Outdoor articles about black bears, hunting reports and other Minnesota and US field sports.

Bear Spray VS. Bullets: Which offers better protection?

posted Jan 18, 2017, 10:44 AM by John Hedstrom   [ updated Jan 18, 2017, 10:44 AM ]

Colorado Parks & Wildlife

At first glance, this question may seem like a no-brainer. After all, aren’t guns made to kill, while pepper spray (so-called “bear spray,” when it comes in big cans) does not?

Unlike an attack by a human assailant, who may be able to use your own weapon against you, that safety/survival argument for using pepper spray doesn’t apply to a human-bear encounter... or does it?

When it comes to self defense against all bears, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt.

Evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death of the human or the bear. While firearms can kill a bear, can a bullet kill quickly enough -- and can the shooter be accurate enough -- to prevent a dangerous, even fatal, attack?

The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun.

Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality -- based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research -- a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.

Awareness of bear behavior is the key to mitigating potential danger. Detecting signs of a bear and avoiding interaction, or understanding defensive bear behaviors, like bluff charges, are the best ways of escaping injury. The Service supports the pepper spray policy of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which states that bear spray is not a substitute for following proper bear avoidance safety techniques, and that bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear.

Like seatbelts, bear spray saves lives. But just as seatbelts don’t make driving off a bridge safe; bear spray is not a shield against deliberately seeking out or attracting a grizzly bear. No deterrent is 100% effective, but compared to all others, including firearms, proper use of bear spray has proven to be the best method for fending off threatening and attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and animal involved.

Duluth, social media go wild over black bear in tree downtown

posted Nov 3, 2016, 5:52 AM by John Hedstrom

Officials hoped the bear, caught on video, would come down on its own, but that's hard to do downtown, they say. 
By Mary Lynn Smith Star Tribune
NOVEMBER 3, 2016 — 12:49AM
WDIO-TVA bear became quite the tourist attraction on Wednesday morning, Nov. 2, 2016, after it was spotted in a tree in downtown Duluth. A small group of people gathered during the morning to take pictures.

When it comes to bears, Duluth police hope that what goes up will come down.

A black bear wandered into downtown Duluth on Wednesday, high-tailed it up a tree and quickly became a social media darling as crowds gathered to snap photos and videos, including the one below posted by Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio.

Bears often wander through the city’s many wooded areas, said Chris Balzer, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager based in Cloquet.

Sometimes a hungry bruin will make its way into a neighborhood, enticed by food in garbage cans and bird feeders.

But a bear downtown is a little more unusual, he said.

“The biggest thing is for people to leave it alone and it will come down on its own and move off,” Balzer said.

It’s harder for that to happen downtown because there are too many people around, he said.

Once people go home for the night, the bear likely will scamper down and away.

576-pound black bear among largest in Wisconsin

posted Oct 17, 2016, 11:02 AM by John Hedstrom


October 13, 2016 

by Dean Bortz

Grantsburg, Wis. — Even as Ricky Danielson and his fellow hunters on Sept. 24 dragged a 576-pound bear 600 yards to some machinery, Wisconsin bear hunters were closing in the DNR’s 2016 bear harvest goal of 4,750 animals.

On Sept. 29, the DNR had a preliminary count of 3,817 registered bears, according to Dave MacFarland, of Rhinelander, the DNR’s bear ecologist.

On that same date, the DNR also reported that wolves had killed a record 37 dogs so far this year, with seven more dogs injured.

576-pound bear

Danielson, of Grantsburg, has been bear hunting since age 10 or 11. Friends of his family, got him started bear hunting with hounds and he’s been hunting bears ever since.

Danielson has drawn three harvest tags over the years. This third tag went on the 576-pounder (field dressed) that he shot in Zone D in Burnett County. The bear was weighed at the Burnett Area Co-op in Grantsburg. He hunts with the Crex Meadows Bear Hunters group that is headed up by Jerry Burton. The group includes many of Burton’s family members and friends.

The big bear never showed up on a trail camera, but group members saw its tracks at several bait sites.

That day the group had four other hunters with kill tags.

“I just was the lucky one in the right spot at the right time,” said Danielson about a long day of bear hunting that began about 7:15 a.m. and ended about 4:30 p.m. when he shot the bear.

The big boar never treed and never stopped walking. The group started the track with three dogs. The track headed into a big swamp that Danielson said is about three miles by five miles. There are no roads through the swamp. Danielson said the closest the bear came to any road was .6 of a mile – and that’s where he shot it.

