How the spring bear hunt was lost and won

by Steve Galea | May 20, 2020
a big spring bear hunt bear in the verge

More than 21 years have passed since the cancellation of Ontario’s spring bear hunt. For many older hunters, that day has something in common with the moon landing, Paul Henderson’s famous goal, or maybe the first time you heard American Pie.

You remember where you were when it happened.

You remember it even if you were not a bear hunter, or because it was accompanied by an ominous feeling that this was the opening salvo in an attack upon hunting. Maybe you remember it because, as important as the announcement was to us, it was buried beneath the news that Mayor Mel Lastman had called in the army from a massive snowstorm.

We likely don’t remember March 13, 2020 as vividly — but we should. For that was the day the government of Ontario announced the full return of the spring bear hunt in 2021. 

The hunt returns

“Our government recognizes hunting as an important part of Ontario’s heritage — an opportunity to pass along traditions to the next generation. By making the spring bear hunt a regular season beginning in 2021, we are continuing to provide opportunities for hunters and supporting a healthy and sustainable black bear population,” said John Yakabuski, minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. “This will also provide some much-needed long-term economic certainty to many businesses impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.” 

How we got from that snowy day in 1999 to that long-awaited decision didn’t just happen, however. 

The truth is, the spring bear hunt would still be nothing more than a footnote in Ontario’s outdoors history, had it not been for the stubborn and steadfast efforts of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH). Several other groups from northern and southern Ontario also mobilized and fought initially too, but it was the OFAH that stayed the course. 

Report laid out facts

I’m proud to say OOD played a small but important role, too. The late and legendary John Kerr, at that time OOD’s managing editor and the Toronto Sun’s Outdoors columnist, broke the story that sounded the initial alarm. 

The suspicious timing of the cancellation meant it would not make that issue of the magazine, which was nearly complete. So, the late Steve Cooke, then Hunting Editor, former Editor- in-Chief Burt Myers, and Kerr quickly assembled OOD’s Special Report, The Spring Bear Hunt. It was feisty 10-page booklet, written by that trio, with contributions from Senior Editor Gord Ellis and me. It laid out how the hunt had been taken away and why that was wrong. 

Now, we’ve come full circle. Clearly, celebration is warranted, but I also believe it’s just as important to take stock of what happened along the way. 

Black Friday

For the hunting community, January 15, 1999, quickly became known as Black Friday, coined by Kerr. That’s when all the rumours, which had been surfacing in the days preceding, were laid to rest with one stunning, then Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), press release. 

It got right to the point. 

“Natural Resources Minister John Snobelen today announced that the government intends to end the spring bear hunt in Ontario this spring…” 

What followed were statements that proclaimed the government was doing so because it could not tolerate cubs being orphaned in the spring due to hunters. The MNR did not have any formal study or quantifiable evidence to back that claim. Only one hunter had been charged with shooting a sow with cubs in the five years prior to the cancellation. In the same year the MNR’s chief black bear scientist would describe orphaning by hunters as an extremely rare event.

The press release acknowledge that the hunt’s cancellation and the timing (which happened right after many northern outfitters had finished the US hunting-show circuit where they had booked hunts for spring) would “create problems for some outfitters” — an understatement, if there ever was one.

The release then said the government promised to consider aid and compensation to affected businesses, as well as to work with them to “broaden and strengthen economic development in the north.”

A political campaign

What the press release didn’t say was that Premier Mike Harris’ government was giving in to a well-funded and sharply focused political attack. It was orchestrated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and backed financially by the Schad Foundation, run by businessman Robert Schad, founder of Husky Injection Moulding. 

In October 1998, IFAW began threatening a $2 million media campaign against the MNR, the OFAH, and the Northern Ontario Tourist Operators, if they did not shut down the spring bear hunt. In November, the IFAW stepped up its campaign by targeting eight key swing ridings held by Conservative MPPs in the Hamilton and Niagara areas.

They used billboards, newspaper, radio, door-to-door flyers, and a video hand-out campaign to tell urban voters that Harris and those eight vulnerable MPPs who were in favour of hunting in some provincial parks, allowing 12-year-olds to become apprentice hunters, and, worst of all, supportive of a spring bear hunt that, according to them, orphaned as many as 300 cubs.

