I took a quick ATV ride into the woods last weekend because for the first time in weeks, it wasn’t too hot to move, there was a slight breeze, and the deer flies weren’t so thick that any attempt to move was met with the threat of being bombarded by hundreds of them.
It was sort of nice.
What I found beyond the usual confines of my hunting land was leaves turning colors already and a complete lack of any wild berries.
In spots where I found thousands of raspberries last year there was nothing. Not even a sign of anything having been there at one point or another.
That got me thinking about something I have seen a lot of this year: Black bears running around. While my location has a lot to do with the sightings, the increased activity is not a result of any sort of population increase in northeastern Minnesota.
Instead, it’s a combination of a late spring frost and a summer long drought have drastically impacted natural bear foods, says Tom Rusch, the Tower Area Wildlife Manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The Minnesota bear population is less than half of what it was 15 years ago, Rusch said, but sightings are up in the last two years because of bear food scarcity, not because of a population increase.
“Blueberries, chokecherries, raspberries, Juneberries, and pin cherries are all a bust. Prime fall bear foods like acorns and hazelnuts are also not looking good,” he said this week. “It’s been a bad year. (We’ve had) nuisance bear calls almost every day (and) 95% of the calls are bears getting into bird feeders and garbage or hanging around because of bird feeders, garbage or bear feeding.”
Blueberries in particular were hit hard early on this year, when at peak much of northern Minnesota was hit with what Rusch calls killing frost on May 26. Huge portions of the area saw low temperatures in the 20s that night and early morning while Cotton registered the lowest temperature in the lower 48 states on that date at 19 degrees.
That kind of devastation to natural foods leads to the uptick in movement as the local population seeks to fill their stomachs with food.
Now, with hibernation right around the corner, chances are business is about to pick up.
“Bears really feed heavily (Hyperphagia) starting in August until they den up in late September and October in northern Minnesota,” Rusch said.
According to the DNR, bears can consume 12,000 to 20,000 calories a day to prepare for hibernation. That’s the equivalent of 6 to 7 pounds of black oil sunflower seed or about 700-800 acorns.
To replace that intake, the animals will be venturing into yards across the area looking to supplement their diet with whatever they can find and that will lead to human and bear conflicts.
Rusch and DNR officials offer several suggestions for minimizing issues but number one on the list is eliminating the food.
“Three things attract 95 percent of nuisance bears in our area: Garbage, bird food, and pet food. If you take responsibility for these items, you greatly reduce your chances of attracting hungry bears,” wrote in a recent news release.
Home and cabin owners should stop feeding birds for at least a month and avoid feeding birds, deer, squirrels and other wildlife when conditions are ripe for nuisance bears and eliminate attractants by keeping garbage cans and bags, pet food, and barbeque grills in a secure building or structure.
Rusch suggests that as soon as you see bears are coming around or experience
damage, take action. Don’t assume it will happen only once. Secure the area each and
every night. Also, don’t wait for bear problems to go away. Remove bear foods (attractants) now.
“If you ignore the situation, you will train generation after generation of bears to check your area out whenever there is a food shortage. Bears have excellent memories for food sources,” he said
Habituated (conditioned) bears are another story and negative reinforcement can work well. Erecting a simple electric fence (for fruit trees, gardens, bee hives, garbage cans, composts etc). An electric fence can be a simple, cost-efficient, and effective deterrent for bears.
At the end of the day, it really is up to home and cabin owners as the DNR hasn’t trapped nuisance bears or tried to relocate them in many years. It’s too expensive and it rarely works as bears have been known to return to the scene of the crime (an excellent food source) even after being released as far as 40 miles away.
Finally, backyard bear problems aren’t the only thing that increases during poor natural food years like this – most times the record bear hunting harvests also occur because they are, again, on the move in search of food.
Bait piles become more potent, and hunters find more success.
Ruffed grouse counts down
DNR officials announced this week that Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring population counts were down from last year as expected during the declining phase of the species’ 10-year cycle — a predictable pattern recorded for 72 years.
Although peaks vary from eight to 11 years apart, the most recent peak in the cycle occurred in 2017.
Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting.
The spring drumming counts are an important indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population. The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer.
If production of young birds is low during the summer months, hunters may see fewer birds than expected based on counts of drumming males in the spring. Conversely, when production of young is high, hunters may see more birds than anticipated in the fall.
The 2021 statewide survey results for ruffed grouse were 1.3 drums per stop. The most recent peak in 2017 was 2.1 drums per stop. During the low point of the cycles, counts are typically about 0.8 drums per stop.
Drum counts were 1.4 drums per stop in the northeast survey region; 1.1 drums per stop in the northwest; 0.8 drums per stop in the central hardwoods; and 0.9 drums per stop in the southeast survey region.
Minnesota’s ruffed grouse hunting season opens on Saturday, Sept. 18.