Throughout the day, any of the five hunters with kill tags tried closing on the bear in wet, nasty cover.

“It’s a bad swamp. I was up to my waist in mud and water most of the hunt,” he said. “He just stayed in the middle of the swamp and hopped from island to island.”

The dogs bayed up the bear a number of times throughout the day on those swamp islands. Each time, a tag-bearing hunter tried wading in close enough for a clear shot.

“The first time he stopped I got about 100 yards, but the bear caught my wind. We started pushing it north. Then another couple of hunters came in and got to a bay up, but the bear busted out again,” he said.

Later in the day, Danielson was circling around the swamp on the west side when the bear bayed up again about 400 yards away. That time Danielson got to within 10 yards of the bear.

“It was too thick, but saw it was a big bear. Then it picked up its head, and I was able to shoot it in the chest,” Danielson said.

Danielson used a .45/70 Marlin lever action rifle loaded with Remington 300-grain Core-Lokt bullets.

That bear was the group’s eighth bear of the season, and the biggest bear so far. Next biggest was a 462-pounder (live weight) that field dressed at 412 pounds. “I passed that one up in a tree a week prior. I knew we had a bigger bear around,” he said.

Group members joined forces to drag the bear about 600 yards across state land to the edge of private land where farmers let them borrow a John Deere Gator to ferry the bear out of the woods and onto the trucks.

This is Danielson’s second bear. He didn’t fill his first tag; on the second tag he shot a boar that dressed at 315 pounds. That bear was also shot on ground.

The dogs included two Plotts, a redbone and three Walkers. Once the first three dogs started the track, two dogs were added. When one dog tired and left the run, they added two more dogs.

Bear tally

MacFarland expects the Sept. 29 preliminary harvest of 3,817 bears to continue climbing through the seasons. The bait season closed Oct. 4 in zones A, B and D. The seasons close Oct. in Zone C and for hound hunters in the remaining zones.

“We are about where we’d expect to be at this point,” he said.

The state’s record bear kill was set in 2010 with 5,133 animals. In 2012, hunters registered 4,646 bears. The 2015 kill was 4,198.

MacFarland said hunters who shot bears last year will begin getting postcards on ages (from last year’s tooth samples) in early December.

MacFarland said Wisconsin bears have reached age 30, but most are much younger. Females have averaged 4.6 years; the males around 3 years old.

“Most bears will be less than 12 years old, there will be a handful in the upper teens and a couple in their 20s. Once or twice in the last 40 years we have had a bear older than 30 years,” he said, adding that the long term average age for both sexes has been pretty stable.

He said a bear that had been collared every year since it was first collared in 1984 in northwestern Minnesota finally died a year or so ago. It was more than 30 years old when it died.

Dogs killed

As of Oct. 4, 40 dogs have been verified as being killed by wolves, with another seven dogs injured.

MacFarland said that number sets an annual record with 21⁄2 months still left in the year.

Those are losses that have been verified by USDA Wildlife Services staff. Other dogs might have been killed by wolves, but those deaths couldn’t be confirmed by Wildlife Services based on the evidence left at the scene by the time the dog was found and Wildlife Services arrived.

The previous high was 23 verified dog deaths in 2013, with 20 in 2014 and 22 in 2015.

Why the increase this year?

“It’s hard to say – anything is speculation. There are more wolves on landscape. We could have more hound hunters on landscape. Hopefully that number will be lower next year,” said MacFarland.

Some have suggested that doing away with the Class B pursuit tag in July 2015 is bringing more nonresident hound hunters to Wisconsin this year, so MacFarland could be correct in suggesting there are more hounds in the woods this year.

“There is no way of knowing since there is no license requirement. The only thing we can track is number of dogs killed that are owned by residents or non-residents,” he said.

Through Sept. 29, seven of the 37 dogs that had been killed to that point were owned by non-residents.

In 2015, one dog owned by a non-resident was killed by wolves; there were none the year before.

The non-resident Class B pursuit tag used to cost $149 per person.

Three more dogs were added to the verified kill list on Oct. 4: a Plott hound killed on Oct. 1 in the town of Winter, Sawyer County; a second Plott killed in separate attack – also on Oct. 1 and in the town of Winter; and a redbone killed on Oct. 1 in the town of Knight, Iron County.

