Emails obtained by CBC News are shedding new light on how the Nova Scotia government makes decisions about black bear management in a province with limited space for wildlife.
The documents obtained through freedom-of-information legislation include incident reports and emails going back to 2017 and show decisions over how to handle dangerous or nuisance black bears are often complex.
Black bears became a source of controversy earlier this year when a cub was taken from Hope for Wildlife and euthanized.
After that seizure, the Department of Lands and Forestry was flooded with complaints, and nearly 70,000 people signed a petition in which the decision was called "an act of cruelty" and "needless."
But documents show euthanizing or even relocating bears makes up only a fraction of the province's management response.
The most common response is to advise preventative action — e.g. removing what was attracting bears. Nova Scotia got nearly 600 bear complaints in the first half of 2020 and 13 bears were euthanized and six were relocated.
Department has policy on when to euthanize bears
Nova Scotia does not rehabilitate black bears, nor do Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan and two territories, Yukon and Nunavut. B.C., which does rehabilitate the animals, defines the process as giving professional care to an orphaned or hurt bear and then releasing it back into the wild.
According to the emails, Lands and Forestry has policies for when it will euthanize "problem" bears. That includes if a bear is aggressive or unusually bold toward people, persists in staying in or near populated areas, has previously been relocated, is injured, or is a cub orphaned prior to Sept. 1, or a cub involved in a problem situation.
A 2018 email from Jon Porter, the executive director of renewable resources for the department, notes that staff in regional Lands and Forestry offices were concerned about having to euthanize bear cubs and that a meeting from the minister at that time would provide an opportunity to "explain the reasons and alternatives (or lack thereof)."
The lack of alternatives includes few options for remote habitat and the possibility of habituation, according to a later email from director of wildlife Bob Petrie.
He notes that bears quickly get used to human-created food sources and that the province does not have protocols that would give the department confidence that rehabilitated black bears would not seek out these food sources.
He said Nova Scotia does not have remote large wilderness where black bears could be released and not come into contact with people.
Emails show that officials are concerned about the risks — and the liability for the department — that habituated bears pose.
They point to incidents including a 2019 situation in Alberta, in which a rehabilitated black bear was killed after it wandered far from its remote release point, into a populated area.
In another email from June 2020 a redacted sender asks why, after the controversy with the bear cub in Nova Scotia in the spring, the department wasn't talking about a man who had just been bitten by a bear in Sheet Harbour, as an example of the danger posed by habituated bears.
Rehabilitation of bears possible, some say
However, some dispute the characterization of the rehabilitation of bear cubs as inherently risky.
Mike McIntosh runs a black bear rehabilitation centre, with the authorization of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, in Ontario, one of the provinces that does allow rehabilitation.
In their facility, he says they have strict protocols to limit any human contact and ensure bears maintain their fear of people.
As a result, of the 600 bears they've released, they've had few instances where they've approached people, McIntosh said; even if that were to happen, he questions whether it could be blamed on habituation.
"Sometimes bears will go to where there's an easy human food source, such as bird feeders," he said. "And the problem is, if it's got a tag in their ear, it may be accused of being a rehabilitated bear causing the problem, not just the fact of the bear just acting normally like any other bear might."
While Ontario is a much bigger province than Nova Scotia, research from smaller places suggests that black bear rehabilitation doesn't necessarily result in conflicts.
We did not really observe any excessive levels of habituation at all. - Mike McIntosh, Bear With Us rehab centre
In the state of New Hampshire, which has less forested land than Nova Scotia — about 1.9 million hectares, to Nova Scotia's roughly 4.2 million — the state does rehabilitate black bear cubs.
Forest technician Wesley Smith, who wrote a 2016 paper on the results of rehabilitation (which was shared in the emails) said that research suggests rehabilitation does not necessarily result in habituation.
"The general idea was that the bears behaved as bears do. We did not really observe any excessive levels of habituation at all," Smith said. "Some of the cubs that were released did get involved in conflicts. But these bears were not seeking out these human sources of food more than a 'wild bear' would."
Smith cautioned that the study was based on a small sample size; New Hampshire also has a higher proportion of forested land than Nova Scotia, in addition to other differences.
Human behaviour essential component
Whether a jurisdiction rehabilitates bears or not, the most important element in ensuring bear survival may be managing the behaviour of humans.
This applies to instances like a 2019 incident in which a Lands and Forestry officer mistakenly brought a bear cub to Hope for Wildlife, creating a "very challenging situation," according to an email from Petrie, the department's director of wildlife.
After several months, that cub was removed from the facility and sent to New Brunswick, where there is an approved rehabilitation centre, the Atlantic Wildlife Institute (AWI).
A report in the documents obtained by CBC News details how, when staff were transferring the bear from the trailer to a cage at the AWI, it dodged the snare catch-pole facility staff were using to try and control it, and ran into the woods.
Staff tried to capture the cub alive but couldn't, and so that bear was euthanized, as it had not been rehabilitated and had an ongoing illness.
The fact that the situation ended that way may have factored into the decision to euthanize the cub in the spring; a May 2020 email from a redacted sender notes "the bear cub should be picked up ASAP and euthanized. We don't want another situation like last time."
Bullets, garbage create problem bears
In other instances, actions on the part of the public created problem bears.
These included situations outlined in the emails where bears had to be euthanized because they had been shot but not killed, and were suffering or aggressive.
One such incident happened in December 2019, when an adult male bear that was approaching people and appeared unwell was euthanized, generating an angry response on social media. A necropsy revealed a fractured jaw and injuries consistent with an old bullet wound.
Elsewhere in the emails, a redacted official notes that they're "fighting an uphill battle trying to stop people from feeding wildlife and causing so many human/wildlife conflicts."
The province's Wildlife Act does not prohibit the feeding of wildlife, although some municipalities have by-laws against doing so, including New Glasgow.
In the spring, the Halifax Regional Municipality changed its bylaws to ban the feeding of wildlife when it has become a nuisance.
The province is also taking steps to try and address unintentional feeding — for instance, through anti-bear locks for compost bins, which were piloted in Lake Echo earlier this year.
Hope for Wildlife proposing to rehabilitate bears
At Hope for Wildlife, Hope Swinimer said if they were allowed to do rehabilitation, their facility would likely deal with two or three bears a year.
Following the controversy in the spring, Swinimer met with Department of Lands and Forestry officials, who told her she could submit a plan for bear cub rehabilitation, which she plans on doing this month.
In an emailed statement, a Lands and Forestry spokesperson wrote that the department "did invite this particular proposal and we will be reviewing it closely once it is received. In the meantime, we will continue to focus on educating the public about how to live with black bears."
Swinimer said if approved, rehabilitation could form part of a strategy to encourage Nova Scotians to live respectfully alongside wildlife.
"Lands and Forestry are already doing this and they're doing it really well, but the more education you have out there the better," she said. "If you can teach through your actions, that's a really good thing and by helping these individual bear cubs we feel it would send a really good message."
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