Lots of food and solitude make the state’s north woods a bear’s paradise. So why, biologists wonder, do some bruins prefer the prairie—or Duluth?
IT’S A BLUSTERY February morning and Dave Garshelis, the chief bear biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is driving through the pancake-flat landscape north of Bemidji. I’m riding shotgun, and tucked behind us is Paul Kapfer, a University of Minnesota graduate student. The cab is filled with tarps, ropes, foam pads, clothing, lunch fixings, and a tranquilizing gun.
A few weeks earlier, Garshelis had received a call from Arnold Stanley, a farmer who had discovered a bear hibernating in a culvert on his farm near Grygla. Garshelis had been looking to track a bear living on the edge of the species’ normal range. The creature Stanley described seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Garshelis wanted to answer what seems a simple question: Why, as forests fade into grassland in western Minnesota, does the black-bear population likewise lessen? Grizzly bears once roamed the prairies—why not black bears? Do they need foods that only woodlands can provide? Are they kept at bay by human aggression? Garshelis and Kapfer are trying to determine whether it’s habitat or human activity that limits the range of bears in Minnesota. Finding the answer to that question may help wildlife managers accommodate the needs of both species in the future.
Snow is falling as we pull up to the farm. Stanley, a tall strapping man, pulls on his coveralls and a cap and leads us to the culvert.
Garshelis looks inside, then crawls in with a flashlight for a better view. He emerges, nods, and returns to his truck. He prepares a veterinary tranquilizer, loads a dart, and assembles the gas-powered gun. He and Kapfer poke their heads into the culvert and study the location of the bear’s front shoulder. The gun produces a soft pffft. They back out and wait.
BLACK BEARS LIVE throughout the forests of northern and central Minnesota, but spotting them used to be a rare occurrence. If they did show up on farms or in towns, they often were regarded as pests and killed. That changed in 1971, when the state introduced a limited hunting season for black bears. You could no longer just shoot a bear you considered a varmint.
Ironically, the legalization of hunting helped Minnesota’s bear population survive and thrive. It created a cadre of hunters, guides, and wildlife managers with a vested interest in ensuring that the species prospered. So, even though an average of 3,400 bears have been taken by hunters each year since the season was introduced 36 years ago, the state’s black-bear population has grown from an estimated 10,000 bruins to 30,000.
(In contrast, many protected populations, particularly in Asia, are declining in size. Poaching Asiatic black bears has been outlawed in China for nearly 20 years. But the population remains under pressure, threatened by urban development and a heavy black-market trade. Bear gall bladders are believed to have medicinal powers.)
Black bears are not, by nature, aggressive. Unlike grizzlies, which in pioneer days were known to kill cattle and scare the living daylights out of settlers, black bears keep their distance from creatures bigger than themselves. They eat fruits, nuts, insects, and, occasionally, small deer and moose calves.
But when food is scarce, hungry black bears venture into human territory. They raid bird feeders and corn fields. They steal dog food and overturn garbage cans.
Bears are a familiar sight in Duluth, where they are part of the city’s landscape and lore. The thin soils along the North Shore can’t generally support oaks, so acorns, a staple of the black bear’s diet, are often in short supply. Bears seeking something to eat head into town. In fact, a few of the brutes actually live in town, though nobody’s quite sure where they reside. The Black Bear Lounge on Superior Street is named for a beast that long ago crashed through a window of the restaurant. There’s even a story about a bear in a taxi. “Somebody opened the door and the bear got in first,” Garshelis says. “It seems the people in Duluth, for the most part, don’t mind bears. They learn to live with them.”
I HAVE BEEN AFRAID of bears ever since I was little. My father used to entertain himself during our stays at the family cabin by suggesting that I might get eaten by a bear if I strayed too far. Reading the “true tales” of encounters with lip-smacking bruins in Outdoor Life only reinforced my anxieties. As I grew older, those fears, mostly irrational, stayed with me, and whatever I am doing outdoors, I am always glad not to see a bear. That is especially true when I am camping in places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where on several occasions even a fusillade of rocks and firewood were not enough to drive off a bear in pursuit of a pack of provisions. Once, as I hiked through Voyageurs National Park, I came across a mother bear and her cub foraging for berries in the middle of the trail. I let out a shout to scare them off, but instead of fleeing, the mother leapt into the air and charged. I reached for the low branch of a tree, expecting to feel fangs sinking into my hind side. But when I glanced over my shoulder, both bears were gone.