MN State’s bear harvest on pace for steep increase

posted Oct 4, 2016, 10:18 AM by John Hedstrom

September 29, 2016 

by Javier Serna


Grand Rapids, Minn. — Across the state, in every zone, bear hunters have done better than last year, according to preliminary data provided by the Minnesota DNR.

It’s too soon, however, to assume the bear population has increased significantly, said Dan Stark, the DNR’s large-carnivore program leader, who said a lack of natural foods in the forest this year likely is driving harvest numbers.

On Tuesday, Stark tallied bear registrations through Sept. 26, at which point 2,409 bears had been registered during the seasonthat got under way Sept. 1. At the same point last year, 1,725 bears had been registered.

“We’re 40 percent higher than last year’s harvest,” Stark said.

When there is a lack of natural foods to eat, it sends bears more frequently to bear baits, where hunters await and enjoy better success.

“It sounds like in most areas there haven’t been a lot of acorns, and that’s a pretty important fall food for them,” Stark said. “I think all of the information we have during the season is somewhat preliminary until we do the final summary this winter. But there was definitely higher success this season than the last three, with a similar number of permits.”

Stark believes 90 percent of the harvest likely is complete, and expects the final tally to fall between 2,600 and 2,700 animals. The season ends Oct. 16.

The lack of available natural foods was suspected to be the case in several northern Minnesota locales, as nuisance-bear complaints continued past the point in early summer when those foods become available.

“We have had a pretty active nuisance-bear season that continued into the summer and even into the bear season,” said Erik Thorson, the DNR’s Park Rapids area wildlife manager.

And that was even with decent late-summer berry and hazelnut production, Thorson said. “There’s wasn’t enough out in the woods for them. Usually when the berries start, the nuisance complaints fall off.”

He noted that acorns were noticeably absent.

Thorson suspects the bear population in his area has been growing the past two years, based on anecdotal evidence.

“There’s more sign in the woods,” he said. “A fair number (of people) saw triplets.”

Dave Rave, Thorson’s Bemidji-area counterpart, also saw a consistent number of nuisance-bear complaints come in since spring.

Rave said his area’s hunting zones, which were subdivided this year, probably saw an increase in harvest by one-third.

“The bear hunting was quite good this year,” Rave said, also suggesting that bear numbers are up.

“They are really, really healthy,” he said. “There was some lack of natural foods. I don’t think there were as many acorns this year, which really changes bear behavior during the season.”

But Rave said the consistent nuisance complaints and many reports of sows with twins and triplets leads him to believe the population is increasing.

Scott Laudenslager, the DNR’s Baudette-area wildlife manager, said bear harvest was up by about 25 percent over last year, despite a pretty decent berry crop.

“We’re building the population,” he said of lower permit numbers the past several years. “We could be seeing the results of that.”

In Two Harbors, Nancy Hansen, the DNR’s area manager there, said the first two weeks of the season saw most of the hunting activity. “My understanding is it’s been a very good season,” she said. “It seemed like there were more bears around, with bears out during the day.”

Hansen’s area, which includes Lake County in the state’s Arrowhead region, did have a fair amount of natural foods, she said.

At the tip of that region, in Cook County, bear-hunting guide Jim Wallner, based in Grand Marais, said he had an excellent season, with 11 of 16 clients getting bears, and all of them at least seeing one.

In his area, he said, natural foods were plentiful, and there were still a lot of bears hitting bait. In fact, he said his trail cameras showed that he had bears at all 41 bait stations.

Wallner was encouraged by the number of bears in the 100- to 150-pound range that he and his clients saw. One harvested was more than 250 pounds dressed, and one approached 300 pounds.

“These cubs have been getting kicked out the last couple of years,” he said. “The future looks bright.”

Minnesota Black Bear Hunting Report – September 23rd, 2016

posted Sep 23, 2016, 1:24 PM by John Hedstrom


A good bear season is tapering off.

Mort’s Dock (218) 647-8128


Bear hunting reports have been limited.

Taber’s Bait (218) 751-5781


A bear or two shot in the area.

Oars ‘n Mine Bait and Tackle

(218) 546-6912


Bear hunting continues to be good.

The Great Outdoors (218) 365-4744


Bear registrations have tapered off.

Buck’s Hardware (218) 387-2280


Bear hunting is winding down, but a couple were registered within the last week.

