IT'S spring in Ontario, and once again, perhaps, the safest place in the entire province for a black bear to sleep at night is just a few yards behind Stan Pabst's house.
``I usually have three bears sleeping behind the house, they know they're safe there,'' says Mr. Pabst, a retired baker who lives 15 miles northeast of Parry Sound, Ont. His home sits on 543 acres amid miles of rugged country known as the ``wildlands,'' prime bear-hunting territory - except on Pabst's land, which is posted against hunting.
His fondness for bears has Pabst prowling through grocery dumpsters twice a day for food to supply his bear enclave. As long as he's feeding them, somebody else isn't shooting them, he says.
Pabst has started a petition drive to do away with Ontario's spring bear hunt - North America's biggest bear hunt - that began last Friday and ends June 15.
While Pabst's quest for bear salvation might seem quixotic, the spring hunt has become the target of groups with muscle such as, the World Wildlife Fund, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, and the Animal Rights Alliance of Canada. Environmentalists agree with the province that black bears are far from endangered - so far. But there was also once a seemingly endless supply of passenger pigeons in North America and Atlantic codfish, too, they say.
``We do have lots of black bears [in Ontario and the rest of Canada], but when you look at the rate of bears being killed, many feel we're hitting at the higher range that a population can stand,'' says Carole Saint-Laurent, director of the World Wildlife Fund's endangered species program.
7,000 bears `harvested'
In 1992, the most recent year for which data are available, 6,896 bears were ``harvested'' in Ontario's spring and fall hunts, according to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR). Of those, 1,977 were killed by residents and 4,919 by nonresidents, the vast majority of them United States citizens. Thousands of Americans and Europeans travel here annually in their quest to bag a bear.
Martyn Obbard, bear biologist for the OMNR, says that concerns about the spring hunt are overblown. Right now the black-bear population in Ontario is 65,000 to 75,000, he says. At current ``harvest'' rates, 8 to 10 percent of the population is killed annually by hunters, a sustainable level set by OMNR, Mr. Obbard says.
But because bears in the north reproduce more slowly - two cubs every two years - than those in the US, there is concern that the number of females being killed is too high. Obbard, however, says less than 40 percent of all the bears killed during the year are female. Outfitters who conduct the hunts also say they make every effort to avoid shooting females.
``Anybody opposed to a spring hunt doesn't understand the bear or the bear population,'' says Terry Carlin Sr., who runs the K/O Lodge in Deep River, Ont. As one of 956 registered outfitters in Ontario, he manages all bear hunting that occurs within his 800-square-mile ``bear-management area.''
Hunting overall has fallen off from a peak in the mid-1980s, says Mr. Carlin, who contends there are more bears in his area today than 20 years ago. At his lodge, each hunter spends up to $2,000 (Canadian; US$1,440), Carlin says. Province wide, bear hunting brought in $15 million in direct spending in 1992 with a ``multiplier effect'' of more than $40 million, the OMNR says.
Ontario hunters and outfitters have largely given up chasing bears with dogs. Instead, most run baiting stations by hanging up rancid meat, which attracts bears from miles around. Baiting is a highly effective practice hunters defend because it allows a close look at the bear to see if it is a female - and a very close shot at the animal from a blind or a tree stand, reducing wounding.
No accurate accounting
But the practice of baiting outrages animal-rights activists and conservationists. One former Toronto Human Society official who has studied the hunt says it provides ``the efficiency of a slaughterhouse.'' ``In my view [baiting] is a criminal-code offense,'' says Elizabeth White, legislation director for the Animal Rights Alliance of Canada.
The argument in favor of the efficient baiting method rests on the idea that there is a healthy bear population, something environmentalists say the government could know only if it had an up-to-date population survey and accurate estimates of the number killed each year. But annual hunt totals do not include animals killed by resident hunters not connected with outfitters, by poachers, or by citizen's shooting ``nuisance'' bears.
``The government only gets half the story - there's no real accurate accounting,'' says Mike McIntosh, who heads a group called Bear With Us, which rescues nuisance bears before they are shot.
The World Wildlife fund advocates hunting only in the fall after females have begun hibernating and lowering the kill to 3 to 6 percent. But legislation that would have tightened restrictions on the spring hunt has been stymied in the provincial legislature.