Bears in the city a more common occurrence

The shooting of a black bear near downtown St. Paul this weekend has highlighted the challenges faced by local officials when responding to a complaint about a wild animal.

St. Paul police officers responded this weekend to two callers who said they saw a bear in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood. Police officers shot the bear Saturday evening, and the bear's body was removed by animal control officers.

The Department of Natural Resources told MPR News it supported the actions of police. DNR officials cited the potential dangers of a bear in an urban area — both to humans and to bears.

Susan Morse, founder of Keeping Track, a Vermont- based organization devoted to teaching wildlife monitoring skills, said it's becoming more common to see bears in urban areas.

Morse spoke with MPR's All Things Considered today. An edited transcript of that interview is below.

Tom Crann: So when a lot of people ask what's causing (the increase in bear sightings in urban areas), the number one reason is the bears are looking for food.

Susan Morse: Yes, and because ... in some cases their habitats have been pretty severely fragmented and so they're trying to wend their way through all of our infrastructure to find a place of their own.

Crann: What's your advice for people, someone, let's say, living in this very St. Paul neighborhood or others who see a bear who might not normally have ever seen one, and maybe they're spooked by that, so what's your advice for them?

Morse: Understandably people are frightened by bears, but it's really more the other way around. I mean bears are very frightened of us, typically wild bears are, anyway, and the fact that that bear was in a tree is its way of expressing that fear. Bears, black bears in particular, will seek the security habitat of tree crowns to get away from perceived enemies. And so that bear was clearly frightened and clearly at wits end about what to do, and of course, the officials destroyed it.

Crann: How dangerous is it for humans in that neighborhood to see a bear in a tree or otherwise in an urban setting?

Morse: Well, depending on how people respond, it could be very dangerous or not. I mean common sense would dictate that people would retreat from the area and get out of harm's way and let the bear come down from the tree and go off on his or her way.

Crann: Advice for people if they don't want to encounter a bear when it comes to, let's say, what they leave in their backyard for the winter?

Morse: If people want to minimize encounters with wildlife, they should really seek to keep these food attractants to an absolute minimum during the winter months — and for that matter during any time of the year. And if you see a bear while out walking in the woods or in the local park, just don't confront the bear. Don't challenge the bear. Don't interpret any of the bear's behaviors as a threat to you. Give that bear space. Let it turn. Let it run. Let it escape from you because we really frighten them more than you can imagine.

Crann: Should people call authorities when they see a bear in their neighborhood?

Morse: Absolutely. That's what they're there for. The Fish and Wildlife department, they're doing the best job that can be done, given their limited budgets and limited person power. I know we struggle with it here in New England. Every year our natural resource management agencies get less support, and yet we need more and more for them to do all these things, and so people need to be sympathetic to that, but definitely, every fish and wildlife (agency) across America, every fish and wildlife department has personnel on hand to respond to situations like this.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)

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