Lucky 7 General Store (218) 254-7168


Bear hunting reports have slowed, but the season has gone much better than last year in this area.

Jerry’s Sport & Bait Shop

(320) 679-2151


Bear reports continue to be good.

Delaney’s (218) 732-4281

Smokey Hills Outdoors

(218) 237-5099


A few bears continue to be shot in the area.

Lucky Seven General Store

(218) 741-1629

Minnesota Black Bear Report – September 9th, 2016

posted Sep 13, 2016, 1:50 PM by John Hedstrom


The majority of bear hunting reports were better than expected.

Taber’s Bait (218) 751-5781


A few bear have been shot in the area and most reports indicate active baits

Oars ‘n Mine Bait and Tackle (218) 546-6912


Bear hunters are doing well with 15 bear registered and good reports at baits throughout the area.

Chalstrom’s Bait (218) 726-0094


Bear hunting reports have been light.

The Great Outdoors (218) 365-4744


Bear hunting reports have been excellent, baits are getting hit, and some good-sized bear have been registered.

Buck’s Hardware (218) 387-2280


Bear hunting success has been very good.

Ben’s Bait and Tackle (218) 326-8281


Bear hunting reports have been mostly favorable.

Swanson’s Bait and Tackle (218) 675-6176


Bear hunting has gone well with a better kill ratio than a year ago during the first week.

Gateway Store (218) 875-2121


Bear hunters have registered more bear than last year and most indications are that bears are active and more numerous than expected.

Jerry’s Sport & Bait Shop (320) 679-2151


Bear hunters are finding some success.

Delaney’s (218) 732-4281

Smokey Hills Outdoors (218) 237-5099

Bear decline in Chippewa National Forest brings out DNR researchers

posted Aug 23, 2016, 8:15 AM by John Hedstrom   [ updated Aug 23, 2016, 8:18 AM ]

Migration, breeding and habitat are among factors examined in project. 

By JOE ALBERT Special to the Star Tribune

August 20, 2016 — 5:41pm


Department of Natural Resources - A black bear in a northern Minnesota area being studied by the DNR hovered over a baited trap. Researchers hoped to catch the animal and fit it with a tracking collar.

The Department of Natural Resources in recent years has been tightfisted with the number of bear-hunting permits it’s given out, in an attempt to increase the size of Minnesota’s black bear population.

Though the agency offered slightly more permits this year — 3,850 — it’s still a fraction of the number available a decade ago. Still, when the bear-hunting season opens Sept. 1, state wildlife officials believe hunters will be targeting a growing bear population.

“At least judging by the nuisance complaints, there seems to be more bears out there,” said Perry Loegering, the DNR’s Grand Rapids-area wildlife manager.

But in a heavily studied area comprising the Chippewa National Forest north of Grand Rapids — thought to be representative of the state’s bear range — a precipitous decline in the population has researchers trying to figure out what’s going on. There, DNR bear researchers Dave Garshelis and Andrew Tri, along with U graduate student Spencer Rettler are working to determine why the bruin population is half or less what it was during the 1980s.

Foundational study

DNR researchers in 1981 began collaring black bears with VHF collars within the Chippewa National Forest. In addition to its proximity to the agency’s forest wildlife research office, the study area also was “dead center of the bear range,” Garshelis said. Researchers aimed to learn about bear movement and habitat use, as well as mortality and reproduction. At the time, it had been only a few years since bears were considered varmints and bounties were given for them.

Throughout the 1980s, researchers trapped bears, fitted them with collars and ear tags, and collected data related to their body condition. They also visited bear dens when they were hibernating and fitted cubs with collars and ear tags. Researchers collared more than 300 bears, and tracked 290 until the animals died.

It became evident early on bears aren’t exactly homebodies, making annual late-summer or fall migrations. Males, for example, would head 50 miles south from their summer range and then turn around and walk 100 miles to the north, where they’d spend the winter. Female bears made similar movements but covered shorter distances. “They definitely move consistently southward, and they go to places where there is better food — richer soils, more oaks, and also more agriculture,” Garshelis said.

Researchers also learned that many females had three-cub litters — rather than two, as commonly had been believed — and that they tended to have more male than female cubs. However, male cubs died at a faster rate than female cubs, so the male-to-female ratio largely evened out by the end of the cubs’ first year.

