To the long list of social activists grasping to understand the meaning of Dalton McGuinty's cabinet appointments, you can add confused wildlife protectors. Why, they ask, did the new premier name David Ramsay (Timiskaming-Cochrane), a supporter of reinstating the spring bear hunt, as natural resources minister?
Certainly, McGuinty doesn't mean to reopen the question, especially after he vowed to the International Fund for Animal Welfare that he wouldn't. The way he deals with a report on nuisance bears written by a Tory-selected panel but not made public will tell the tale. On-air statements by a member of the panel last week suggest the contents are ominous.
The Tories cancelled the spring hunt in 1999 after millionaire Robert Schad of Bolton threatened to put his resources into defeating Tory candidates in the election. The majority of Ontarians oppose the spring bear hunt. That even includes a few hunters I've talked to, who, like the rest of us, are offended by the thought of hunters hiding near bait piles to ambush bears desperately hungry after their winter sleep.
Most of us don't like to see bear cubs orphaned and starving because their mothers were mistaken for male bears (easy to do) and shot.
Although Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) staff originally denied that cubs are being orphaned, one of their own biologists put the lie to that statement by making public a rough calculation that 274 cubs on average were left parentless each year due to the spring hunt.
Meanwhile, spring hunt advocates claim there are now more bears, more bear conflicts with people and massive loss of income from tourist hunters as a result of the hunt's cancellation (even though the fall hunt was significantly extended). The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters even sued the government for stopping the hunt, and lost in court.
In response to all the fuss, the Tories appointed a committee to examine the issue and make recommendations. One of the four members, Fort Frances mayor Glenn Witherspoon, said at the outset that he favoured the return of the spring hunt. No other committee member disagreed.
In September 2002, animal protection groups called on then natural resources minister Jerry Ouellette to remove Witherspoon from the panel because of his bias, but he refused.
Last week Witherspoon said in a CBC Radio interview that the report recommended reintroduction of the spring hunt, claiming it will remove "aggressive" males most likely to become "nuisance" animals.
But Maria de Almeida, large carnivore biologist for the wildlife section of the MNR, says truly serious attacks by bears are invariably in wilderness areas.
"Town" bears are often young and inexperienced, attracted by easy food like garbage and bird feeders.
"There is no hard proof," she tells me, "that over the long run there are more bears or have been more bear contacts with people since the spring hunt ended." De Almeida says years in which there are natural food shortages or climate-caused delays in the ripening of certain types of wild fruit can drive hungry bears to search more widely for food, making human contact more likely.
Witherspoon tells NOW he does not dispute de Almeida's findings that there was, on balance, no significant increase in bears as a result of cancellation of the spring bear hunt. "My concerns," he says, "were socio-economic," referring to loss of income if fewer hunters visit the north each spring.
In fact, a general decline in the percentage of Americans who hunt, and in particular, the need to register guns at the border might be contributing more to a decrease in American hunting in Canada. This is difficult to prove, but the point has been made by de Almeida and others I've talked to over the last few years.
If the news reports are accurate, David Ramsay, who according to a spokesperson is studying the report's recommendations, should surely dismiss the document as the worst kind of consultative process. The previous minister sought input only from bear hunters and outfitters while ignoring the vast majority of Ontarians.
Our new premier is being besieged not only by the minority who find pleasure in ambushing hungry bears but also by the majority of citizens who don't want to contribute to orphaning cubs. Will McGuinty stick to his promise?