It doesn’t matter if you live in the woods, on the lake, or in town — if you are leaving attractants like bird feed, garbage cans and barbecues out unprotected in northern Minnesota this summer, the potential for a bear visit is high right now.
Dry weather conditions are stunting the growth of natural foods like blueberries and sending bears out into the world in search of something to fill their stomachs.
And when the going gets tough in their world, Yogi and his pals know just where to go to find a snack – your backyard.
Tom Rusch, Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager for the Tower area said this week that his office has been getting a ton of calls about nuisance bears from residents across the area including:
• A bear destroying bird feeders, originally at night, but now during the day.
• A bear repeatedly coming into yard and showing no fear; neighbors feeding.
• Bears repeatedly breaking into coolers at dozens of campsites in the Boundary Waters.
• A bear killing free-range chickens.
• A sow with four cubs in town every night hitting the plastic dumpsters.
• A bear breaking into cars with food inside.
• A bear breaking into trash cans put out the night before pickup.
• Bears on the bike trail approaching people for food.
• Bears in the campground making people uncomfortable.
• Bears damaging hummingbird feeders.
• A bear eating livestock feed and pet food.
“Lake communities are all hotspots and every Iron Range community has had bear problems,” Rusch said.
Rusch said many of the folks he talks to wrongly assume a high bear population is the reason for the uptick in interactions but the reality on the ground is bear numbers in the state are half (12,000 to 15,000) of what they were 15 to 20 years ago (25,000 to 28,000).
At the end of the day, the answer to why there is an increase in bear activity around humans is pretty simple – the animals are hungry, and humans like to leave things around that bears like to eat.
“Repeated access to food teaches bears to associate homes with a food source and erode the bear’s natural instinct to avoid people,” Rusch said. “Bird feeding, garbage and habituated bears are generating the most complaints. Landowners, campers, fishermen, cabin owners, campgrounds and visitors are calling in complaints.”
Bear complaints typically peak in early spring and late summer when natural bear foods are limited but current conditions have extended that season, Rusch said.
Black sunflower seeds are a highly preferred bear food but when times are tough, they will seek out free-range chickens and chicken feed – and a lot of other things.
“Although all species of bears, including black bears, are technically of the order Carnivora, they are essentially omnivores that eat a wide variety of plants, insects, fish, and animals,” Rusch said.
While they would prefer things likes juneberries, chokecherries, raspberries or blueberries - plant foods make up as much as 90 percent of a bear’s diet – bears have been known to bears actively hunt newborn deer fawns and moose calves in June when they are most vulnerable.
And, of course, your leftovers before the garbage man can get them.
Inevitably, with the increase in interactions comes the call for DNR officials to remove the bears from the problem spots.
But that’s not the way it works. The DNR stopped relocating nuisance bears a couple decades ago because it just doesn’t work.
“Trapped and relocated bears return to their original home range, even when moved 40 miles. Bears are highly mobile animals. It was a poor use of time and money,” Rusch said.
And while the law allows a person to take a bear that is doing serious property damage or a threat to human life/safety, Rusch suggests that’s not the right approach.
“If we kill bears for simply being a nuisance, our bear population will not recover. If the bear population remains low, as it has for 10 years now, fewer people will have a chance to hunt, view and enjoy bears in the wild,” he said.
The better way to approach it, according to DNR officials, is to remove the attractants or secure areas where bears might be interested in visiting.
“The most effective way to eliminate nuisance bears is to remove, secure or eliminate what is attracting the bear(s),” Rusch said.
• Don’t feed birds, deer, squirrels, wildlife during times when conditions are ripe for nuisance bears (i.e. early Spring and late Summer). It is very difficult to attract birds without attracting bears.
• Keep garbage cans and bags, pet food, and barbecue grills in a secure building or structure.
• Don’t put garbage out the night before pick-up.
• Feed pets in a bear-proof location.
• Put the grill back in storage after each use.
DNR wildlife officials also suggest that as soon as a person sees bears are coming around or experience damage, they should take action and don’t assume it will happen only once - secure the area each and every night.
If you ignore the situation, it’s possible to train generation after generation of bears to check your area out whenever there is a food shortage as bears have excellent memories for food sources.
They also advise working cooperatively with neighbors. One neighbor can make life miserable for the entire neighborhood by not taking responsibility for preventing problems with bears.
Rusch said electric fencing can be very effective at deterring bears and can be used in a variety of backyard, cabin, farm and rural business applications in bear country.
“The web is a great place for bear avoidance information. There are tons of YouTube videos for ‘how-to erect a simple electric fence, deploy bear spray, and bear-proof your cabin or yard or garden,” Rusch said. “They save people time and money by preventing bear damage and clean-up around the clock. Most people want the bear removed or killed when these simple recommendations have worked for many years. Killing or moving bears doesn’t solve the problem, long term, because the food attractant is still out there to attract bears.”
For more information, tips and tricks see some of the following web sites as suggested by Rusch: