Currently there are between 75,000 and 100,000 black bears living in Ontario’s forests. The province has the second largest black bear population in Canada, behind British Columbia and the third largest in North America. Ontario residents have coexisted with their ursine counterparts for hundreds of years but it has been an extremely complicated and at times sordid relationship. For example, the childhood storybook character, Winnie-the-Pooh created by A.A. Milne, was inspired by a black bear named Winnipeg that was captured near Lake Superior in 1914 before being transported across the Atlantic for exhibition in the London Zoo. Not exactly the feel good story that is conveyed in the pages of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Yet, the origin of “Pooh-Bear” is just one instance of how complex the relationship has been between people and black bears. I decided to do an environmental history of Ontario’s Ursus americanus residents because of my long fascination with the provincial government’s decision in 1999 to repeal the spring bear hunt and the debate that followed. The cancellation was not the result of an extended and careful study of the spring bear hunt by government wildlife managers. It was made in response to claims made by a conglomerate of animal welfare groups, the so-called “Bear Alliance,” that the hunt was both inhumane and led to increased cub orphaning, claims that the government obviously feared were striking a chord with voters in southern Ontario. No government since has reintroduced the hunt, and northern Ontario communities have lived with the economic and environmental consequences.
While this is a more recent episode in the history of black bears in Ontario it speaks to the way perceptions of nature affect the making of hunting and wildlife management policy, and how those policies in turn have material consequences, some anticipated and others not. My project seeks to explore the way that scientific and non-scientific perceptions of bears interacted and competed in the development of wildlife management policies and hunting regulations in Ontario. Moreover, what really intrigues me is how different groups such as hunters, biologists, policymakers, naturalists, and the lay public have viewed the province’s bears and how and why these perspectives have changed over the years. From 1942 to 1961, Ontario’s black bear was subjected to a bounty system that was similar to the one applied to the province’s wolves. The majority of residents saw the animal as vermin and gladly took up arms to collect the $5 and $10 bounty on cubs and adult bears respectively. In 1961 the bounty was rescinded and the bear was designated as a game animal. However, a bag limit was not introduced and neither were closed seasons; residents simply had to buy licenses. By the 1980s, Ontario finally introduced more rigid management practices with the introduction of limited seasons (spring and fall) and limited kills. This brief snapshot reveals how human perceptions have changed the bear from pest to quasi-game to bona fide trophy animal.
Black bears do not play a pertinent role in our ecosystem. We choose to coexist with them because they feed our mind, body, and soul. We name our airlines and our sports teams after them; they drive our imagination. Canada’s preeminent bear expert, Stephen Herrero has said that “the decisions we make about how we will manage bears depend on our attitudes and values related to bears.” My study will chart the history of Ontario’s relationship with its bears in the hope that it may help shape the values guiding future policy.
Mike Commito is a Doctoral Candidate in the history department at McMaster University in Hamilton.