A claim that was debunked.

Heart-wrenching photos used

They used predictably heart-wrenching photos of cute cubs to pull at the urban voter’s heartstrings. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they threatened to take the campaign province-wide.

At the same time, the Schad Foundation began courting bear outfitters to make changes to the spring bear hunt and even went so far as to offer money for them to change over to eco-tourism.

Finally, what caused the government to kill the hunt, according to Kerr’s sources, was that in the first week of January 1999, Schad sat down with the premier in a meeting room at Pearson International Airport. Schad threatened to spend $100 million against him in the upcoming election campaign, unless the spring bear hunt was cancelled. 

The premier denied this, but on the 15th, the cancellation was announced. 

Way of life attacked

The cancellation was not merely an attack on hunting. It was an attack on a way of life.

One of the true tragedies was how it adversely affected small businesses in parts of the province where running a business was already difficult enough. Primarily, it punished outfitters in northern Ontario, many of whom made a significant part of their living running spring bear hunts. But it also harmed other small businesses, from gas stations and coffee shops to restaurants and corner stores that visiting hunters frequented. 

At the time, it was estimated that the northern economy would lose up to $40 million annually as a result of the cancellation and associated spending in surrounding communities. In return, the provincial government offered outfitters $250 for each hunter who used their services the previous spring. As a result, many outfitters suffered devastating financial losses and some had no recourse other than to close. 

Those opposed to the hunt thought it could be easily replaced with eco-tourism, which turned out to be a wholly inadequate idea. Eco-tourists, outfitters quickly discovered, didn’t tend to drive that far north or spend that much money if they got there.

Cancellation caused anger

“The cancellation brought disillusionment to some people in northern Ontario. We thought that the people making the decisions didn’t know anything about hunting or about the outfitting business. They ripped away a good business in the shoulder seasons (when tourist dollars were scarcest),” said Ellis, who covered the story extensively at the time. 

Outfitters were justifiably angry. They, along with concerned hunters, organized and attended newsworthy spring bear hunt rallies in Lindsay and North Bay shortly after the closure. 

Some even dogged Snobelen in his riding while participating in a debate during his re-election campaign. In one famously reported incident, Texas MacDonald, Ontario’s longest-serving bear hunt outfitter from McKerrow, threw his shirt to the minister and said, “You took away my livelihood, my business. If this hunt can’t be reinstated, I may as well give you my shirt as well as my business.” 

Cultural divide highlighted

Anyone following the story could easily see that the cancellation highlighted the cultural divide that existed between hunters and non-hunters. Those who understood hunting and its social and economic importance felt the decision to cancel the hunt was largely being driven by voters and organizations rooted in urban southern Ontario, who did not appreciate how ingrained and important hunting was in their lives. 

Worse still, they were almost successful in dividing the hunting community too — at least initially. 

OFAH Business Development and Corporate Messaging Manager Robert Pye, who was one of the first people Kerr alerted, said, “The closure was a dark time for hunters. There was a lot of infighting going on.”

Further rifts surfaced

This was partially because most spring bear hunters were, at that time, Americans, so some hunters initially did not regard it as an issue that affected them. Also, many who had never participated in the hunt were uneducated about the larger issue (hunting in general) at stake. 

Yet, even those who cared about the hunt and agreed that it should be reinstated were divided on how it should be done and who should represent hunters. While the anti-hunters remained united, in the hunting community splinter groups formed and many efforts were duplicated or wasted. 

In rural central Ontario, and the north, however, the cancellation was commonly viewed as further proof that urban populations in the south had far too much say on how the rest of the province was run. 

This feeling of resentment was largely responsible for the emergence of a separatist political movement in the north, too. 

Dividing North from South

A Canadian Press story in February 1999 told of Marathon resident Robert Woito’s efforts to collect 10,000 signatures to form the Northern Ontario Coalition party, whose stated goal would be to separate the north from the south. 

In the story, Woito was quoted as saying “The cancellation of the spring bear hunt was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’re definitely not being heard down (south).” 

