Orphaned bear cubs in Alberta face a bleak fate. If orphaned in the spring, a newborn will slowly starve to death. At that age, it weighs about two kilograms and is fully dependent on its mother’s milk. If orphaned later in the year, a cub may survive long enough to be discovered and reported to Alberta Environment and Parks. Conservation officers will then euthanize it.
Non-migratory animal legislation is provincial and bear policy varies across Canada. While rescue centres in Ontario, British Columbia, and New Brunswick can take in vulnerable bears and eventually re-release them to the wild, the practice is forbidden in Alberta.
Bear rescues banned
The Cochrane Ecological Institute is an animal rescue centre 65 kilometres northwest of Calgary, on the last stretch of prairie east of the Rockies. The family-run organization has been rehabilitating and releasing indigenous wildlife since 1967, when it was granted a licence on the condition that a fence be erected around the 140-acre property.
The CEI’s inhabitants include mule and whitetail deer, a flightless owl, a skulk of elusive foxes, an elk that shares an enclosure with a herd of bison, and a teenage moose called Gilles with a dodgy knee and a penchant for sweet potato. A dog and cat boarding business partially finances the operation, which otherwise relies on donations.
Until 2010 the CEI also housed bears. That year the terms and conditions stapled to the organization’s wildlife rehabilitation permit were adjusted to include an explicit ban on rescuing and rehabilitating black and grizzly bears, along with coyotes, bighorn sheep, wolves, cougars, and mountain goats.
Prior to the ban, the CEI rescued on average one to four black bears annually, the majority cubs. The costly bear rehabilitation process involved placing wounded or orphaned bears into large fenced enclosures and nurturing them to health before releasing them to previously researched wild locations.
The CEI has three bear enclosures, each wooded, five-acres large with eight-foot fences. During their second hibernation, bears would enter purpose-built hibernating boxes in their enclosures, then wake up in the spring in the wild.
Cubs are orphaned most frequently, but not exclusively, during the spring and fall bear hunting seasons, which sprawl over April, May, and June and September, October, and November in Alberta. While hunting a female black bear accompanied by a cub is illegal, it is difficult to police.
According to CEI’s president, Clio Smeeton, hunters make mistakes easily, given that in the spring, cubs are so small they are barely visible and it is hard to tell a female from a male if they are not urinating or side-by-side for a size comparison. Moreover, cubs often don’t follow their mother to bait sites. When the mother is not technically accompanied by a cub, she becomes a legal target.
Overabundance of bears in Alberta?
Smeeton inherited the CEI from her parents, celebrated adventurers Beryl and Miles Smeeton. She wants the provincial NDP government, elected in 2015 after 44 years of Conservative rule, to reconsider the seven-year-old ban.
“Bears have the slowest rate of reproduction of any animal in North America. And if something is a slow reproducer, it’s more likely to get wiped out,” she said. “We should not be killing black bear cubs. We should not be permitting it.” According to her, it takes between five to seven years for a female black bear to replace herself in the ecosystem.
Jason Caswell, AEP biologist and spokesperson, said that the reason bears are banned from rehabilitation is because they are “considered dangerous animals” — and the same applies to the rest of the blacklisted megafauna. According to him, the risk that the rehabilitated animals will be less fearful of humans on release is too great.
However, a study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management in 2015 that investigated the implications of 12 captive-rearing programs worldwide concluded that human-conflict levels with captive-reared bears were “comparable to those reported for wild bears.”
This was corroborated by a study of rehabilitated black bears in New Hampshire published in 2016 in Human-Wildlife Interactions, which found no evidence of “unacceptable nuisance activity” in the bears. This led the scientists to conclude that “current techniques [at state-licensed rehabilitators] are effective at minimizing a rehabilitated bear’s interaction with humans.” They also stated that nuisance behaviour, otherwise known as human-bear conflict, is correlated with the lack of available natural forage.
According to Caswell, another reason Alberta does not allow the rescue of bears is there is an “overabundance” of them. In such cases, he explained, there is a low priority given to trying to manage populations “on an individual level.”