Researchers also learned that hunting was the main source of bear mortality. Of the 290 bears, hunters killed 235. Some were killed when they became nuisances, while vehicles hit others. Eight died of natural causes. “It’s not like deer, where you can have a bad winter and a bunch of deer die,” Garshelis said. “If you cut back hunting enough, the population will go up.”

Moving on

By the early 1990s, researchers believed they had a good handle on the bear population in the study area, having collared about 90 percent of the animals living there. While they continued to track collared animals — including one that lived to nearly 40 years old — they largely turned their attention elsewhere.

But Garshelis didn’t forget about that original study site, and decided to revisit it in 2012. “Our concern was that we had pretty good evidence that we had a declining statewide bear population,” he said. “We thought it would be good to see — since we had such great data on this study area — how it had changed.”

That meant stringing barbed wire and placing baits in each section within the 120-square-mile study area. As bears attempted to get to the baits, they’d go over or under the barbed wire, which would pull off a chunk of hair. Via DNA analysis of the hair, which allowed them to identify individual bears, researchers determined the density in the study area was about one bear per 7 square miles. In the late 1980s, in “exactly the same area,” the density estimate was one bear every 2 square miles, Garshelis said.

“We had purposely wanted to reduce the population, but probably not that much,” he said.

Back to the Chippewa

Sufficiently concerned, the DNR decided to conduct another study in the area. The objectives: determine why the home ranges of bears within the area had increased to the extent they did, and why the bear density had fallen. In 2015, Rettler, the graduate student, surveyed the food resources in the area. This year, the food part of the study continues, and 18 bears have been fitted with GPS collars.

It’s possible hunting pressure is solely responsible for the decline, but Garshelis cited habitat that he believes has become less productive since the 1980s. Researchers already can see berry production is lower than in the 1980s, and U.S. Forest Service forest inventory assessments also paint a picture of how the forest has changed. In the 1980s, there were young stands of aspen and red pines, which were highly productive in terms of bear food. Those trees have matured and don’t provide the food they once did. “The other major thing that’s happened is there’s a lot more mature maple trees, which is the least productive forest type for bears. There’s very little that grows under a maple,” Garshelis said. “These changes suggest there’s less food abundance for bears.”

Bruins on the move

posted Aug 8, 2016, 6:12 AM by John Hedstrom

August 4, 2016

by Steve Piatt

June Black Bear 00040-00510


Albany — New York hunters have been harvesting bears in near record numbers in recent years, and near-drought conditions this summer may set the stage for another high kill.

DEC officials said the dry weather will likely create a food shortage across much of the state which, in turn, will have bears on the move in search of food.

That makes them more visible to hunters.

“Nuisance bear complaints are up, which is not a surprise in these dry conditions,” said DEC Region 5 wildlife biologist Ed Reed, whose area includes the Adirondacks. “We’ve had rain just here and there, so we’re expecting a heavy early-season harvest of bears looking for food. If we get a good blast of rain in the next couple weeks that could change, but right now it’s dry.”

With bears expanding their range and seemingly increasing in numbers in much of New York, it’s likely the 2016 kill will be among the tops in history. That’s been the case in recent years: last season’s total take of 1,715 bruins was the second-highest ever, bumping the 2014 kill of 1,628 into the No. 3 slot.

The highest harvest ever, 1,863, occurred in 2003.

DEC Big Game Unit Leader Jeremy Hurst said the drought could be a major factor in this season’s kill, especially in the Adirondacks and Catskills, which offer early hunting opportunities in September.

“The nuisance bear complaints in the Catskills have been escalating recently,” Hurst said last week. “But we’re really inundated with complaints pretty much across the state. We’re on track to match our record number of nuisance bear complaints of 2012, when we had similar dry conditions.”

Hurst said the dry conditions “weren’t uniform” across the state, noting that central New York and the St. Lawrence Valley have seen a bit more rain this summer.

But DEC Region 6 wildlife biologist Steve Heerkens said the nuisance complaints are still pouring in from that area, “from Cranberry Lake all the way up to the river – bird feeders and garbage can stuff.”

In Lewis County, Heerkens said he’s handled complaints of bears getting into bee hives and “multiple chicken kills” at the hands of a bruin.

“It’s kind of interesting; we’re not getting a ton of calls in the Old Forge-Inlet-Big Moose areas, like we usually do,” he said. “But there has certainly been some bear activity this summer.”

The nuisance complaints have brought DEC personnel up close with some big bruins, including a Steuben County bear that weighed in at 560 pounds.

