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Don't feed the bear: Sheriff's office sees 'significant' increase in bear complaints recently

Natural food sources have been slim, so bears are finding alternatives provided by humans.

Black bear sightings have been on the rise in northeastern Minnesota in recent weeks, which has the sheriff's office reminding people to secure anything bears would want to eat. 

The Cook County Sheriff's Office said in a Facebook post Saturday that it has gotten a "significant amount" of calls involving bears in the past few weeks. Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen told BMTN they've received 21 calls about nuisance bears from all over the county so far this month. 

Last year during the same time, Eliasen said there were zero calls about nuisance bears. 

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has noticed an increase in complaints in the area this year, too. Andrew Tri, a wildlife research biologist with the DNR's bear research program, told BMTN the DNR's Two Harbors office had six bear-related calls in August and has had four so far this month. 

The increase in bear sightings is reflected in North Shore-related Facebook groups, with several people sharing videos and posts about bears in recent weeks, including a video of a bear wandering around a resort in Lutsen earlier this month.

Eliasen attributes the "increase in sightings and interactions" with bears to two main things: there are more visitors in the area "than ever" and there was a sub-standard berry crop, which has sent bears in search of food during a time when they're gearing up to hibernate.

DNR spokesperson Cheri Zeppelin agrees, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing a role in the increase of bear complaints this year.

"There are more people at home to see bears on their properties, there are more people recreating outdoors – many of whom are new to camping and perhaps not aware of their camping foods and trash being an attractant – and areas of natural food shortages for bears that do persist," Zeppelin told BMTN on Monday. 

The DNR warned in mid-August about a shortage of natural foods for bears causing more bear-human conflicts in northeastern and north-central Minnesota. Zeppelin said plants were damaged by frost or drought during critical flowering periods and won't re-bloom later to create more food for the bears. 

This sends bears gravitating toward non-natural food sources that are provided by humans outside their homes and cabins or at campsites. Black bears, which are the only bears in Minnesota, are typically shy and avoid people, but they can become "bolder" when their natural food sources are in short supply, the DNR said.

That's what's going on in northeastern Minnesota, where bears have started hyperphagia (when they eat 12,000-20,000 calories a day – that's about 6-7 pounds of sunflower seeds or 700-800 acorns – to prepare for winter hibernation) and natural food production has been poor, Tri said. 

Complaints about bears over the summer were related to them eating from the garbage and bird feeders, as well as complaints of bears at campsites, but those have dropped off, the DNR's Two Harbors office told BMTN. Now that fruit is ripening on the trees, bears are seeking out apples and other fruits, leading to complaints of bears hanging around yards and broken tree branches. 

"The bears are looking for anything to eat and once they discover a food source, they will keep returning," the sheriff's office Facebook post said. "It is senseless to put down an animal for doing what they’re programmed to do and that may happen if they become persistent."

The DNR says it doesn't relocate bears that continue to return to a food source because they still may return or become a problem somewhere else, but there's a misconception about how many bears the DNR kills. Zeppelin said the majority of bears killed for causing property damage are killed by private landowners, which is allowed under state law. 

Hide the food source

People can help prevent conflicts with bears by not attracting them in the first place.

To keep them away, people need to remove the food sources that attract them, like garbage, birdseed, fruit from trees, and food stored in coolers. The DNR advises the following to avoid attracting bears:

  • Store garbage in bear-resistant garbage cans or dumpsters, or keep trash cans in a secure building (not a screened porch) until the morning of pickup.
  • When camping, store food in a bear-resistant container or locked in a vehicle or camper. And bring your trash out when you leave.
  • Avoid feeding birds from April 1 to Nov. 15. If you do feed birds, hang birdfeeders 10 feet up and 4 feet out from the nearest trees. Use a rope and pulley system to refill bird feeders, and clean up spilled seeds daily.
  • Do not leave any food from barbeques or picnics outside, especially overnight or in a standard cooler (they're not bear-proof).
  • Pick fruit from your trees and collect any fallen fruit right away. If that's not possible, protect the trees with an energized fence.

"Please keep your garbage indoors if possible and above all else, do not interact with a wild animal," the Cook County Sheriff's Office urged over the weekend. The DNR also states people should not approach or try to pet any bears they see.

If bear problems persist after cleaning up the source of food, people are asked to call their DNR area wildlife office for advice – find their contact information here or call 651-296-6157.

Calls about bears will slow down soon

Complaints about bears will likely continue through the end of September and possibly into October, Tri said, noting they could increase in central Minnesota as corn enters the milk stage of production.

But overall, calls about bears will start slowing down soon as the animals switch to being more nocturnal, visiting people's yards while homeowners are asleep and not watching for wildlife.

It's also "shoulder season" for the tourism industry in some areas of northeastern Minnesota, so there are fewer people visiting, Tri said. This means there are fewer people to report bear issues and fewer people means fewer attractants for bears, further reducing human-bear conflicts.

Plus, natural food is more available now compared to the summer months. Acorns have started dropping or have dropped and other fall foods, like dogwood berries and highbush cranberries, are now ripe and ready to eat, so that may result in fewer complaints, Tri said.

It's also bear hunting season (Sept. 1 through mid-October), so bear baits are easily accessible sources of food for bears to eat instead of garbage, fruit and birdseed near people's homes. Plus, some hungry bears have been killed during the hunting season, with Tri saying the bear harvest is "up a lot this year" – about 2,200 bears have been killed already this season and the DNR anticipates 2,600 will be killed by the end of the season.

Speaking of hunting season, the DNR is asking hunters to avoid shooting the bears that are tagged or have radio collars. These research bears provide long-term data (when they're not hunted) on year-to-year changes in natural food supplies and how that affects an individual bear in terms of their habitat use, physical condition, denning, reproduction and interactions with people. 

Statewide bear complaints 

dnr bear complaints

Statewide, the number of bear calls the DNR has gotten is about the same as last year, Tri noted. DNR wildlife managers have received 474 bear complaints statewide this year. 

Over the past decade, the number of recorded bear complaints has slowly increased, peaking in 2015 and 2016 (in 2016, there were 753 calls to DNR wildlife managers about bears). The number of complaints declined in 2017 and 2018, when there was an abundance of natural food for bears all summer, the DNR's 2019 Status of Minnesota Black Bears report says. 

In 2019, there were more complaints about bears than the previous two years, which coincided with an average or below-average amount of food for bears, the report said.

In bad food years, less seasonal migration among bears (previously referred to as the "fall shuffle") is observed, Tri said.  

"This is counter-intuitive, but the bears seem to decide to stay and make a living off of what’s here, rather than spend a lot of calories to go elsewhere where the foods may be just as bad," Tri noted. 

The DNR's website has additional information about black bears in Minnesota, and it suggests visiting the website Bear Wise, which offers additional information on how to be smart around the animals.

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