That effort did not gain required traction and was short-lived, but it underscored how differently the hunt’s importance was viewed across the province. 

The hunt’s cancellation remained a contentious issue and by February 20, when the 30-day Environmental Bill of Rights public comment period was closed, 35,347 comments were received. 

Though there was some initial division, hunters soon closed ranks. 

“The cancellation was positive in the sense that it brought hunters together,” said Ellis. “I think we all thought, ‘What’s next?’ and then decided to hold the line.” 

The biggest file 

It should be said that, for groups that paid attention, the cancellation came as a surprise, but not a shock. 

In fact, the Bear Alliance (also funded by the Schad Foundation at the time), failed in an attempt to have the hunt cancelled the year prior. 

Pye says that animal-rights groups had been focusing on the hunt since the ‘80s, because it was considered our most vulnerable hunt since it was Ontario’s only spring hunt at the time and many people perceived baiting as unethical. As a result, the OFAH had been defending the hunt in one way or another for quite a while already. 

“OFAH members just need to recall all the Angler and Hunter and OOD articles on the benefits of black bear management,” Pye said. “The OFAH had made a steady effort to embrace the hunt long before the cancellation. We were communicating its value in information articles in Maclean’s and on Angler and Hunter TV. We spoke about the benefits of black bear as a food source and as an animal worthy of respect and proper game management,” he said. 

After Black Friday, the OFAH effort went into overdrive. 

“From the time the hunt was cancelled up until its recent reinstatement, we have had multiple people working on the spring bear hunt file,” Pye said. “It quickly became our biggest file, right alongside guns and Crown land. It involved all levels of the organization, including volunteer board members.” 

Caring about conservation

The road to regain the hunt was not an easy one. It included many visits to Queen’s Park, countless conversations with professional wildlife managers, and a constant public-education campaign. There were three years of legal battles that were fought up to the Supreme Court. This was as far as the OFAH could go within the legal system, and with significant legal bills. Eventually it came down to the grunt work needed to change public opinion and lobby each successive government. 

Simply put, it boiled down to winning hearts and minds. 

“It was a large part of what our communications and marketing people did. There’s not a communications piece in the last 25 years that doesn’t reference the spring bear hunt. It was really a call to action for anyone who cares about conservation,” Pye said. 

He believes many good things came out of it, even before the hunt was reinstated. 

“Membership loyalty was one of those things,” he said. “Because of the cancellation, we now have members with 25 to 35 consecutive years, some with even 45… They’ve grown up with the spring cancellation story and they know what it means. This is their story.” 

Predictions came true

The decision to reinstate was likely made easier because of the OFAH’s credibility and resolve. 

“In the years that led up to the full return of the spring bear hunt, everything that the OFAH predicted came true,” Pye said.

This included major hits to the northern economy and the prediction that eco-tourism wouldn’t work. Additionally, summer after summer, there was increasing apprehension about bears across the province just as the OFAH foretold. Nuisance bears were perceived as a public-safety issue in many parts of north and central Ontario. The animals were beginning to show up in places farther south where they hadn’t been for years.

There were not enough resources to deal with nuisance bears. Instead, frequent reports of habituated bears got the S-S-S (shoot-shovel-shut up) treatment during those times. 

“That was the biggest kick in the stomach for conservation-minded people,” Pye said. “Hunters don’t get enough credit for how much they objected to that. The public doesn’t appreciate how much this appalled us. We were wasting a wonderful resource that we would have gladly paid for in licence fees while injecting money into communities that needed it in the north.” 

Ultimately, reasonable, science-based arguments dispelled anti-hunting myths and showed a spring bear hunt was sustainable. This, along with growing public pressure from rural people and cottagers to better manage bear populations, led the MNR to create the spring bear hunt pilot project in 2014 (which was extended to 2020.) 

It was the first step towards reinstatement. 

Myths dispelled

From the onset, the pilot project continued to disprove the myths behind the cancellation. That does not mean they went away, however. 

“I’m sorry to say that the messages used by the groups opposing the hunt in 1999 are the same ones they still put out now, which is frustrating for a science-based organization like the OFAH. These myths were debunked in 1999,” said OFAH Wildlife Biologist Dr. Keith Munro. 

