Black bears and coyotes have a natural aversion to humans, but as human activities encroach on wild lands, interactions can increase – usually with negative results for the wild animals.
Hunting, trapping, and collisions with vehicles are all hazards. So is the possibility that an animal wandering into a built-up area will be deemed a “nuisance” or a danger. If police are called, the animal could be killed.
Greater understanding of bears and coyotes can lead to greater respect, and co-existence. At least, that’s the hope of Bear With Us sanctuary, which rescues injured and orphaned black bears, and Coyote Watch Canada.
Mike and Ella McIntosh of Bear With Us, and Lesley Sampson, founding executive director of Coyote Watch Canada, presented Co-existing with Wildlife, an evening of education at the Innisfil ideaLAB & Library on Thursday night.
The McIntoshes operate Bear With Us Sanctuary on 36 hectares of land near Sprucedale, about two hours north of Bradford West Gwillimbury, providing rescue and rehabilitation for black bears.
Their rescues have ranged from abandoned or orphaned cubs, to fully-grown adult bears like Jaws – a 400-pound male black bear spotted with what appeared to be a broken and infected jaw, possibly the result of a collision with a vehicle.
After a two-week course of antibiotics, a veterinarian amputated a portion of the jaw, and then performed reconstructive surgery. Although Jaws lost his lower canine teeth, he was still able to feed, since bears are largely vegetarian, eating mostly fresh grass, seeds and berries.
The bear was tagged and released into the wild, disappearing into the woods. “No news is good news,” said Mike, hopefully.
Bear With Us Sanctuary is not open to the public. Since all of its rescues are returned to the wild, the McIntoshes don’t want the animals to get used to human beings. So there is no bottle feeding of cubs. Instead, as the McIntoshes showed in video clips, young bears learn to take their milk from a bowl – very different from the nurturing they receive from their mothers.
Female black bears give birth in January while they are still in hibernation and sedentary and, therefore, best able to care for the cubs. The cubs, when born, weigh up to 450 grams and are “totally helpless,” said Mike.
Mother and cubs will only emerge from the den when the external air temperature is higher than that inside the den, he said, or when spring flooding makes it impossible to remain inside. The next step is finding a sanctuary tree, where mother bear continues to nurse, and can teach the cubs to climb when danger threatens.
The mother then begins to forage, leaving the cubs at the tree. That's when she is most vulnerable to hunters, especially during the spring bear hunt.
“That’s how the orphaning occurs,” said Mike, adding that for the most part, hunters don’t knowingly kill mother bears with cubs. “It’s not necessarily intentional.”
After emerging from the den, adult bears live largely off their stored fat, plus delicacies like fresh grass, leaf buds and the occasional grub – until seeds and berries ripen later in the summer.
Then they pack on the calories, consuming up to 20,000 calories per day.
“The most important thing to a bear, over anything, is food,” said Mike.
And that’s where bear and human paths are likely to cross. A foraging black bear doesn’t respect property lines, and can be attracted to human habitation by readily-available food: garbage or compost left outside, pet food in dishes on the porch, even overfull birdfeeders with “juicy” sunflower seeds.
If a black bear comes to a farmyard where there are chickens or other livestock, “most of the time it’s the animals’ food they’re after,” said Mike. They want the chicken feed, not the chickens.
The best thing is to keep all food sources secured, and install electric fencing close to the ground around livestock pens. Otherwise, “just allow a bear to be a bear,” Mike said.
Leaving food sources outside “only creates bad habits,” he said. “Bad habits come from people.”
It’s never wise to approach a bear, but don’t mistake “assertiveness” for aggression, McIntosh told the library audience. Bears can be protective, assertive if they feel threatened or afraid, but generally are more interested in safety and escape.
“They are not mean by nature at all,” he said, explaining that those movie sound effects of viciously snarling bears are created by combining the sounds of dogs snarling and pigs squealing. “Real bears don’t growl. Rarely will you see two bears get in a fight, and if they do it’s usually over a little female.”
There are ways to limit bear encounters. When hiking in the bush, sing or hum to make your presence known, and always store food away from campsites, keep dogs on a leash, and never allow them to harass a black bear.
If you do meet a black bear, speak in a calm voice and slowly back away; if the bear continues to advance, become more assertive, standing tall, yelling and waving your arms.
When bears wander into areas of human habitation, too often the immediate response is to “call the police, call the (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), say, 'I don’t want them around,'" said Mike. The result is relocation, or killing of the “nuisance” animal.
There is a third option, he said. “Co-exist. Let them live.”
“Mike and Ella, they are absolutely bang on when it comes to wildlife,” said Lesley Sampson, founder of Coyote Watch Canada, a national not-for-profit organization “dedicated to promoting wildlife education and fostering coexistence” between humans and local ecosystems.
Coyotes are part of the natural ecosystem, a “keystone” species that helps keep rodent populations under control – curious, intelligent, devoted parents to their pups, adaptable.
Once again, encounters with humans are usually the result of the hunt for food.
Coyote Watch Canada warns the public to never approach or feed coyotes, keep pet food and water bowls indoors, secure trash cans, never place meat in composters, always pick ripened fruit off the ground, clean up spilled bird seed, and securely fence in any backyard livestock – eliminating attractants around homes and public areas.
Normally shy, coyotes can become used to humans, especially as a result of feeding, either intentional or unintentional.
Coyote Watch Canada recommends “hazing” as a way to restore a coyote’s "natural aversion to humans.” That includes standing still and being assertive, when a coyote is encountered, and making yourself as big as possible, waving arms in the air and shouting,
Sounding noise-makers, whistles or airhorns; popping an umbrella open and shut; tossing sticks, clumps of dirt or rocks toward the animal; or using a garden hose or water gun can be part of a "hazing" routine, she said.
Eradication and relocation programs for coyotes are generally expensive failures, she said, but communities that use hazing techniques have shown positive results – learning to co-exist with the wild.
Bear With Us operates with authorization from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. It is not open to the public, but it does have an educational outreach program and is wholly supported through donations. For more information, visit bearwithus.org or WiseAboutBears.org.
Coyote Watch Canada, founded by Sampson in 2008, also welcomes donations and provides educational programming, on-site investigation of coyote sightings through its Canid Response Teams, as well as assessment, mitigation, consultation, digital tracking and mapping, to develop wildlife-proofing strategies. To learn more, visit coyotewatchcanada.com. To report coyote sightings, visit niagarafalls.ca/coyote or call 905-931-2610.