Smeeton countered that the government’s landscape view of wildlife management is inappropriate. “A landscape view might be a reasonable approach if the Alberta government had a ‘landscape’ knowledge of the wildlife populations of Alberta,” she said. “But they do not.”
The most recent survey of black bears in Alberta was in 1993, and it set the total population at 40,000. This was estimated using pre-Google aerial photographs. It remains the most common figure used, despite the 24 years that have passed.
According to Smeeton, AEP has “no idea of the wildlife populations they are tasked with.” She said that “all individuals of an estimated population, whose numbers are unconfirmed, should be conserved.”
Caswell said that AEP monitors bear populations through varying indices, an approach applied when dealing with many of the province’s animal populations. According to him, the “overabundance” is backed up by “the number of conflict issues [with humans]” reported to AEP officers. He said that this figure has been “high” in recent years, with a “huge high” six years ago.
He further clarified that conflict data, or the “problem-wildlife index,” is calculated using myriad factors, including reported vehicle and train collisions, legal farm kills, and bear encroachments on private property and campgrounds.
Recent bear conflict data was not available for this article. In a follow-up email, Caswell said that it was “difficult to obtain and within another arm of government altogether.”
He said that AEP receive “very, very few” reports of injured and orphaned bears. Exact figures on how many bear cubs have been reported were not available. This is a departure from the incidence of orphaned bears rescued by the CEI prior to the ban.
How to reduce human-bear conflicts
The picture is different in Ontario, where Mike McIntosh runs the Bear With Us Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre for Bears in Sprucedale. This year he has 42 animals in his care. The majority are cubs orphaned in the fall bear hunt, as spring orphans don’t survive long enough to be rescued. A smaller proportion are bears orphaned by out-of-season hunting and adults injured by vehicles, gunshot wounds, and other human-inflicted injuries.
McIntosh said that the majority of the cubs are reported to him by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. “There’s a great deal of cooperation between the government agency and myself as a bear rehabilitator.”
He surmised that the situation in Alberta “is strictly politics, nothing to do with science,” adding that public attitudes in Ontario might be responsible for more bear-friendly policies.
Bears are a divisive issue in the province, and the spring bear hunt in particular has been a font of controversy. Cancelled in 1999 because of concerns about the number of orphaned and dying bear cubs, it was reintroduced in 2014.
The Ministry of Natural Resources’ stated purpose for the reinstatement was public safety and the reduction of human-bear conflict. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters’ pro-spring bear hunt campaign quoted Ministry of Natural Resources statistics that they said showed “a dangerous escalation” of human-bear interactions over the years the hunt was cancelled, jumping from 8,547 in 2005 to an estimated 12,645 in 2007.
However, the full data set indicates a more erratic pattern, given that the number of human-bear conflicts actually dropped to 7,016 in 2006 and to 9,745 in 2008.
Moreover, a 2003 report by a special committee set up by the Ministry of Natural Resources to look into human-bear conflicts in the province found that increases were not related to the cancellation of the spring hunt, but rather to the periodic scarcity of natural foods. A later 2010 report found “no evidence that the spring hunt cancellation caused the perceived increases in the bear population or in human-bear conflicts” and concluded that a change in the reporting rate for human-bear interactions was a more plausible explanation for the increase, according to a Toronto Star article.
McIntosh believes that educating the public on bear behaviour, not hunting, reduces human-bear conflicts. He feels that bears, like snakes and sharks, are victims of smear campaigns mounted by inaccurate film and television portrayals — Leonardo DiCaprio’s horrifying ursine encounter in The Revenant being a good example.
He said also that the only way to change government policy in provinces like Alberta is for the “public and private individuals to raise a stink.”
His fellow conservationist Smeeton agrees. “The environment doesn’t vote,” she said. “It has no one to protect it apart from the press, who can stir up the people, who can put pressure on politicians.”
Saskatchewan has one bear rescue centre and Manitoba will open its first bear cub rehabilitation centre later this year.