Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Black bears becoming bolder
CLIFFORD SKARSTEDT/CP

Up-close encounters with humans in cottage country have resort owners on edge
Curtis Rush
Staff Reporter
Black bear encounters with humans in Central Ontario have exploded this summer, according to resort owners and Ministry of Natural Resources statistics.

Bears have been seen wandering dangerously close to downtown areas in Bracebridge, Peterborough, public parks and upscale Muskoka resorts filled with guests.

In the past few weeks, the Ontario Provincial Police in Bracebridge has had to shoot at least two bears that turned aggressive or became a threat.

Bear sightings close to Bracebridge Public School forced school officials to close outdoor recess for the final two days of classes, the Bracebridge Examiner reported.

At the Wigamog Inn Resort in Haliburton last week, kids playing dodge ball at the camp had to be locked in the outdoor tennis courts until a bear was scared off, leaving both parents and kids frightened.

Resorts from Clevelands House in Minett, Ont., to Cranberry Marsh Cove Resort in Bala, 20 minutes to the south, to the Delta Sherwood Inn in Port Carling have had brushes with bears.

Resort owners fear that the cancellation of the spring bear hunt in 1999 has led to the increase in the bear population.

The Ministry of Natural Resources disputes this notion, saying on its website, www.bears.mnr.gov.on.ca, that the bear population could have increased as much as 7.5 per cent per year since the cancellation of the spring hunt , but it's "extremely unlikely."
Jolanta Kowalski, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources, says the bear population has remained consistent in Ontario with anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 bears, although certain areas seem to be experienced an increase in occurences.

Bear occurrences in the Parry Sound area have exploded this year, with 694 occurrences as of July 8 compared to 251 at the same time last year, according to numbers by the Ministry of Natural Resources. Sudbury tops the list at 963 occurrences followed by Parry Sound and Timmins with 437 occurrences.

(An occurrence is registered when ministry have to take follow-up action following a call. To date, there has been only one bear attack reported, and a forestry worker in the Thunder Bay area suffered only scratches as he fought off a bear while kicking it repeatedly).

Kowalski said some well-known bear areas such as Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario are reporting sightings down this year.

At the Delta Rocky Crest Resort, a 65-room resort on Hamer Bay in Parry Sound, general manager Alan Boivin says most sightings occur on the prized golf course, but staff is so fearful of a bear encounter that employess don’t walk alone to the trash bin at the clubhouse.

“We see a bear here every day, mostly in the morning,” he said. “I’ve been up here four years and I’ve never seen it as bad as this year.”

But mostly the bears don’t bother people, resort owners say.

However, that almost changed last week at Clevelands House.

Jeff Herrington, a cook at the luxury resort situated in the heart of Muskoka on 408 acres, was preparing a meal at about 10 p.m. last Wednesday when a guest told him that a bear was at the back door of the kitchen trying to get in.

Herrington walked outside to see for himself.

That move proved almost fatal.

A black bear, about 250 pounds cornered by a fence and wall, charged at Herrington.

The 37-year-old screamed, turned and ran for it, with the bear in pursuit.

The bear was less than a metre behind, trying to swipe at his legs, when Herrington dove over a railing and crawled on all fours into Lake Rosseau to escape.

Three people sipping drinks on the veranda couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

"It was the most terrifying experience I’ve had in my life," Herrington said. “I would have been a goner. It took me four hours to stop shaking.”

The bear gave up the chase but raced up a path to the gift shop and almost attacked a 12-year-old girl. Her screams scared the animal off.

Two days later, the bear came back and became aggressive again, hissing at guests.

Resort owners took no chances, since this bear was believed to be the same one that had been trapped and relocated 11 days earlier, and phoned the OPP to shoot to kill.

Police found the bear trapped under the main dining room. When officers arrived, it twice took a run at the officers.

Five bullets were needed to kill the bruin.

Guests were awakened at 10:30 p.m. by the sounds of gunshots, and many didn’t know what had happened until breakfast the next day.
Resort owners say they don’t know what to do other than post signs and warn people not to wander about late at night.

At the Cranberry Cove Resort, which has 43 rooms on 43 acres in Muskoka, owner Shawn Leon, 48, says some vacationers are “quite stupid” that they walk up to bears hoping to snap a close-up picture.

Leon says repeated calls to the Ministry of Natural Resources to set more traps go unanswered and he’s thinking of calling in the police to shoot them. “From a liability standpoint, we don’t want bears on the property because we have guests,” he said. “We can’t fence the whole property.”
Sandy Cornell, assistant manager at Clevelands House, says the ministry needs to set more traps.

However, Kowalski said the ministry doesn’t want to put down more traps because “that is not the preferred response."