles and joints, Rogers and Mansfield hope to learn more about the physiology of older bears.
The pair’s research focuses on Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, a 16,000-square-kilometre stretch of wilderness and rural land south of northwestern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. The habitat, climate and geography of the area are similar to those of central Ontario, making it a good analogy for the circumstances in which Ontario bears live. Rogers, who is often called the “Jane Goodall of black bears,” has gleaned most of his findings by “walking with the bears” – observing at close range and documenting, over 24-hour periods, their social and environmental interactions and dietary preferences. Each summer, he offers popular workshops during which ordinary citizens can learn more about black bear behaviour through first-hand experience, including attaching radio collars to nontranquillized bears and interacting closely with mothers and cubs. “One of the biggest myths is that mother black bears are dangerous,” says Rogers. “But nobody’s ever been killed by a mother bear defending her cubs.” He often crawls inside dens to inspect bear cubs – and has always emerged unharmed. Out of the den, juvenile black bears are able to escape danger by climbing trees, Rogers explains.
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.”
Quest for food
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.
Facts behind the myth
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.”
Education is the only answer
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.