Of all the myths repeated by anti-hunting groups, the orphaned cub argument is the most emotionally charged. Cubs, after all, are cute, cuddly, and photogenic, and the thought of them being orphaned is offensive. 

Luckily, this is easy to debunk. 

“In 1999, MNR bear expert Dr. Martyn Obbard described the orphaning of cubs as an extremely rare event. More recently, over the course of the pilot project, which is highly scrutinized, not a single hunter was charged with shooting a female with cubs. Therefore, we are still extremely confident that the orphaning of cubs by hunters is still an extremely rare event,” said Munro. 

Munro also explained that groups opposed to bear hunting tend to assign all orphaning of cubs to hunting, when it could be due to a variety of other reasons, such as animal/automobiles collisions, the mother being killed as a nuisance animal, abandonment and starvation due to insufficient milk supply, cannibalism from males bears, or abandonment due to human disturbance of a den site. 

“Of all the possible reasons a cub could be orphaned, hunting is the only one that actively takes steps and has regulations in place to avoid it,” he added. 

Studies laid out facts

Another variation of the orphaning myth is that a female will stash her cubs and come into a bait site alone and hunters will shoot her, never knowing that cubs were orphaned. 

Munro points out the unlikelihood of this by explaining females with cubs tend to act differently. They do this in order to reduce the risk to their young. He says they are more sedentary and generally avoid areas of encounters, including bait sites. This is because they want to steer clear of other bears, which can be predatory towards cubs. 

He also cites a study done in Manitoba that examined females harvested at bait sites. In the study, researchers dissected the reproductive organs of those harvested females. They looked at indications, such as placenta scars, to determine if they had young that year. They found of a small number of those harvested sows did indeed have cubs that year.

However, the study could not ascertain whether those cubs were killed by any of the aforementioned causes prior to the female visiting the bait site or orphaned by the hunters. What they do know is it was a low number, less than 2% of the number of cubs that die annually from natural causes. 

Baiting benefits

As for baiting, their other hot-button issue, Munro believes it’s only controversial because its benefits are misunderstood.

“Baiting in Ontario is primarily driven by our geography. We mostly hunt bears in forested habitats and in geography where visibility is not conducive to other methods of hunting…,” he said.

In these conditions, baiting gives the hunter the best chance of making a clean kill and identifying the bear’s sex.

Besides that, it is skewed towards the harvest of males, helping reduce the chances of cubs being orphaned. Many hunters have experienced a female with young coming to bait and cubs bursting onto the scene first.

Conversely, if a lone bear visits the bait site, a hunter can look for the tell-tale characteristics to determine its gender and, if female, wait a while to ensure she has no cubs lagging behind. Or simply decide to pass on it, as many hunters do.

Personal experience

My own experience tells me that people who think hunting over bait is easy have never done it. It’s a form of hunting that requires patience and the discipline to stay exceedingly still and silent, despite being swarmed by black flies and mosquitoes. Then even when a legal animal comes out, there are times the hunter cannot shoot, because the bear does not present an acceptable shot angle, detects the hunter, or is situated with other bears or obstacles in the line of fire. 

All that is to say just because a bear comes out to bait doesn’t mean it’s automatically dead. 

“I actually think the belief that baiting bears means they have no chance devalues bears as an intelligent animal. There is about a 25% success rate for all hunters, not just those hunting over bait here in Ontario,” Munro said.

In fact, bears are legendary for the play when approaching bait, and most bear hunters have lamented over far too many trail-camera photos of nice bears feasting at their bait site by the light of the moon, rather than during legal hunting hours. 

Sustaining spring hunting

The groups opposing the hunt also claim that the spring bear hunt is not sustainable, but the numbers don’t support that. In 1999, MNR estimates placed the provincial bear population somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 animals. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) currently estimates our bear population to be between 85,000 to 105,000 animals, which indicates it’s unlikely the spring pilot project has hurt their numbers. 

Munro says bear biology helps the sustainability of a hunt in some ways and shows why a harvest limit is necessary. 