The heaviest bear taken last year was a field-dressed 520-pounder shot in Sullivan County near the town of Forestburgh.

Sullivan County led the state in total bear harvest last season with 199, followed by two other counties in the Catskill region – Delaware (149) and Ulster (135). Another 129 were taken in St. Lawrence County, and Steuben County yielded 115 bears.

Last season’s harvest was a product of 1,132 bears taken in the Southern Zone and 585 in the Northern Zone. Both numbers were up from 2014 (1,110 and 518, respectively).

The Southern Zone bear kill, in particular, has soared in recent years as bear numbers and bear hunting opportunities increase.

DEC has opened all of the Southern Zone to bear hunting, and has also established an early (September) bear season in some southeastern New York wildlife management units where bruin numbers continue to rise.

Another challenge remains, however: developing a dedicated bear-hunting culture in New York. Most bears are taken by deer hunters since those seasons overlap and chance encounters with bruins occur.

One step in doing that will come this year: DEC is finalizing a regulatory proposal that will allow youths ages 14-15 to harvest a bear during the Columbus Day weekend youth deer hunt.

While the dry conditions and the lack of food may contribute to a solid bear harvest this season, weather continues to play a major role as the season progresses.

“Summer weather often dictates hunter success, then again the onset of winter and the mast crop is a factor as well,” Reed said. If winter weather arrives early and there’s a lack of food, more bruins may head into their dens earlier than normal.

Heerkens advises hunters looking to tag a bruin to focus on the fringe areas of the Adirondacks – state lands close to the edge of the Forest Preserve. The Fort Drum military reservation, where hunting is allowed by permit, is another good option, he said.

“The periphery of the Adirondacks should be good as well. If you knock on doors and talk to farmers who have crop damage issues they may welcome bear hunters,” Heerkens said. “The September season should be pretty good. Bears will be out and about and visible, looking for food in the dry conditions.”

Reed says lower-elevation state lands in the Adirondacks could be productive if you find the food sources for bears.

2016 bear seasons

Northern Zone

Early (in select WMUs): Sept. 17-Oct. 14

Early archery: Sept. 17-Oct. 21

Crossbow: Oct. 12-21

Early muzzleloading: Oct. 15-21

Regular: Oct. 22-Dec. 4

Southern Zone

Early (in select WMUs): Sept. 10-25

Early archery: Oct. 1-Nov. 18

Crossbow (not in WMUs 4J or 8C): Nov. 5-18

Regular: Nov. 19-Dec. 11

Late archery/muzzleloading: Dec. 12-20

Westchester County

Regular (archery only): Oct. 1-Dec. 31

Does more bait mean more bears?

posted Aug 8, 2016, 6:10 AM by John Hedstrom


By Dave Zeug
Contributing Writer

Wisconsin is known for its thriving black bear population, but this distinction doesn’t come without problems. Parts of the state are experiencing more damage and aggressive bear complaints than ever. These concerns are centered on their familiarity with humans, also known as habituation.

The Burnett County village of Grantsburg in the far northwest corner of the state is one of these areas.

“People are complaining about bears being within a few feet of them when they’re taking walks,” said Sheila Meyer, the village treasurer. “They don’t want to run away anymore and show little fear of people. We’re seeing more and more sows with more cubs, too. One had three and another had four cubs. They seem to hang around certain areas and mothers are concerned about kids playing outside. Some kids don’t even want to go outside.

“We have 10 (culvert) traps in the city now and the DNR has euthanized the most troublesome bears. One was a sow with three cubs that was ear tagged (as a problem bear) from last year. The cubs were taken to a rehabilitation facility near Rhinelander and hopefully will be released later. They’ve been a real problem,” said Meyer.

Some wonder whether the state’s liberal laws regulating bear baiting is contributing to this problem by allowing many tons of food to be put on the landscape for such a long time, thus increasing productivity well above levels that would be allowed by a natural forage base.

Aggressive harvests the last few years has helped. In fact, more black bears are shot in Wisconsin than any other state, but problems still exist.

Unlike neighboring states that handle animal damage complaints themselves, Wisconsin’s DNR contracts with the federal government’s Wildlife Services, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, to handle bear complaints.

Because Wildlife Services handles many other animal damage issues, Dan Hirchert, Wisconsin’s Wildlife Services director, said it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the costs of trapping and relocating a bear.

