• Bruce Penninsula Bears

    Bruce Penninsula Bears

    Like many sportsman across Grey and Bruce, the month of October brings me great joy. Whether you enjoy waterfowl hunting, harvesting local grouse, or patiently waiting out a whitetail while in a tree-stand with archery gear, October is for you. There is another breed of outdoorsman in the woods however, a hunter and harvester just like those mentioned above. He is the bear hunter.

    Hunting bear on the Bruce Peninsula is nothing new. Bears have been the focus of many local hunters for over a century in our area. I have been a hunter for nearly 17 years, acquiring my Hunter safety course early during my high school days. I have chased and harvested my fair share of whitetails, waterfowl, game birds and such. I love to hunt, and love to eat what I decide to kill. Up until this summer, the idea of hunting bear never sparked my interest. Sure I have sunk my canines into some quality bear steaks from bruins harvested by friends, but I have never found the urge to dive into the world of the bear hunter….until now.

    Before I could possibly undertake the task of harvesting a local bear, I had to do some research to understand exactly what I would be hunting. I know bears; I studied them to some extent while in college. But local bears are a special case. Bruce Peninsula bears have been a hot topic recently in our local media. We have an MPP calling for a change in the way nuisance bear calls are handled. We have Police Chiefs up in arms over the fact that police, not the MNR, are tasked with dealing with these often misunderstood creatures. Finally, we have a growing local population who finds it utterly astonishing that bears exist here, eating one’s garbage and carrying on with their normal bear behavior. These folks also expect bears to never be seen in our increasingly shrinking forest habitat. So here is me, a local looking to expand my hunting horizons and increase my knowledge of a species that tends to spark some serious emotion. To my amazement, I have learned that I knew little about local bear populations, their biology and their characteristics.

    Hopefully, what you read here will provide some truths to the topic, one that seems to be so grossly stretched and fabricated. Here are some facts I have learned. Peninsula bears are unique in a science sense because they are isolated by the geography of their habitat. The Peninsula is not only their home turf, but in effect acts as a prison that limits their options for dispersal. Sure there are some bears to the South East and South West of the Bruce Peninsula, but the greatest numbers of local bears are found north of Owen Sound and Southampton, hence the open season for bear according to MNR regulation in zone 83 and parts of zones 82 and 84. This isolation makes things difficult for the local bear population in terms of genetics and the lack of bears from other regions dispersing to the Bruce only compounds the fact that local bears are all by themselves.

    To better help me understand this part of the topic, I tapped the knowledge bank of local MNR Fish and Wildlife Specialist Jody Scheifley who provided me with, not only first hand knowledge of local bears, but also with a number of scientific reports and research relating to populations on the Peninsula.

    To avoid running out of column space with an in-depth summarization of a number of highly touted scientific research papers, let me highlight just some of the important aspects. With the vast majority of the southern portion of the BP covered with urban sprawl and mass agriculture, the forest cover and important black bear habitat is small. This provides the opportunity for more human – bear interactions, increased motor vehicle collisions, and less migration between distinct populations of bears from the Peninsula and elsewhere in the province. On the other hand, the upper reaches of the Peninsula provide prime habitat, which cover a large percentage of the land yet lacks in total area to support large populations. Add to this the very limited genetic diversity among the bears and what appears to be an increasing amount of human related deaths, and the picture gets slightly clearer from the science side of things. This population is distinct, isolated, lacks some diversity in it’s DNA and, like many species, seems to get slapped with the “worst is yet to come” brush. There are statistical assumptions that put extinction of the local bear population as a possibility in the future based on loss of habitat due to developmental sprawl. Some other important info from the science community also suggests that there are plenty of things that are assumed with Peninsula bears, in terms of population sizes, ranges, mortality and reproduction. A hard look into the papers reveal that “we” do not know everything in terms of local bear science.

    In terms of bear numbers across our local area we arrive at another assumption. Estimates suggests there may be 220 bears within the 1,100km sq of the BP, not including the area south of Wiarton where bears also exist. We do have a healthy enough population to allow a regulated fall bear hunt in our local area. Science, from the MNR is used to make management and harvest decisions across the province and for a large number of management units. It is true that funding for the MNR continues to be going in the wrong direction and that means less of many important things. However, the MNR still conducts local bear science, does in fact have a local bear technician, and still does provide (upon request of police), the immobilization and live trapping of local bears in exceptional circumstances.

    However, according to Scheifley, that isn’t quite enough. “Hunter involvement is one of the most important aspects of local bear research. Reporting local hunter harvest is an opportunity for us to acquire vital information to produce better science,” Scheifley noted. He went on to further explain that, “A hair sample and tooth from harvested bears provides research material that we cannot get if we are not always in the field”. Considering there isn’t a ton of funding around to search out and trap local bears in the name of science, and a number of local bears are legally harvested each year, this seems to make perfect sense. The number of local bear hunters who harvest a bruin each year is not a huge number. Estimates suggest 12 to 15 bears are legally harvested within the local geographical zones of the Bruce Peninsula area each year (though this number could very well be lower than actual numbers). The number of human killed bears aside from hunting is estimated to be roughly half of this. While talking with Scheifley it is apparent that hunters need to help provide the MNR with information, since science suggests that the future of local bears is not rosy. Understanding exact hunter harvest (not an estimate) is vitally important to further assessing the size of the population and if current management practices are sound.

    Add to all of this the fact that human – bear interactions seem to be growing. There is no doubt an increase in the number of incidents in the media, and the continual displeasure with police now responding to problem bear calls. I find it funny sometimes to think that we are so worried about wildlife, yet are so quick to be their biggest enemy. The vast majority of human – bear interactions are caused by human actions. We live in bear country. If you spend time outside in our more natural areas then you have been closer to a bear than you likely imagine. If a bear gets into your garbage, that is clearly your own fault. If you see a bear cross a road, it is far from reason to panic. Nuisance bears are bears that hinder our happy and somewhat oblivious ways of life and are therefore often over-reported and blown out of proportion. Problem bears on the other hand, are ones that break into your house or show aggressive behavior towards humans and should be dealt with accordingly.

    So, all of this puts me in an interesting place as I continue to pursue this new endeavor as a bear hunter. There is so much more to discuss and shed light on in terms of local bears here in Grey-Bruce.

    I will be spending the following days in search of my first bruin, under the close guidance of a good friend who is known locally as a bear hunting guru. In a following column I will touch on the aspects of bear hunting, the controversy over the harvest of bears and the issues surrounding management of populations considering the impact of local bear harvests. And, while I am currently pondering whether attempting to harvest a local black bear with a bow from the confines of a ground blind is a wise decision, my bear hunting tutor assures me I am in safe hands. Here’s to happy hunting!