Bear standoff shows cuts put public at risk: Opposition

BY ANTONELLA ARTUSO, QUEEN’S PARK BUREAU CHIEF

TORONTO – Government cutbacks led police to use bullets to deal with a black bear that wandered into a Newmarket neighbourhood, opposition critics charge.

“The Liberals have cut MNR to the bone,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Monday. “So what does it take? It takes a black bear wandering the front lawn of Queen’s Park for the MNR, for the minister, to realize what a mess they’ve made of the situation?”

The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has abandoned its responsibility for nuisance bears, putting public safety at risk, critics suggested.

York Regional Police repeatedly attempted to get MNR to deal with a bear in Newmarket and said in a tweet they were forced to shoot it.

“Officers do not have tranquilizers or other options for dealing with wildlife. We could not let the bear harm a person while waiting for MNR,” York police tweeted.

Progressive Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek said it’s disappointing that the ministry took so long to respond to the problem of a bear wandering through built-up areas.

“We knew on the weekend,” Yurek said. “I don’t know why the ministry couldn’t have assembled the truck with the supplies during the weekend and be ready to roll first thing in the morning when they got the call from the police.”

Natural Resources Minister Bill Mauro said police are the first responders if a nuisance animal becomes a public safety concern.

“Ministry staff received a call for assistance between 6:30-7 a.m. Monday morning from police,” he said.

“When they got there the bear had already been dispatched (killed), but they were on route or they were there,” Mauro said. “I know that it’s unfortunate that the bear was dispatched. I’m not going to second guess the actions or the decisions of the York Regional Police in terms of how they responded to this.”

Mauro said it’s unfair to blame the MNR Bear Wise program, saying it still offers support and guidance to municipalities through a hotline and website.

While people would have preferred to see the animal trapped and relocated, there’s no guarantee of success that the bear can be caught or that it won’t promptly return, Mauro said.

“That process was in place for quite some time, it didn’t have a great deal of success,” Mauro said, of the trap and release program.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) raised alarm bells in 2012 when it was announced that the MNR budget would be cut by 10% or $70 million over three years.

The union said the 2013 budget restored some of the funding but the ministry had already made deep cuts, reducing the number of MNR technicians to 21 from 48, and turning the trap-and-relocate Bear Wise program into a hotline number.

“You’re going to see more and more of this,” OPSEU president Warren “Smokey” Thomas said Monday. “Sadly, an animal loses its life … that could be relocated perhaps, that should have the chance to be relocated.”

Yurek said the ministry’s decision to download responsibility for nuisance bears onto municipalities and police services puts the public at greater risk.

MNR was asked to respond to the Newmarket bear — in fact, was likely aware of sightings over the weekend — and yet failed to show up on time, he said.

“And it’s unfortunate that the minister didn’t seem to recognize that there’s a problem with the organization,” Yurek said.

antonella.artuso@sunmedia.ca