The bear necessities: Canada's wild frontier

Marathon, Ontario, is under siege as its previously placid black bears have started to roam the streets. Julius Strauss reports from a town where nature appears to be turning the tables
Click to follow

At the town's rubbish dump huge claw marks scar the walls of the small site office. Some days the supervisor sits inside in terror, protected only by a small can of pepper spray.

On the grounds of the School of the Holy Saviour near by, teachers carry air horns instead of the more traditional bell and scan the tall perimeter fence nervously as the children play.

In the bar of the Zero 100 Motor Inn, where locals play pool and listen to the likes of Shania Twain, the evening conversation is dominated by stories of close calls with the ursine intruders.

Welcome to Marathon, a settlement of fewer than 4,000 people, perched on the northern shores of Lake Superior in a remote and rugged corner of the Canadian province of Ontario.

An unremarkable town once best known for its paper mill and nearby gold mine, the settlement is fast gaining the dubious reputation of being the black bear capital of Canada.

Unlike western Canada, which has a large population of grizzly bears, only black bears live in these secluded parts. Normally they are not considered a threat. In 2002 not a single person died in Canada from a bear attack.

But in recent months five people have been killed across Canada by bears, leaving the experts at a loss for an explanation. In at least two cases black bears apparently attacked people in order to eat them.

Around Marathon these black bears have grown so large and numerous that they are reaching more than 250kg and regularly turn up in the middle of towns, terrifying the locals.

Nowhere is the problem worse than in Marathon, a three-hour drive from the nearest city. Children are made to wear whistles if they run around outside and people have been told not to place rubbish outside unless absolutely necessary.

In an organised move to combat the intruders, local officials in the region have even set up a bear hotline so that townspeople can report sightings and seek advice on what to do if they find one of the beasts in their garden.

The problem is not entirely new. Like other communities in the area, Marathon has always had its fair share of bears. For years they have congregated at the dump in the summer and autumn to rummage for food. But this year the numbers have exploded. Some local people report seeing as many as 18 bears at the dump at a time.

The situation is so bad that town officials have set up a smaller, secondary dump to try to entice bears away from the primary site where they menace people trying to drop off their rubbish.

Doug Vincent is the municipal by-law officer whose job it is to stop the bears taking over. He wears a yellow T-shirt with "Bear Control" written on it.

"I've never seen as many," he said. "On the back roads you used to see maybe one bear a week. Now you can sometimes see five or six a day." This year the bears are not only more numerous, they are also bolder.

Scores of them have been sighted in back gardens and one was spotted lounging in the sun outside a hardware store in the middle of town.

In one particularly egregious case, a bear pushed through an open window at the house of Richard Lesarge, the local justice of the peace, and clambered into his kitchen. Thinking that the noise was being made by his wife and wanting to surprise her, friends of Mr Lesarge tell how he flipped on the light calling out playfully only to be confronted by a huge and equally surprised bear.

Other encounters have been less terrifying but unsettling nevertheless. A local official told how one black bear stood and watched quietly from the tree line as children made their way to school.

Pauline Wright, who has worked the afternoon shift at the municipal dump for more than 10 years, says she had never seen anything like it.

The shack she works in has been clawed on every side and, about a month ago, a bear broke in during the night and ransacked her small office, tearing down shelves and cupboards.

In recognition of the increasing risk she is running by coming to work, she was recently given an air horn, a can of pepper spray and a mobile phone.

She said: "Twice this year I've looked up and seen a bear just staring at me through the door. I was never afraid before. But now there's no fear in them." She added: "My son has two little girls. They were told to put their garbage in the shed. But when they did the bear came and ripped the door off the shed."

At the School of the Holy Saviour, only a few hundred yards away, bears sometimes come to the edge of the perimeter fence.

At such times, teachers let off blasts on an air-horn and the pupils, who have all been through countless practice drills, file into the school and assemble in their classrooms.

On a clipboard in the main office, teachers write down bear sightings on a special form.

Clayton McCarthy, the headmaster, said: "Bears have always been a fact of life here. But this year the numbers are very high. We've offered all pupils a ride on the bus to school regardless of where they live. Most of them have taken up the offer."

When a bear is sighted in the town it is Mr Vincent who is usually called in to deal with it.

If the bear is not immediately threatening he uses a tranquilliser dart to immobilise the animal. It is then tagged, loaded into a cage and driven off into the forest where it is released. If a tagged bear returns to town more than once, it is usually shot.

Occasionally a bear is so high on adrenalin that the tranquilliser simply doesn't work. Mr Vincent told of one bear recently that refused to go down after receiving several doses of tranquilliser and had to be shot dead after it repeatedly charged him.

The warden also has special traps fitted with bear-bait that can be towed behind a pick-up truck. He sets two or three traps at a time on the outskirts of Marathon and many mornings at least one of them has been sprung. Another weapon he carries is a beanbag gun which fires small lead shot.

This week he watched from his pick-up as a huge black bear began rooting through fresh garbage at the dump. He took aim and fired a beanbag shot into the bear's huge rear end to try to deter it. Lazily, and appearing annoyed but far from cowed, the bear sauntered off.

The advance of the bears is not confined to Marathon and regions across Canada this year are reporting increased sightings and attacks. In one small town in northern Ontario wardens have killed 23 this year.

Earlier this month a doctor from southern Ontario, 30-year-old Jacqueline Perry, was mauled by a bear in Chapleau to the west. Her husband eventually fought off the bear with a Swiss army knife but she later died of her wounds.

Also this month a bear dragged a forestry worker from his tent in the middle of the night, apparently intent on eating him, before being beaten off by his co-workers.

In Marathon there has been no attack yet but locals say that it is only a matter of time.

Nobody is quite sure why this year has been so bad. The unusually hot summer that killed the blueberries the bears like to feed on is thought to be one factor. Wardens say they have seen the bears eating dogweed, a sign that they are hungry.

Many blame the banning of a spring bear hunt which used to cull 5,000 animals in northern Ontario every year. The hunt, in which mostly American citizens would travel to Canada and pay between US$500 (£280) and $2,000 for the thrill of hunting a bear, was banned at the end of the 1990s.

Experts say that bears have a six-year breeding cycle and some speculate that the ban could be one of the reasons for the sudden rise in the population, though the explanation is contested by environmentalists.

David Bell, the mayor of Marathon, thinks that if the hunt were reintroduced it would help curb the numbers, although he opposes the use of bear-bait that is popular among hunters in northern Canada.

He said that if action was not taken quickly the crisis could spiral out of the control.

He added: "We should have a cull this year before the bears begin to hibernate. Otherwise next year, if there is no food again, the problem will be even worse."

Other residents of Marathon are already muttering about taking matters into their own hands, blaming the hunting ban on ill-informed liberals in southern Canada who do not understand the needs of the north.

Louise McGuire, who works as a receptionist at a local hotel, said: "We should ship all these bears to Toronto and see how they like it. This summer our kids couldn't even play outside."

One of her colleagues, asked what should be done, gave an even saltier reply. "It's the three S's," she said. "Shoot, shovel and shut up."

Even those ambivalent about the merits of hunting say that things are now so bad that the hunt should be reinstated.

Rob Woito, a boiler engineer who works at the local mill, said: "I'm against killing animals unnecessarily. But we need to bring back the hunt. Banning it was a purely political decision that had nothing to do with the biology of bears."

Mary Long-Irwin, the head of the chamber of commerce in Thunder Bay, three hours to the west, said: "The bears are everywhere this year. What we need is a sensible culling policy. The problem is that in the south they just don't understand that. They think the bears are all just cute and fuzzy."