“Our goal is to resolve problems through technical assistance if possible. It’s cheaper than live trapping and relocating bears and a better solution for all concerned,” said Hirchert. “If bears are being attracted to a food source, we try to convince people to remove the attraction. If we have to remove the bears, we do. We average about 500 to 700 bear relocations a year, depending on the amount of natural food.”

Hirchert said bear hunting is much more popular in Wisconsin than in many other states.

“Last year 109,000 people applied for a bear tag, up from about 35,000 20 years ago. This means there’s a lot of bait on the ground. Bears associate this artificial food source to humans. Litter sizes seems to be increasing, too. Bears that are fatter go into winter in better shape and have a good chance of having bigger litters,” said Hirchert.

Here’s why.

After a sow has been bred, usually in June, the implantation of the fertilized eggs, called blastocysts, is delayed until the start of the denning season when they go into hibernation. If the sow doesn’t attain sufficient body fat during the summer and fall, the embryos won’t attach to the uterine wall and develop. The heavier the body weight, the more likely she’ll have more cubs – up to six have been documented – than the normal two to three.

How much bait, or artificial food, is used in Wisconsin? Based on the latest DNR survey, 4.6 million gallons of bait were put on the ground in 2014. Converting gallons to pounds is difficult, since a 5-gallon pail of popcorn or bread will weigh less than a pail of licorice or other sugar-laden bear bait products.

As a reference, a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. Whatever the formula used, many tons of artificial, high calorie bear bait hits the woods each year. This results in fat sows that produce more cubs than bears forging for only wild foods.

A recent study showed that when sows bring cubs to sources of food offered by people, whether it’s from bird feeders, grills on decks or bear bait, the more likely those cubs will seek foods associated with people. Further proof of artificial baits influence on bears is that a recent blood sample study from harvested bears showed 50 percent of their diet came from bait sites. Experts say this familiarity to human sourced food can lead to problems with nuisance and aggressive bear behavior.

Wisconsin’s bear baiting laws are among the most liberal in the country. Bears can be baited for 145 day before the season opens in early September. Minnesota allows hunters to begin baiting 17 days before the opener; Michigan gives its hunters 31 days of baiting before opening day. In Wisconsin, the bear dog-training season begins July 1, although hound hunters and those who sit over bait often place their bait before that date.

Perhaps the old slogan “a fed bear is a dead bear” is a bit too simplistic, but there’s a realm of truth there, too. Besides those being shot while legally hunting with bait, bears that become habituated – as in the Grantsburg scenario – sometimes have to be euthanized by authorities. Other times, as has been documented, citizens take matters in their own hand without any governmental permission when dealing with problem bears. Often this result is less than satisfactory for all concerned.

Mike Zeckmeister, the DNR’s Northern Region wildlife supervisor in Spooner, has had many years of experience in dealing with bears and the problems they can cause.

“In 2016 the number of bear nuisance complaints started out slow, but steadily increased in Zone D (northwest Wisconsin) as the bear breeding season started. We’ve been trying to reduce bear numbers in this zone by increasing the quota. This year we’ll have 2,480 harvest permits in Zone D. We’re hoping to stabilize the bear population in zones A, B and C and decrease the population in Zone D because of all the complaints,” said Zeckmeister, who also realizes the importance of bears to state hunters. “The last seven bear seasons represent the seven highest bear harvests in state history.”

After waiting for years to get a kill tags, most hunters want a big bear. This doesn’t always happen, but hunters often pass up small bears. Hound hunters are more likely to do so than bait sitters, but overall, 66 percent of bear hunters surveyed by the DNR said they passed up the first bear they saw. Of those, 72 percent said they were waiting for a bigger bear.

It’s clear nuisance bear problems are caused by loss of fear of humans. Hunger drives bears into human environments and when they’re allowed to feed on unsecured garbage, bird feeders or pet food without any consequences, they’ll habituate to this easy food source, said Hirchert and Zeckmeister. Eventually they’ll relax around people, which is the opposite behavior hunting elicits.

Every spring a standard news release coming out of the DNR reminds homeowners that bears are active at that time of year. Homeowners are then urged to take down bird feeders and secure their garbage and pet food. The question then becomes whether the DNR – and perhaps bear hunters – are working against the bears themselves by allowing 145 days of baiting.

The DNR is beginning the process of updating it’s bear management plan. Zeckmeister said bear baiting policies – and their impacts – will no doubt be part of those discussions that will begin in the near future.