“Bears are a long-lived animal and slow responding species. Females mature sexually at five years and then breed no more frequently than every second year, but that could be as much as every three to four years. That means only a relatively small proportion of females have cubs at any given time.” 

That’s not to say bears cannot be over harvested. In Ontario, bear managers have determined that a 10% harvest of the spring and fall is sustainable. Of that, they hope females represent less than 40% with not more than 20% being adult females. Munro says for all the years of the pilot caution they can project the MNRF has posted data for, harvest in spring and fall combined has been less than 10%. 

There are benefits to a spring hunt, too. First, it helps maintain a sustainable population and manages bear densities. The hunt also provides data, through bear-tooth submissions and mandatory hunter surveys, so wildlife managers can make better decisions. Lastly, it generates money to local economies and the licence money goes into the special purpose account.

A unifying event 

If animal-rights groups celebrated the hunt’s cancellation, it was only because they never looked at hunter numbers in the ensuing years. 

Shortly after the cancellation in 1999, resident bear hunter numbers began to grow steadily from a low of about 7,500 in 2000 to a high of approximately 26,000 in 2016. Since the spring pilot project was introduced in 2014, resident hunter numbers have generally settled between 20,000 and 25,000. Non-resident numbers, on the other hand, declined from a pre-cancellation average of around 11,000 to 5,000 in the last decade or so. This will likely change in 2021 since outfitters now have the certainty to offer spring hunts and invest in advertising.

If you think about it, the cancellation of the spring hunt in 1999 had about the same effect as telling a teenager to stop doing something. Hunters eventually wanted to discover for themselves what they were supposed to stop doing. And once they became familiar with bear hunting’s many charms, they quickly made it an annual hunting tradition. 

Ellis is one of them. 

The bear-hunting bug

“I got the bear-hunting bug shortly after covering the spring bear hunt cancellation in 1999. It was a huge story at the time and there was so much info about bear hunting out there that it piqued my interest.” 

Ellis said he was not a bear hunter prior to the cancellation because of many misconceptions he had from growing up in northern Ontario. At times, he was told they smelled like the dump, looked like a person when you skinned them (they look more like a pig), and the meat was not good.

“Once the hunt was cancelled, I decided I should experience it,” he said. 

He credits a local bear hunter for showing him what he needed to know. Armed with that knowledge, Ellis took his first bear in the fall of 2004. 

With that first harvest, all his misconceptions fell to the wayside. Since then, he has stalked them and hunted them over bait — and does so annually. 

“Bears are incredible animals to hunt. They are so challenging. They seem to have a sixth sense about danger. I’ve had blinds ripped apart. They are one of the few animals we hunt that can turn the tables on you.” 

The biggest surprise

What surprised him most was how good the meat was. 

“I discovered the meat was excellent. In fact, it’s a favourite meat in this home. My wife actually makes a point of asking me if I’m going bear hunting each fall.” 

Ellis also believes the hunt became a much bigger deal after it was cancelled. 

“People wanted to see what the hunt was about. I think the cancellation of the hunt changed the hunting culture.” 

Pye also became a bear hunter after the cancellation. 

“The last four of five years I have become a hard-core spring bear hunter. That hunt is now as impactful as my early mornings on a trout stream.” 

My story is similar. Though I wouldn’t call myself a hard-core bear hunter, I took it up after the cancellation and have enjoyed taking bears while accompanying hound hunters, by sitting over bait, and by stalking. Each approach presents another unique aspect of an already exciting hunt. 

What we learned 

The hunt’s cancellation was a wake-up call for the outdoors community. That fateful decision showed that our traditions could be upended. It demonstrated that even friendly governments could buckle under the right amount of pressure. It proved that a dedicated, well-funded campaign based on ill-informed and emotional anti-hunting sentiments could topple sound, science-based policy. 

Most important of all, it taught us that it is far easier to keep our traditions than to win them back after they have been taken away. 

These are lessons we should never forget. 

Pye says the cancellation created a ripple effect that placed Ontario in the international spotlight, though not in a good way.

