As brown bears return, Hokkaido municipalities hope for police response

A bear roams in a residential area within Sapporo's Minami Ward in 2019.

Last year, when the Hokkaido Prefectural Government asked municipalities for their views on compiling a plan to manage brown bears, many local governments called for the need to clarify the role of police in cases when brown bears are spotted in urban areas.

Such feedback reflects a sense of crisis among municipalities that if the current situation is left as is, without any effective measures being taken, it could lead to people getting harmed.

Along with the rise in the brown bear population, the animal is increasingly being spotted in urban areas. Many municipalities have urged the Hokkaido government to resume so-called spring brown bear hunting — shooting bears in remote mountains while there is still snow remaining, regardless of whether or not damage has been reported around human dwellings.

Many also asked the government to station hunters with specialist skills on the streets and at the prefectural police department.

“The duty of police is to protect people’s lives in urban areas, but they are not fulfilling that duty,” said the Sunagawa Municipal Government in response to the Hokkaido government’s request for opinions.

“They are only taking stopgap measures, ignoring the habits of brown bears,” the Sunagawa government said, revealing a sense of distrust over how the Hokkaido police force is handling the issue of dealing with the animals.

Such distrust grew in the wake of a case in which the Hokkaido Prefectural Public Safety Commission revoked the gun permit of the head of the Sunagawa branch of the Hokkaido hunters association in 2019, after he killed a bear in 2018 in the presence of the police. The public safety commission claimed that the hunter shot in the direction of houses.

Legal action

The shot was fired in a rural district, not in an urban area where permission by the police under the Police Duties Execution Act is needed to use hunting guns.

However, the case prompted hunters associations in the prefecture to completely refrain from shooting bears for fear of their gun permits being revoked. That has left local governments at a loss as to who they can ask to get rid of bears.

The town of Shibecha touched on the case when sharing its opinion with the prefectural government, saying, “Hunters all over Hokkaido are concerned that they might be held responsible for exterminating (bears) in urban areas.”

In 2020, the Sunagawa branch head filed a lawsuit claiming that the shoot had been conducted safely and demanding that the public safety commission cancel its decision.

A district court handed down a ruling in December last year upholding the plaintiff’s claims, but the prefectural government appealed the ruling and the trial is ongoing.

In its own submission to the prefectural government, the Sunagawa authorities criticized the police for “refusing to discuss with other institutions” its responses under the Police Duties Execution Act.

It urged the Hokkaido Prefectural Government to start discussing the matter with the police, saying the authority had “failed to work to form a consensus with the Hokkaido police.”

Many municipalities also pointed out that in order to prevent bears from appearing in urban areas, controlling their population is unavoidable.

The city of Monbetsu called for the spring bear shoot to be resumed, saying that cases of bears “trespassing into areas of human habitation are increasing sharply, and residents and officials are exhausted.”

The town of Shimokawa, in the Kamikawa region, expressed a sense of crisis, saying, “If the (bear) population rises further, there will be a higher possibility of people (being) involved in accidents.”

Fewer experienced hunters

The prefectural government started the spring bear shoot in 1966, but abolished it at the end of March 1990 after the bear population declined to around 5,000 — at which level the species was threatened with extinction.

The population recovered to some 11,700, according to a fiscal 2020 estimate. But along with the recovery in the bear population, incidence of bears damaging crops and appearing in urban areas also increased.

In fiscal 2021, 14 people — a record high number — were attacked by brown bears, including one case in which four people were attacked in a residential area in Sapporo’s Higashi Ward. The attacks during the period led to four fatalities.

The prefectural government is expected to reach a conclusion before the end of the current fiscal year on measures to reduce the bear population, such as by extending the period of the bear hunting season — currently set from October to January of the following year.

However, even if policy decisions are made, a significant number of municipalities are worried about whether they will be able to secure hunters to put them into practice.

The number of hunters in Hokkaido has slightly increased, to roughly 12,000, but more people are believed to have obtained hunting licenses for the purpose of shooting deer, which cause more damage to crops than bears.

Those who can engage in the more dangerous bear hunting are older veteran hunters, mainly with experience of the spring bear shoot, but there are municipalities with no such hunters.

Four municipalities, including the city of Ebetsu, urged the Hokkaido government to station “government hunters” — prefectural officials with specialized skills — that can shoot bears, saying hunters in most municipalities are getting older and that the municipal governments are unable to secure the right personnel.

Some even asked the police to set up a division specializing in culling bears.

Tsutomu Mano, an advanced research specialist at Hokkaido Research Organization who is well versed in issues around brown bear management, points out that shooting bears that appear near human habitation is a public task and that there is a limit to relying on private-sector hunters.

“Training public-sector hunters with the skills and (giving them the) authority to conduct shoots safely, even at night and in residential areas, is urgently needed,” Mano said.