TORONTO - Complaints by hunters and sportsmen's groups about a growing problem with nuisance black bears in northern and central Ontario won't bring about a return of the province's spring bear hunt, says Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and the Northwestern Ontario Sportsmen's Alliance say problems with bears coming into contact with people have been growing steadily since the spring bear hunt was cancelled in 1999, and has led to more orphaned cubs.

However, Cansfield says the government's Bear Wise program, which provides tips on how to store garbage and encourages people to call a ministry hotline whenever there's a problem with a bear, is the reason the number of reported occurrences has been increasing.

"Once we put in the Bear Wise program, we encouraged people to phone us if they see a bear, so of course the number of sightings are going to go up just by virtue of that program," Cansfield said.

"We extended the bear season on the other end for a couple weeks, so it's up to four weeks, and we found that the numbers before the spring bear hunt was ended and the numbers today are very similar."

There were an average of 1,000 nuisance bear complaints a year prior to 1999, which jumped to an average of 9,000 calls after Bear Wise was introduced in 2004, and grew to a high of 12,700 in 2007.

Clearly, Bear Wise is not addressing human-bear conflicts, said Ed Reid, a wildlife biologist with the hunters' federation.

"It's been an ever-increasing trend, and what we hear is people are less likely to phone in problems with bears than they were several years ago," said Reid.

"There's a fair bit of apathy or skepticism among northern communities about the Bear Wise program. We don't see results."

The government estimates there are between 75,000 and 100,000 bears in Ontario, and doesn't think the problem of nuisance bears has become worse since the spring hunt was cancelled 10 years ago, due to concerns about cubs being orphaned by hunters mistakenly shooting mother bears in the spring.

"We went 10 years before the spring bear hunt ended and 10 years after, and our overall harvest is very similar," said Cansfield.

"What we're saying is no, we're not interested in bringing back the spring bear hunt, but we are going to look at ways to encourage better use of the Bear Wise program."

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters said government statistics show hunters were taking about 6,800 bears a year before the spring hunt was cancelled, and now take between 5,600 and 6,200 bears a year, even though the bear population has been growing.

Progressive Conservative critic Randy Hillier calls Bear Wise a foolhardy program that he said wastes millions of dollars a year.

"We've been hearing these reports for some time, and there's been more and more cases of nuisance bears, bears in school yards, bears in municipalities," said Hillier.

"It's a growing problem and we need to do something about bringing back the spring bear hunt."

Bear Wise is an expensive failure and puts more emphasis on changing the behaviour of humans than it does on managing the bear population, said the hunters' federation.

"Clearly the Bear Wise program is not helping," said Reid.

"It's trying to modify human perceptions while the number of bear occurrences and nuisance problems continues to go up."

Cansfield said the complaints are really centred around the loss of income for northern communities when the spring bear hunt was cancelled, not the bears themselves.

"It's fair to acknowledge that the spring bear hunt was an economic opportunity for the north, so it's very much tied to that particular issue," she said.

"It's not so much about the number of bears. It's about the economics of not having a spring bear hunt."

Hillier said the spring bear hunt not only was an effective tool for controlling the bear population, it also better protected newborn cubs and their mothers because hunters would never shoot them.

"Most people prefer hunting bears in the springtime because it reduces the number of orphan bears because cubs are right with the sows, so you can see them," said Hillier.

The Northwestern Ontario Sportsmen's Alliance said statistics suggest more bears are being orphaned now because of the problems with nuisance bears than before the cancellation of the spring bear hunt.

Since the cancellation, "bears have increasingly been killed wastefully, with orphaning of cubs a reality when sows are shot," said association executive director John Kaplanis. "Hence the claim that the spring bear hunt is a humane management method."

Reid said his group has made similar observations.

"Not one Ontario hunter was ever convicted of breaking the game laws that prevented them from shooting lactating sows or their cubs," said Reid.

The Ministry of Natural Resources said there was no indication of an increase in orphaned cubs since the cancellation of the spring bear hunt.