Are outdoorists having a hand in fewer bear encounters?

posted Jul 28, 2016, 2:00 PM by John Hedstrom

Judging from a small survey of Superior Hiking Trail veterans, there is more discipline out there. 
By Jeff Moravec Special to the Star Tribune
July 28, 2016 — 1:01pm
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 bears, mostly Up North.

Of all the precautions taken before a summer backpacking trip into the deep woods, protecting against bear encounters might be at the top of the list. Yet bear sightings in a popular area such as the Superior Hiking Trail seem about as rare these days as a backpacker with a cotton sleeping bag.

Regardless, some of the people who make camp along the 310-mile trail still go to great effort to keep their food away from bears.

In fact, 94 percent of Superior Trail backpackers who responded to a recent, unscientific online survey said they take active measures to protect their edibles from bears. But at the same time, only two of the nearly 100 survey respondents — all members of the Superior Hiking Trail Facebook group — reported ever seeing a bear trying to get at their food.

This raises some natural questions. Why aren’t backpackers seeing more bears? And does a lack of sightings mean all the work to safeguard provisions is overdone?

It’s true that the number of Minnesota’s black bears — the only species in the state — has declined. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 bears, the majority of which live in the forested areas of Up North. Even with some evidence that their numbers may be on the upswing, the population is still roughly only half what it was in the late 1990s.

Fewer bears may be part of the story, said Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, but the most important factor may actually be the efforts of Superior Trail backpackers to thwart hungry bears.

Associated Press file
Smarter campers could be reducing bear encounters.

“There are certainly bears up there,” Stark said. “They generally try to avoid people and human activity, but they can cause trouble when they’re looking for food. If you have food they can’t get to, though, you don’t have trouble develop.”

“Just the prevention we’re seeing can go a long way toward avoiding problems,” he said. “What you want are bears that don’t see backpackers as a source for food.”

This result, Stark said, has only come over time.

Twenty years ago, Stark said, people staying in the wilderness in Minnesota often had bears coming into camp because they had success finding a meal there. “They were smart enough to figure out that if they’d had luck before, they were going to do it again,” Stark said.

But more and more campers began to look for ways to keep bears away. The most common practice became putting food in a pack and hanging it in a tree away from camp, over a high branch far enough out from the trunk to make it difficult for a bear to reach. As bears began coming up empty when nosing around campsites, Stark said, they started to realize that people could no longer be counted on for a meal — and their habits changed.

Today, while Superior Trail backpackers use a variety of methods to protect their food, nearly three-quarters in our survey said they use some kind of pack-hanging system.

The hanging system can be a little tricky for some, though, and it requires finding the right tree in the right location, so alternatives have developed.

Ten percent of our survey respondents use a bag (such as those produced by Ursack) made of fabric designed to be strong enough to prevent bears from ripping it open. Another 2 percent said they favor a hard plastic canister (such as those made by BearVault or Garcia) that are difficult for bears to grip or open.

No matter what system is employed, Stark said, the pack or container with food should be stored well away from the campsite. “You want to move it away from where your other gear is located so they aren’t attracted to your campsite at all,” he said.

And it’s not just food that needs to be protected. Anything with a scent that might attract bears, such as food wrappers or hygiene products, should be safeguarded, Stark and our respondents said.

“You obviously don’t keep food in the tent,” according to survey respondent Michelle Stiles of Minneapolis. “But I don’t even wear clothes to bed that may have food spills or smells on them.”

As much as good food protection procedures have helped keep bears out of backcountry camps, 94 percent compliance still isn’t good enough, said Kim Fishburn, a veteran Superior Trail backpacker from Plymouth who often gives presentations about the trail.

“The thought of anyone laying their food out on the ground or unprotected in camp makes me mad,” Fishburn said. “I know how bad things got in places like Yosemite National Park, where problems forced the park to require people to carry bear canisters. It only takes one or two bears to find food in a campsite to ruin things.”

Bears who come to associate humans with food can become dangerous and end up having to be captured and euthanized. “As the saying goes,” Fishburn said, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

A food protection system can also thwart other animals, such as mice and chipmunks, interested in a food stash. But a survey respondent who didn’t leave a name (maybe for good reason) noted there is one other large mammal that can be a nemesis: “I’ve never had a bear try to get my food, but I have had my hiking buddy try. …”


Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at

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