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Are There Bears on the Avalon Peninsula? An Investigation

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While there is a healthy population of black bears across the island, there’s an old saying in Newfoundland that there are no bears on the Avalon Peninsula. But changing climates and municipal regulations may have unpredictable effects on the island’s black bear population.

Every so often there’s a story of someone seeing tracks or droppings where bears are—apparently—not supposed to be found.

In late May, residents in Placentia were warned of a black bear in the area of Bond’s Path and Southeast Road after a number of sightings were reported. The town shared an image of a paw print found in the mud, measuring 9-inches from heel to claw.

The Town of Placentia has been informed by a number of residents that there have been sightings of a black bear in the…

Posted by Town of Placentia on Thursday, May 21, 2020

This year’s sighting in Placentia is just another in a growing trend of bear encounters on the Avalon in recent years. In 2019, berry pickers photographed a bear near Colinet, and in 2018 the East Coast Trail Association issued a warning after several sightings in the Aquaforte area.

“But here’s the thing,” Barry Fordham of the Newfoundland Outdoor Heritage Coalition tells the Independent. “That black bear did not parachute into the Aquaforte area. It’s been there the whole darn time, just that nobody ever seen it.”

Fordham says that over the years he’s heard stories of bears spotted across the Avalon, going back as far as the 1970’s, when a sow and cubs were live-trapped in the White Hills area near the old Janeway Hospital. He says that there have always been bears spotted on the Avalon Peninsula, especially down the Southern Shore near the calving-grounds of the island’s caribou population.

“Out around Saint Shott’s,” says Fordham, “there are usually people saying that they’d see a bear or bears in around the calving grounds, trying to get a caribou calf.”

Though sightings date back decades, Fordham doesn’t believe that there are black bears living on the Avalon. While some may make it across the isthmus—the narrow tract of land which connects the Avalon peninsula to the rest of the island—once across they have limited space for habitation where the naturally timid bears wouldn’t encounter people on trails, in communities, or on busy roads. The bear spotted near Aquaforte in 2018 may have travelled a long way to get there, but Fordham says the best evidence that it was only a visitor to the region is the fact that it hadn’t been spotted more frequently.

“Especially now in the past number of years, with all this technology in your phone with the camera and everything else,” says Fordham, “if there were more black bears on the go, you’d certainly see some kind of proof of it on social media.”

“Evidence of resident bears has yet to be substantiated”

Like Barry Fordham, Mac Pitcher has been following this trend of bear sightings for some time. A naturalist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Pitcher says that while black bears are endemic to the island and well represented east of the Goobies and Swift Current area, they are inexplicably rare on the other side of the isthmus.

“I would estimate probably one occurrence for every second year,” Pitcher tells the Independent. “These all appear to be transient bears and evidence of resident bears has yet to be substantiated.”

Pitcher considers this to be the historical norm for the island, though anecdotal evidence he’s heard suggests that bear populations have increased over the past decade or so.

One of the last major research efforts on island bear populations was a 1993 teleological survey that relied on baiting and trapping bears, often with doughnuts, and studying their habitation range before extrapolating how many could be living on the island given the average home-range size.

To the best of his knowledge, Pitcher says no current research is being conducted on black bear populations, and what dedicated information his group and others have is decades old.

Barry Fordham hasn’t heard of any new research efforts either, but hears plenty of anecdotal evidence from reliable hunters who say that bear populations are increasing. Fordham says one indication of this is the lower number of moose and caribou calves which hunters are reporting, indicating potential predation by a growing number of black bears.

Compared to the number of moose and caribou harvested each year, there is little interest among Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in hunting black bears. Pitcher says perhaps only 200 or so bears are harvested in the province each year with a negligible impact on the overall population, estimated at between 6-to-10-thousand bears a number of years ago.

It’s for this reason that Fordham would like to see more people hunting black bear in order to alleviate the potential pressures on other big game populations—though he believes that if this trend continues, bears might well overtake moose as the primary big game hunt.

Fewer Bears Spotted at the Dump

While local hunters still have little interest in black bear, human interaction can still affect the health and size of the island’s bear population. Although activities like forestry and land development may impact bears in the short-term, Pitcher says, they do not appear to be a factor in long-term bear population trends.

“One recent action that I think may have a small effect on bear populations is the elimination of municipal dumps in favour of only a few larger, contained regional landfill sites,” Pitcher tells the Independent.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s black bears have colloquially been referred to as ‘dump bears’ due to their proximity to, and occasional reliance on, municipal landfills.

“In the short term, this may displace some bears and possibly have a small impact on reproductive success, but overall may not influence any longer term trend.”

After this year’s long berry season, Fordham says that fewer bears are being spotted at the dump—but in years where the berries aren’t as plentiful, they’ll go right back to their opportunistic ways. This is consistent with the 1993 research which shows that bears visited dumps in seasons where their other food sources were lacking, or when there were extra mouths to feed.

With changing regulations and the closure of many municipal dumpsites across the island, some believe that desperation could drive bears closer to areas where they’ve historically been absent.

“A lot of the dumps have been closed now,” Fordham tells the Independent. “That may have spread the bears out into the communities looking for food.”

While the existing research posits that some human interaction can be good, as with small logging operations which can expand and replenish edible foliage for bears, these human interactions are just as likely to be destructive. Fordham points to the collapse of the George River caribou herd as having a negative effect on Labrador’s bears, while caribou populations elsewhere in the country have collapsed after logging decimated the availability of the lichen which the caribou relied on. With the collapse of caribou populations, black bears loose a valuable food source and their numbers crash as well, indicating that these are fragile and interconnected ecosystems.

Breaking the Isthmus’ Bear Barrier

Ultimately, no one really knows why there are no bears on the Avalon—although there are a few running theories.

“I just think it might be the exposure, the vulnerability of it,” Fordham explains. “[The isthmus] is a very narrow neck to come through there, and the fact that they’re coming now I think is an indicator that the population is growing, and the animals just have to push out somewhere else.”

“Those are the million dollar questions,” says Pitcher. “If you or I or anyone else had definitive answers to them, we’d have the substance of a MSc thesis.”

Pitcher offers a few other hypotheses, like the isthmus being a biological desert which blocks certain animals from traversing it, or that bears are simply put off by the high density of communities on the Avalon. But he’s sceptical of either idea, given that bears elsewhere in the country seem comfortable enough in sparse tundra or near human settlements.

“Any dispersing juvenile has a motivation to establish a home territory,” says Pitcher, noting that this may be the catalyst driving the occasional wanderers.

“Again though, this is debatable, since on more than one occasion there have been reports of adult females accompanied by cubs here on the Avalon.”

Climate change is likely to affect black bears in the province, with anecdotal evidence of bears entering hibernation later and emerging earlier, before their natural food sources are available. Because of this, some bears may move to scavenging from dumps or livestock in order to survive, pushing them closer to human settlements. Given the recent closure of municipal dumps, bears that are stuck without other options may have to travel farther to survive.

In the meantime, what is certain is that the island’s bear population may continue to grow, and if so, climate and environmental factors—as well as human interaction—may push bears into places which they have never lived before. While this can create uncomfortable situations for residents unused to these animals, for the wayward and unwanted bears, the consequences are potentially life-threatening.

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk.

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