TORONTO (AP) _ Ontario, home to one of North America's largest bear populations, has banned its controversial spring bear hunt after years of pressure from activists outraged that hunters could target weak, sluggish bears emerging from hibernation.

Animal rights groups hailed Friday's decision, but hunting guides were outraged, saying millions of dollars worth of hunting trips already booked for this spring in rugged northern Ontario will have to be canceled.

Home to an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 bears, Ontario is the first province in Canada with a major bear population to ban the spring hunt. Its fall hunt, which begins in September, will continue.

Ontario began the spring bear hunt in the 1960s, that opens in mid-April and runs through early June. About 4,000 bears have been killed each spring in Ontario, according to government figures.

John Snobelen, Ontario's natural resources minister, said his government _ which in the past resisted the ban _ decided the spring hunt should stop to cut down on the incidence of bear cubs being orphaned by the shooting of their mothers.

Though killing of mother bears during the spring hunt was outlawed, the government estimated that illegal killings left about 270 orphaned cubs each year. About one-third of the 4,000 bears killed each spring have been female.

``The only answer we came up with was to end the spring bear hunt,'' Snobelen said Friday. ``It's the only acceptable way.''

The spring hunt was popular among affluent U.S. hunters, who sometimes received guarantees they would return home with a trophy.

``The idea was to offer a guaranteed kill,'' said Rob Sinclair of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. ``If you don't get a bear, come back next time free.''

Snobelen said Ontario would compensate outfitters and hunting guides for some of the losses incurred this year by canceled bookings.

But groups representing the hunting industry were not appeased, saying losses stemming from the ban would total more than $10 million this year.

``This better be a wake-up call for hunters,'' said Mark Holmes, a spokesman for the 80,000-member Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

``The politicians hear more from anti-hunters. They are more vocal and strident. We have not done enough to plead our case,'' he said.

Ivan Goudreau, a hunting guide in Chelmsford, Ontario, about 180 miles north of Toronto, said he had 40 clients booked for the spring hunt.

``I will sue the government,'' he told the local Sudbury Star newspaper. ``Somebody has to cover the expenses. This is my bread-and-butter.''