Dispelling bear myths in Sudbury
By Jim Moodie, The Sudbury Star
Bears don’t growl.
They may “moan, or clack their teeth, or whine,” noted Mike McIntosh, of the Bear With Us sanctuary in Sprucedale, between Huntsville and Parry Sound.
As he illustrated with video he shot of a treed bear, they may also snort, puff, and slap a trunk with their paws, especially if they have cubs in the vicinity, as this sow did.
The mistaken notion that they emit a menacing roar owes mostly to movies, and even some wildlife documentaries, that dub a combination of lion and dog vocalizations over the footage, he said.
Addressing a packed room Thursday at the invitation of the Sudbury Animal Rights Association, McIntosh said it was worth pointing out as an example of the way bears are misunderstood and often presented in an unflattering light.
“They’re not quite the ominous, vicious creature they’re made out to be,” he said.
Even the term carnivore is largely a “misnomer,” he said, as they typically eat vegetation. “Eighty to 100 per cent of their diet is vegetable matter.”
Having worked with orphaned and rescued bears for more than two decades, McIntosh has experienced their ways of behaving and communicating first-hand.
He’s also travelled to grizzly country and spent three weeks with researcher Charlie Russell in a remote corner of Kamchatka, Russia, where brown bears have experienced little to no contact with humans.
In a clip he shared of the latter experience, a bear surprises the researcher, who is on foot and unarmed. It turns out to be a female bear, with nearby cubs.
The momma bear, however, doesn’t charge, much less attack. She “chuffs” at Russell, who simply holds his ground and speaks to her in a calm voice, then elects to avoid him — and McIntosh, who was filming the scene — by taking an indirect route up a hill to retrieve her cubs.
Russell has worked with bears for “40 years and never carried a gun,” said McIntosh. “He’s been bluff-charged, but never touched.”
Some people, particularly those who advocate hunting, will argue bears are naturally invasive and aggressive, and need to be spooked by the threat of bullets.
McIntosh said his experience in the Kamchatka preserve, where no hunting occurs at all (unless maybe through poaching), belies that argument.
“There’s no evidence that a hunted population makes people safer and keeps bears away from people,” he said.
It was a point echoed by Liz White, of the Animal Alliance of Canada, who travelled from Toronto to share her own perspective on bear management in Ontario.
She cited the findings of a Nuisance Bear Review Committee struck by the province more than a decade ago. Their 2003 report concluded “there was no relationship between the end of the (spring bear) hunt and increased bear/human conflicts,” said White.
Yet the current Liberal government in Ontario brought the spring hunt back in a pilot form to a handful of northern wildlife units two years ago, citing public safety as the rationale, she noted, and this year it’s been extended to include non-resident hunters and more areas of the province.
“It started just a few days ago,” said White of the revived hunt.
That’s a shame, in her view, as it puts cubs at risk of being orphaned, in which case they generally starve.
And it meets only a small local demand for hunting, said White. “Of 3, 227 bears killed in the spring hunt in 1994, only 701 were killed by resident hunters,” she pointed out.
She’s mystified that a Liberal government, which mostly represents urban areas and values, has elected to reinstate the hunt, when it was the more rural-based and hunter-friendly Conservatives who scrapped the spring season in 1999.
In her view, it’s all about replenishing provincial coffers with the proceeds from licence sales and spinoffs. “This is a big revenue generator for the province,” she said. “That’s the driver.”
Rather than hunt more bears in the spring, both White and McIntosh advise less demonization of the species and more proactive measures to limit their incursion on neighbourhoods in lean berry years.
“We drove around here for a bit today and saw very few bear-safe garbage containers,” said White. “Making that kind of change would be great.”
A more radical option, she said, would be to provide “lure crops” outside of populated areas as an alternative food source when “there is a berry or nut crop failure.”
She admitted it’s an idea the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry frowns upon, while noting the irony of that stance, since hunters can legally entice bears into shooting range with food.
“Even though we bait them to kill them, we can’t bait them to save them,” she said.
White suggested Sudbury, with its cyclical bear issues based on food shortages, might be a good place for a pilot project involving lure crops.
Last summer was a particularly bad year for so-called nuisance bears — a term McIntosh dislikes, as “it’s usually our behaviour that creates conflicts” — with several adults shot in Sudbury by police or vigilantes, and about seven orphaned cubs captured by natural resources technicians.
Those waifs ended up at Bear With Us, along with more than a dozen collected elsewhere, plus a couple more rescued in the Sudbury area since.
At present, McIntosh said he has 48 cubs in his Sprucedale sanctuary.
He shared video of two youngsters cavorting in the snow earlier this year, noting the lack of audio in the clip was not due to a sound or volume issue.
“When they’re happy, they don’t make any noise,” he said.