Living in Bear Country

Angela Saxe

Oil on canvas by Mack Jolley.

[This article ran in the June/July 2014 issue of The SCOOP.]

The sun was setting in the west and long shadows stretched across the Newburgh Road while I headed north towards Tamworth. This evening, as tends to happen whenever I’m alone driving along deserted back roads, I was relaxed, lost in my thoughts. As I rounded a bend I was startled by a large animal emerging out of the shadows and moving leisurely across the road. It could have been a large dog, but its gait and the slope of its back made me think otherwise. I slowed to a crawl, scanning the spot where I had seen the animal cross the road and there it was, stopped at the edge of the woods and turning its head to look back at me in my car.

My gaze was met by the beady eyes of a large black bear. His fur was sleek and healthy with a yellowish snout that stood in stark contrast to the rest of his face. Neither one of us felt any unease or fear, instead, we were curious. I was safely inside my car with the window rolled down. My foot rested just above the gas pedal, ready to accelerate if need be, although I felt that wasn’t likely. He was a large, healthy looking bear, probably out for a stroll after spending the day hunting for food in the wetlands that line this section of road.

This was twenty years ago and my first close encounter with a bear, and even though I have had others, I will never forget the magical quality of that first meeting. Here we were - two large mammals staring at each other without fear or hostility. We were both shy and reserved, but I’d like to think that we both knew how special these moments were; two living creatures sitting two metres apart while the peepers croaked madly and the blackbirds whistled to each other in the swamp.

Ursus americanus americanus, the Eastern black bear is native to North America. The smallest and most widely distributed bear, it has made this continent its home for the past 4 – 5 million years. It has survived successive climatic and vegetative changes throughout the ages because it is an arboreal omnivore: 85% of its food is vegetation. Roots, tubers, corns and bulbs are favourite food sources and in the spring, they feed on the succulent, young shoots of grasses and wetland plants which are replaced by fruit and berries in the summer. During the autumn hyperphagia (when they are adding winter weight) the black bear spends time hunting out hazelnuts, pine nuts and oak acorns, even raiding a squirrel’s cache for nuts. If the summer and fall food supply is poor, black bears will encroach onto human areas to raid apiaries for honey, sweet corn and grain from farmers’ fields, birdseed from feeders and of course garbage from poorly secured areas. The remaining 15% of their diet includes animals such as bees, ants, larvae, wasps and at times even small mammals like rabbits, squirrels. With such a varied diet, black bears have been able to adapt to a changing environment and without having to rely on the availability of prey, which can be unpredictable.

Black bears are not only large powerful animals: females may weigh up to 170 kilograms, males up to 250 kilograms, they are also extremely intelligent. Scientific experiments have shown that bears have strong visual discrimination skills based on colour and shapes, far better than that of chimpanzees and dogs. They are adept runners, climbers and swimmers. Their hearing exceeds human frequency range and sensitivity; their sense of smell is five times more sensitive than dogs and they are highly dexterous, able to manipulate door latches and even open screw-top jars. Bears have a terrific memory and will travel more than 100 kilometres to a known food source year after year. My family knows not to visit a wild overgrown patch of blackberries on our land in late summer since it’s a yearly food stop for our neighbouring bear population.

Bears can be very expressive. Over twenty different sounds have been recorded ranging from those denoting aggression – roars, woofs and bellows – to those showing contentment, like squeaks, mumbles and pants. Their size, skillset and intelligence make them dangerous animals but they are by nature shy and timid animals preferring to retreat under the cover of foliage than risk human contact.

The public’s perception of bears as dangerous and the labelling of bears as a nuisance have prompted a debate over culling. It’s true that a disproportionate number of fatal black bear attacks have occurred in Canada.  In North America, between 1900 to 2009, 63 people have died in black bear attacks. Of these, 44 of the victims were mauled in Canada. Because of our long winters and unpredictable summers, periodic food shortages can force bears to roam into populated areas looking for food. In the decades-long black bear study published by the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2009, close to 7,000 incidents of human/bear encounters were documented in 2006 when the berries were plentiful as opposed to 13,000 in 2009 when the berry season was poor.

