The drought that hammered much of Northeastern Minnesota in May and June didn’t just turn lawns brown, it stifled this year’s crop of wild berries and nuts in the forest, and that’s sent many of the region’s black bears looking for food from people.
Dumpster-diving bruins are causing trouble not just in the Duluth area but across the Arrowhead as they look to make up for the food they can’t find in the woods. Juneberry, chokecherry, raspberry and blueberry production ranged from poor to bad.
“In short it looks like a terrible food year. ... The early berry crop was nonexistent and hazelnuts and acorns look fair or worse,’’ said Martha Minchak, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager in Duluth. “Some of the fall berries and cherries look a bit better, but everything is spotty.”
Some bears have been settling into agricultural areas, especially corn fields, where they can cause extensive damage quickly. The problem is less severe in the northwestern potion of the bear range, which has had ample rain all summer.
Duluth is especially well located to draw in wandering bears that follow the many wooded streams that run into and down through town. The city also is the permanent home to some number of bears that never leave. But wildlife managers say don’t panic: Simply keep food locked up and enjoy the chance to see wildlife. There have been no major confrontations reported — black bears rarely threaten people. But the DNR reminds people that there are simple steps they can take to keep bears away.
“Take away their food sources and the bears will move on,’’ said Dan Stark, large-carnivore specialist for the Minnesota DNR in Grand Rapids.
That means not leaving any dog food outside, taking in all bird feeders and cleaning up around where bird feeders were located. And it means keeping garbage cans locked in a garage or shed until the morning it gets picked up. Bears are usually nocturnal, especially when people are present during the day.
Nancy Hansen, DNR wildlife manager in Two Harbors, said there’s a “rampant’’ problem along the North Shore where commercial-sized garbage dumpsters sit generally unattended by people and easily accessible by bears.
“We’ve had a real issue with community dumpsters, especially the ones with plastic lids the bears can rip right into,’’ Hansen said. “People toss a plastic bag of garbage in there and the bear is probably watching and waiting for them to leave to get it.”
Hansen said if you have especially fragrant garbage, such as fish guts, consider freezing it in a plastic bag and waiting until garbage pickup day to put it out.
Chris Balzer, DNR wildlife manager based in Cloquet, said there have been 75 problem-bear complaints in his area so far this summer, up from 57 at this time last year — a 31% increase.
Since rainfall picked up markedly in July and so far in August, Balzer said there’s still time for a decent fall crop for bears to fall back on.
“Hopefully these recent rains will help with acorns and fall berries like dogwoods,’’ he said.
Tom Rusch, DNR wildlife manager in Tower, said bear complaints have been coming in all summer, usually involving people with bird feeders or some other source of bear food that has “trained’’ the bear to keep coming back. Rusch said a growing problem is bears showing up where people raise chickens, which is becoming more popular even in urban areas. “Free-range chickens and chicken feed are a new and growing nuisance bear issue,” he noted.
“Repeated access to food teaches bears to associate homes with a food source and erode the bear’s natural instinct to avoid people,’’ Rusch noted.
If bears are causing problems it's up to people to decide their future. If conservation officers or other law enforcement is called in, the animal likely will be trapped and killed. The DNR no longer relocates bears because it often cause more problems than it solves.
“Almost everyone can solve their own bear problems with a few simple tools. ... If you don’t, it’s not going to end well for the bear,’’ said Andrew Tri, bear research biologist for the DNR.
Fewer bears than 20 years ago
It’s not that there are more bears in the woods, just less food. While local bear populations fluctuate widely across the region, the state’s bear population is believed to be down about half of what it as 20 years ago. The current population is estimated between 12,000 and 15,000 bears statewide, down from a high of 25,000 or more in 2001, Tri said.
The DNR manages bear populations by allocating hunting permits, and hunters last year killed 2,340 bears. Some 80% of all bear mortality is during hunting season, Tri noted.
The lack of natural food sources in the woods should mean higher success for Minnesota bear hunters who start their season Sept. 1. Most hunters use bait stations to attract bears, and it’s now more likely bears will hit those bait stations. There's some concern hunters may kill too many reproductive-age female bears due to the drought.
Tips to avoid bear problems
Keep all garbage cans secured, in a shed or garage, until the morning of pickup.
Take down all bird feeders and clean up any bird seed in the area. Don’t feed birds until winter, after bears are hibernating, usually by November.
If you raise chickens, keep the area clean of excess seed.
Don’t leave any dog food outdoors.
Electric fencing works especially well to keep bears out of gardens and other small areas.
If you are camping, keep a clean camp. If no secure bear-proof food locker is available, store all food and garbage in a vehicle or secure it by hanging from a tree branch at least 10 feet off the ground and 5 feet from the trunk.
If a bear does not leave the area when confronted by people, try using bear spray or pepper spray to give it incentive to leave and not come back. Commercial sprays — with pepper, capsaicin and related capsaicinoids — will work from up to 35 feet away.
For more information go to dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/bears.
Source: Minnesota DNR wildlife managers
Did you know?
Bears can consume 12,000-20,000 calories a day as they prepare for hibernation. That’s the equivalent of 7 pounds of black oil sunflower seed or about 800 acorns every day.
Black bears probably aren’t as big as they may appear. While many people report seeing 500-pound bears, the average size of an adult bear in Minnesota is about 160 pounds. Very few bears get to 500 pounds and only a couple over 700 pounds have been shot in the state.