Before the coyote arrived in Nova Scotia, the animal people most feared in our woodlands was the black bear. Even today, that animal has a reputation of being a large and dangerous predator. In fact, it is indeed large, could be dangerous, but is not a predator.
Early settlers brought with them European legends and myths of bears, much of which has been perpetuated. From Goldilocks’ three porridge-eaters to the scary villain of Disney’s “Brave”, bears have been coupled with human-bear confrontations in western Canada to create a reputation that the smaller, less aggressive bears of Nova Scotia have inherited.
Black bear in this province are considerably smaller and much less hostile than their western cousins. Exactly why isn’t known, although there is speculation that 300 years living with armed humans could be the cause. It’s believed that guns and traps have gradually removed size and aggressiveness from the local gene pool.
Jen Costello, a retired Department of Natural Resources biologist with a special interest in bears, says that theory makes sense.
“I think probably what ended up happening was that the bears that didn’t come around humans, that were extremely timid, were the ones that survived.”
I don’t know of any recent bear maulings in our province, but there are about 40 each year in Alberta, British Columbia, and the territories. First to mind when there is a bear attack is the grizzly, yet about half of the incidents out west each year involve black bears.
Tales from early Nova Scotia settlers tell of confrontations with bears and the slaying of livestock. However, there’s always the question about how much those old stories grew with the telling. A black bear is an omnivore, not a carnivore. About 90 per cent of its diet comes from vegetation. The remaining is ants and grubs, although the bear will take small or young animals, especially in the spring of the year before plant growth is ready.
Springtime in Nova Scotia brings most complaints about nuisance bears. These are usually yearlings recently thrown out by mom. With real wilderness scarce, these youngsters search for unoccupied territory and this often leads them to humans. A bear can smell out a green bin a full kilometer away.
Humans have ways of tantalizing even the most mature bear. Besides green bins, all garbage containers are especially attractive. So are garden composts, bird feeders, barbecues, pet food bowls, and fruit trees. The best advice is to keep them clean and out of reach.
A few decades ago, there was a great uproar for a bounty on bears to protect people and property. It was tried but didn’t work. Then along came the coyote and people asked for a bounty on that animal for the same reason.
Costello says the real answer with all wildlife is education.
“People are scared of what they don’t understand, and what people fear, they want to destroy, whether it’s a bear or a shark. I don’t know a lot about sharks, but people who do have no issues with them.”
Ray MacLeod is a freelance outdoors writer. He lives in Waverley.