“We were a case study of what happens when anti-hunters strike,” he said. “Even to this day when I speak to industry friends throughout North America the discussion comes up. Now, at least, we’ve got good-news stories to tell.” 

There are so many other things to tell them, too. 

We can tell them the cancellation caused our hunters to band together and support advocacy groups such as the OFAH. Also, we can tell them we discovered there is value in being educated on outdoors issues. This way we can dispel myths before they take hold in our communities. We can even tell them that we will never again let down our guard. 

“Yes, government came through,” said Pye. “Yes, the OFAH worked hard. But every hunter should have a sense of ownership on this.” 

Looking ahead

“The future is really strong for this hunt,” he adds. “But the work has only just begun. We will always be the organization that will demonstrate to the general public that hunting is relevant and important to conservation.” 

On a more personal note, it has been 21 years since I was fortunate enough to contribute to that powerful OOD spring bear hunt booklet. Since that time, I have become an intermittent bear hunter. My participation depends on how my trout and turkey hunting efforts are panning out. Also on how full my freezer is from the previous fall, and on the opportunities, funds, and time available. Nevertheless, whether I will use it or not that spring, I will always have a bear tag among my licences. 

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Too many people fought way too hard for the privilege. 

Timeline of the spring bear hunt

Prior to 1961: Black bears were considered varmints. Bounties were placed on them from 1793 to 1796 and 1942 to 1961. Hunting licences were not required.

1961: Bears were classified as game under the Game and Fisheries Act. The first open season was from Sept. 1st to June 30 the following year, and a licence was required to hunt them. 

1960s and 1970s: Bears received little proactive management, except through adjustment of open season dates. 

The 1980s

1980: Bears were placed under a separate licence. To this point, bear licences were combined with moose, wolf, deer, and small game in different configurations. Bear were never considered fur-bearers, although they could be taken with a trapper’s licence.

1987: Provincial policies were established. Regulations included: no shooting on Crown land within 440 yards (400 m) of a waste disposal site; a prohibition on shooting bears in dens and sows with cubs during spring; restrictions on the use of dogs during spring; a moratorium on bear hunt operators. Operators applied for placement in a closed system, and non-residents needed to use an authorized operator to hunt bear.

1989: 1,984 Bear management areas were implemented. Users paid $2 per square mile (approximately 77 cents per square KM) of Crown land. Operators paid about $400,000 annually to support these areas.

The 1990s

1992: The moratorium was lifted, allowing new operators into the system.

1996: Fish and Game Act amended. New rules limited bear hunters to one bear per licence per year and extended authority over the trade in bear parts. 

According to the MNR, 9,699 resident and 12,913 non-resident licences were sold in 1996 and hunters had an overall sales impact of $43 million on the province. In addition, 25% of bear hunters purchased a 7-day angling licence. These hunters harvested 5,688 bears. Of that, 3,661 were taken in the spring.

Jan. 1, 1999: The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act was implemented. It included a prohibition on destroying or interfering with bear dens, mandatory licensing of bear dogs, the reporting of nuisance bears, and increased penalties for the commercialization of wildlife. Shooting a swim- ming bear and hunting within 400 metres of a waste disposal site was also prohibited, and possessing a bear gall bladder that had been removed from a carcass became illegal. Penalties ranged up to $100,000 and/or 2 years in jail. 

Jan. 15, 1999: The Ontario government announced it would close the spring bear hunt. 

The 2000s

Nov. 14, 2013: MNR trialed a 2-year (2014- 2015) spring hunt pilot project in 8 northern WMUs with high bear- human conflict. 

Feb, 19, 2016: MNRF expanded the spring bear hunt pilot for 5 years (2016- 2020) to include all 88 WMUs that had a fall hunt and open it to non- residents. 

2018: The MNRF released results of a socioeconomic study of black bear hunting in Ontario. 

2019: MNRF proposed to reduce the minimum distance requirement for placement of bait from rights of way for public vehicular traffic and marked and maintained recreational trails for black bear hunting from 200 metres to 30 metres. 

January 2020: The proposed distance requirements were approved. 

March 13, 2020: The MNRF announced that the spring bear hunt will be reinstated in 2021 

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