Before meeting up with Garshelis, I picked up a copy of Bear Attacks, by Stephen Herrero. I hoped the book would allay some of my concerns, but instead it only served as fuel for more nightmares. When a grizzly bear charges you, the author notes, the best defense is to play dead. After kicking you around like a soccer ball for several minutes, the bear will likely lose interest and march off. But when a black bear makes up his mind to stalk you, the creature is contemplating a snack, according to Herrero. A person pursued by a black bear should stand tall, yell, wave both arms, and, if necessary, fight, punch, claw, and wrestle to escape the animal’s clutches.
Garshelis agrees with some of Herrero’s advice. But he also cites three recent attacks in Minnesota that suggest that black bears, while sometimes aggressive, aren’t always out to kill. In 2002, a wildlife student who was radio-tracking grouse near Mille Lacs surprised a bear that bit his face and leg. The following year, near Grand Marais, a woman discovered two cubs eating birdseed in her garage. The mother bear was nearby and attacked the woman in the entryway to the house. Two years later, a woman walking her dog near Duluth encountered a bear. The hound began to bark, and the bear charged—not the dog, but the owner. The bear stopped short, but the woman, who had been carrying a stick to knock cobwebs off the trail, broke the branch over the bear’s nose. The bear retaliated, wounding her severely before stalking away.
“I don’t think in any of these cases the bear was there to eat the person,” Garshelis says. “Each was a brief, sudden, close encounter. And the bear acted in a very strange way. Normally the bear would run.”
AS WE BRAVE THE WIND and hard pellets of snow outside the culvert, I can only hope Garshelis’s tranquilizer dart worked as expected so that we aren’t provoking an angry, drug-crazed bruin. “Let’s see how big he is,” Garshelis says, preparing to crawl back inside, this time with a rope. (“Isn’t that why you have graduate students?” I ask. “He’s the third student on this project,” Garshelis quips, nodding toward Kapfer.)
Moments later, the pair haul out the sedated bear and place it on a tarp. In the eastern United States, all black bears are black; in the Midwest and West, they are brown in color. This young, brown female looks to be about 2 years old, Garshelis guesses, and she’s a far cry from the largest black bear he has ever darted in Minnesota, a 500-pound terror. Garshelis and Kapfer have no trouble hoisting her on a scale: At 98 pounds, she’s not exactly the bear of my nightmares.
For two hours, Garshelis and Kapfer examine the bear. They measure her forelegs, her skull, her length. They pull a tooth, which they will later use to verify her age. They jab electrodes into her rump and attach clips to her upper lips to measure conductivity and ascertain her level of body fat—a key measure of overall health. (She’s thin, a sign that hibernation has taken its toll or that she didn’t find much food before she went to sleep.) They punch bright plastic identity tags in her ears.
Finally, the biologists wrap a $3,500 radio-GPS collar around the bear’s neck. Every four hours, the device will record the bear’s precise location, and a transmitter inside the collar will help Kapfer find the bear again. Next winter, he will retrieve the collar and download its data for a complete record of the bear’s wanderings. The research will help him generalize about how far black bears travel, what kinds of habitats they prefer, and how often they stray into areas occupied by humans.
Garshelis and Kapfer finish attaching the collar and drag the bear back into the culvert, repositioning her on the grassy bed. I peer in one last time at the little girl. She’s shivering and licking her chops—side effects of the tranquilizer, according to Garshelis. Still, I can’t help worrying that she won’t survive the winter, that she hasn’t got enough body fat to protect her from the bitter cold. When she wakes up, I think, she’ll be in a foul mood, considering her treatment at the hands of science. She’ll be hungry, too, I imagine. No matter: By then, I’ll be long gone.
Greg Breining wrote about morel mushrooms in the May issue of Minnesota Monthly.