This year the provincial government reintroduced the six-week spring bear hunt in eight specific areas in Northern Ontario. The two-year pilot project is highly controversial. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) say that the spring bear hunt is in the interest of “public safety and reducing human-bear conflicts,” and that the spring hunt is a proven wildlife population management tool. They maintain that culling will improve public safety by reducing the density and distribution of bears, especially male bears, while the moose and deer populations that are sometime sought out as food by bears will also benefit from the hunt. Northern communities will also profit from the millions of dollars in revenue that the spring bear hunt generates. The OFAH also maintains that bear licence fees will contribute directly to wildlife management activities.

Meanwhile, critics of the spring hunt insist that mother bears are often killed in the spring, leaving behind nursing bear cubs to slowly starve to death. They question the statistics of human-bear conflicts, suggesting that the increase in numbers is due to the improved mechanism for reporting these incidents. Surprisingly, some northerners also oppose the hunt stating that the increase in bear population is inaccurate and they don’t like the negative image of hunters who kill mothers and their cubs. They believe that as a society we wouldn’t tolerate a spring hunt of deer or moose when they are with their young, so why would we condone it for bears? Critics of the hunt also point to two recent cases in Ontario involving an unleashed dog. Dogs can often endanger their owners when the bear responds to the perceived aggressive behaviour of the dog. In this case, humans are not following protocols laid out by the province’s existing Bear Wise Program.

One needs only to look back to the myths and legends of our early ancestors to understand the uneasy relationship between humans and bears. For the indigenous societies of North America and Northern Eurasia, the large, elusive creature is endowed with supernatural qualities, and ceremonies venerating the bear reveal deeply-held beliefs. As an archetypal messenger to the supernatural world, it is considered a medicine being with powerful magical powers. The bear represents strength and wisdom to many Native people and is closely associated with healing and medicine. They are known as the keepers of dreams. In old stories, Bear is often the enforcer figure who punishes improper or disrespectful behaviour among humans and animals. Females represent devoted maternal behaviour sacrificing themselves for their cubs or at times adopting or caring for human children. Native tribes have been known to impose a hunting restriction during the spring to protect the mother bear and the cubs.

Bears can walk on all fours but also stand on their feet and gesture with their paws. Ursa Major, (the Great Dipper constellation) as it travels throughout the sky, changes from the four-footed to two-footed position, appearing to run along on all fours as it nears the horizon and rising to its two feet as it ascends into the sky.

I’m fascinated by how the kinship between bears and humans runs through the mythology and history of people from around the world. Early Christians used the bear as a symbol of victory over paganism and there are legends of saints taming bears in the Alpine regions of Europe. While in 1944 the bear was popularized by the US Forest Service Rangers as Smokey the Bear who delivered the message: “Only you can prevent forest fires”. Meanwhile, generations of children have gone to sleep hugging their Teddy Bear or listening to their parents read another chapter of Winnie the Pooh or the story of the Three Bears and Goldilocks. 

I have to admit that I’m much more wary of walking through fields and woods during the summer and fall; I often sing out loud and make as much noise as I can so as not to surprise a bear, especially a sow and her cubs. Yet I’ve seen bear scat fifty metres from our front door, and neighbours have spotted them crossing the field in front of our house. Our neighbours’ dogs were attacked by a bear when they challenged him as he was rooting around their compost pile and another neighbour came face to face with a bear that was peering into her house as she opened her doors to step out for some air.

Close encounters with large wild animals can be very exciting but there’s always the potential that they can cause us harm.  We live in a healthy, diverse environment which means that we share our neighbourhood with a variety of animals;  like all good neighbours, it is our responsibility to know how to behave around them thereby reducing the opportunities for bears to become a nuisance.
I suggest you visit www: ontario.ca/bearwise for information about bears; what to do when you encounter them and how to be safe in bear country.

To report bear problems call: 1-866-514-2327

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