TV personality and animal rights activist Bob Barker tried but failed Tuesday to convince the Ontario government not to bring back the spring bear hunt, which the province cancelled in 1999.
"I feel deep concern about any animal mistreatment any place in the world, and this is in one of my favourite places, Canada, and I want to try to do something about it to protect these bear cubs," Barker said in an interview from his home in Hollywood, Calif.
Barker, who last year helped fund the transportation of several elephants from the Toronto Zoo to a refuge in the United States, said it's "barbaric" to let cubs starve to death after their mothers are lured from the den by bait and then killed by hunters.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize you're murdering every cub," he said. "I urge every Canadian who knows anything about this to step up to the plate and take a swing for the cubs."
Ontario Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti disputed Barker's claims about cubs being left to starve to death during a spring bear hunt.
"I have a ton of respect for Mr. Bob Barker, but I'm not sure where he's getting his facts on this issue, and that's not in fact the case at all," he said.
Ontario plans a pilot project with a limited hunt in eight of 95 wildlife areas this spring to see if it will reduce the number of emergency calls and instances where police are forced to shoot nuisance bears, added Orazietti.
"I'm not sure if Mr. Barker is aware that eight other provinces in Canada and all territories have full provincewide or territory-wide spring bear hunts," he said. "This is a much smaller, targeted approach to deal with really what's become a public safety issue."
The Ontario hunt will be non-profit and limited to local hunters.
Barker called the spring bear hunt "unethical" and "legislated cruelty" that has nothing to do with science, and said it doesn't matter that Ontario is trying only a small scale pilot project.
"Whether it's an experiment or it's going to last for 30 years, it is just totally unacceptable in today's society," he said. "I just can't understand how they can possibly do this."
Zoocheck Canada said there was no scientific rationale for the return of the spring bear hunt, and called the public safety argument "flawed." The animal protection charity said research shows that bear-human interactions are closely linked to variation in natural food sources, not to actual bear population numbers.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters urged the public to make sure "big city animal rights extremists" don't derail the pilot project for a spring bear hunt.
"While the partial reinstatement of a hunt is a positive step, we believe that all of bear country deserves to experience the benefits of a spring hunt," the group said in a statement.
Barker urged the province to explore other options such as laws to stop people from leaving food or garbage where bears can get at it, but Orazietti said Ontario had spent $35-million on alternative approaches to nuisance bears without great success.
"We've had over 50 resolutions from municipalities wanting to opt in to this pilot program, and that certainly speaks to the sense of urgency that communities have in northern Ontario in terms of dealing with this," he said.
Orazietti said public safety was his main concern, and gave alarming examples like one northern community where a 400-pound brown bear wandered the streets on Halloween as kids walked about with bags full of candy.
"We have young kids in schools who can't go out for recess because bears are in their playground," he said. "Teachers are wearing bear whistles to call the students back into the safety of the school."
Orazietti said it's "too early to say" if the spring bear hunt in Ontario would be expanded next year, and will depend on the results of the pilot project.
"I think the most important thing we need to do now is to ensure that the proposed pilot project has the desired effect, including a reduced number of 911 calls," he said.