Bear population needs management

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ANOTHER LOOK BY AL MUIR

New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources announced on Aug. 11 an extended season and increased bag limit for black bear. A spokesman for Natural Resources in Nova Scotia said a similar move here is not contemplated. According to Bruce Nunn "The department uses an adaptive management approach to any wildlife harvest and responds to changes as needed." But how "adaptive" is that department?

In a conversation with Michael O'Brian, the manager of the Sustainable Wildlife division responsible for policy and regulations, I verified that the province does not conduct a direct survey to determine bear populations. Only population trends are anecdotally determined by the frequency of nuisance bear reports. Those reports to Natural Resources are on the rise.

With the expanding use of trail cameras wildlife departments are increasingly asking hunters for reports of photographic observations. Several years ago, after the site registration requirement was lifted, I conducted a small-scale black bear population survey. Trail cameras were placed over three well-maintained food stations positioned in a triangular pattern with the points 2.414 kilometres (1.5 miles) apart. Over the course of three weeks the three sites yielded regular re-occurring photos of 17 distinctly identifiable bears. Though in a rural setting none of the sites were more than one kilometre from single or multiple dwellings.

There are three large wild mammal species that currently reside in Nova Scotia. Aside from small pockets scattered around the mainland the moose population is centred in and around the Highlands of Cape Breton. With the forest decimation brought about by the spruce bud worm and low-level plant growth that population exploded in the late 1970s. Their ability to survive deep snow accumulation meant that re-growth of the forest was the only limiting factor on a sustained high population, provided that hunting pressure was well regulated. Some years later that regrowth has resulted in a much-reduced population. Coincidentally, in the same time frame – with a few years delay – over-harvesting of trees on the mainland opened up large acreage of new food sources for an expanding whitetail deer population. Warmer winters with lighter snowfall meant a higher survival rate. Unfortunately, unlike the moose when the deep snows came deer numbers declined. Wintering grounds of hemlocks and the like were in many cases not replanted with species that provided the cover to lower snow depths on the ground.

But the bear was a special case. Deep snow acted like a thick blanket warming their bed for the winter long slumber. Felled trees were in many cases replaced by raspberry bushes, pin cherry trees and other species suitable for a mid-summer bear buffet. In the last few years machinery has made it economical to harvest immature trees resulting in continual low growth. In fall blueberries, corn, apples and the like were supplemented by the growing habit of humans feeding deer. To complete the menu in spring and an early summer bumper crop of compost bins acted as an appetizer to the main courses. With an olfactory system seven times more sensitive than a dogs, aiding in locating the course of rotting organics and the added benefit of being impervious to food poisoning, the bins were a godsend – particularly when bears suffer their greatest weight loss in the spring and starvation is the leading cause of death for cubs and juveniles.  A bear’s high food intake in the fall season of plenty is as much to survive the early spring as it is to over-winter without food.

With the lower interest in hunting bear, rather than deer or moose, it is not surprising that they attract less management attention despite their potential as dangerous predators.

Given the difficulties the government of Newfoundland currently faces with a class action suit surrounding their management of the moose herd and highway deaths involving moose you would expect a heightened sense of the importance of getting management issues right. While there is little chance of bear and human interactions reaching the levels of those of moose and humans the potential liabilities need to be recognized. Government sets not only forest harvest regulations but regulations around disposal of organic materials. The necessity of foreseeing unintended consequences has become a hallmark of our age.

Most of the jurisdictions that have a significant black bear population have a fall bear hunt but many do not have a spring hunt despite rising populations across their range. This makes a spring bear hunt particularly attractive from an economic standpoint. New Brunswick has had a vibrant guiding/out-fitting sector based on the black bear for many years. Non-resident participation is routinely significant. It should not take a commission on growing the economy, like the Ivany group, to recognize that generating economic activity at little or no cost is sound fiscal management. That it goes hand in hand with sound wildlife management makes it doubly adaptive.

 

Al Muir of Plymouth is a local business owner.

Organizations: Department of Natural Resources, Sustainable Wildlife division

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Newfoundland Plymouth

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