The bear-naked truth: sightings are on the rise

Cottagers, hikers reporting more ursine encounters, but theories why are many


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Ken Jansen slipped out the back door of his cottage, eight kilometres south of Grand Marais, bolted for his truck and jumped into the driver’s side door. He leaned over and slammed the passenger door shut. Through the front windshield, a black bear snarled at him.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2021 (653 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ken Jansen slipped out the back door of his cottage, eight kilometres south of Grand Marais, bolted for his truck and jumped into the driver’s side door. He leaned over and slammed the passenger door shut. Through the front windshield, a black bear snarled at him.

The bear and her two cubs had sauntered into the yard after Jansen and his wife, Judi, had each gathered an armful of goods from the hard-capped bed of their Ford Ranger and set them down inside. When they looked back, they saw the mother bear lolling over the long, uncut grass of the yard. They also saw the open gate of the truck, which revealed a bear buffet: coolers stocked with groceries and nightcrawlers for fishing.

“I’m thinking, whoa, if she gets into that truck, she’ll destroy it,” said Jansen.

Once he’d dashed into the front seat, he sat still. Finally, the mother bear lost interest. Jansen slid out the door, zipped to the tailgate, flung it shut and closed the cap door. The bear snarled again, but Jansen had hurried into the cottage.

Across the province, people are spying black bears with unusual frequency. They lumber through yards, file along highways and scurry up trees.

“We’ve had the odd bear come through,” said Jansen. “But this is more. This is way more sightings of bears in our area than we’ve known in the past.” For the Jansens, “the past,” means, between the two of them (Judi established the cottage with her late husband), since 1970.

Judy Stearns of Black Bear Rescue Manitoba, a sanctuary whose mission is “to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphaned black bear cubs in Manitoba,” said she has 20 cubs this year. Last year, they took in 21.

“It’s concerning in that we have space limitation, we’ve got a financial limitation, we’ve got a time limitation,” said Stearns. Caring for each cub costs an average of $2,000, Stearns said. A big chunk of that goes toward formula.

Stearns, not unlike many others, can’t account for the increase. “I don’t know that there’s more bears around or just more people seeing them. I don’t have an answer to that.”

The sanctuary is now in its fourth year, so it’s hard to identify a trend. But in years one and two they sheltered only three and nine cubs respectively. Drastic changes in human behaviour since the onset of the pandemic may have influenced the spike in numbers in the last two years.

In any event, said Stearns, “the vast majority of cases is human activity because black bear mothers that were strong enough to give birth and nurse cubs generally don’t just die.”

Cubs end up in her care for one of three reasons: the mother has been chased off, shot or hit by a car.

In Manitoba, it’s illegal to shoot black bears with younglings at their heels, except in cases of personal defence or in which the mother is determined a “nuisance bear.”

Dean Gunnarson, who lives outside Riding Mountain National Park, said this year he’s seen five to 10 bears every day. He said he’s even heard neighbours reporting 10 to 20 chomping the heads off dandelions and nipping at grass.

Sightings are expected in the heart of “bear country,” but Gunnarson said he was likely to spot their burly masses about once a day in previous years.

He worries people are endangering bears. “The problem that I’ve seen a lot — and I’m in the park all the time — is people feeding the bears. And as soon as you feed the bear, then it becomes a nuisance, and it’s a death sentence.”

To prevent this, Gunnarson, an escape artist who’s well-acquainted with danger, chases the bears away, yipping at them and brandishing straw-bristled brooms.

One of the main reasons bears wander into human habit is to find food. Seeds in bird feeders, in particular, can provide a coveted high-fat, high-calorie meal, said Janine Wilmot, a human/wildlife conflict biologist with the provincial government.

Dry conditions this year might be creating extra incentive for black bears to get bolder in their hunt for food, she said.

“Their natural resources are limited,” said Wilmot, “and with the dry spring this year, I think a lot of bears are sort of looking for alternative food sources. Because it was so dry, there just wasn’t a lot available.”

Or perhaps, she mused, humans have moved into bear country.

“Particularly with a pandemic, there’s a lot more people recreating in bear country that maybe haven’t done so in the past,” she said. The sheer number of people braving wilder places could account for some sightings, she said.

But in this mystery of rampant black bear encounters, nobody can pinpoint a cause. For a province that has estimated black bear populations at 25,000-30,000 consistently over, at least, the past 25 years, there seems to be a dearth of public research on the animals. Some quote a lack of funding or a lack of interest to account for this. Of course, immediate explanations would likely be impossible for most wildlife research, which require long-term data to draw conclusions.

One possibility for the uptick is the loss of American hunters. With COVID-19 shutting down the border, Manitoba hasn’t issued a single black bear hunting licence to a foreigner in two years. Previous years hovered around 1,800 to 1,900 foreign licences, accounting for about half the of the hunting tags issued in a year. Not every hunt ends in a kill.

“Bear hunting is part of the management policy of Manitoba,” said Chris Benson of Manitoba Wildlife Federation. “Having the border closed and not having those American hunters come up to Manitoba to hunt certainly changes the structure of that management tool.”

Hunting guide and Adrenaline Outfitters owner Russ Mehling, who says he’s seeing two to three times more bears this year near his Steinbach home, believes the drop off in hunters is contributing to bear encounters.

“They’re spreading out quite a bit right now,” he said. “Normally, the outfitters or the hunters, target the more mature, adult males. When you take a male bear out of an area, a dominant bear, that opens up that area.”

When dominant bears retain their territory, he said, it forces smaller bears to roam further out, eventually into human habitats.

But this theory raises its own questions. Despite the illegality of shooting female black bears with cubs, it does happen.

By examining the placental scars on 1,063 reproductive tracts, which hunters used to be required to remove from kills with ovaries and uterine horns intact, a 2004 study estimated Manitoba’s spring hunts orphan 41 cubs each season. Yet Black Bear Rescue Manitoba has seen significant increases in orphaned black bear babies since the pandemic slashed the province’s hunter numbers in half.

Due to the pandemic, the province hasn’t collected data on bear encounters, a Manitoba Conservation spokesman said.

“Anecdotally, conservation officers and wildlife staff can confirm there appear to be slightly more sightings of bears this year in some parts of the province, but it would be impossible to draw any conclusions about why,” he said in an email.

Wilmot said whatever the reason, people must be smart about bear encounters. That means taking down bird feeders and keeping other food unavailable, travelling in groups, making noise while walking and carrying bear spray.

But precautions can’t always calm the nerves. One solo camper, Sara Josephson, said she saw four bears in 14 kilometres as she approached her campsite at Tulabi Falls. One more waited for her in camp.

“I woke up at midnight and any leaf that would blow by, I was like, it’s a bear,” she said. “I had my bear mace next to me in the tent.”

She slept the rest of the night in her car.

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