With food scarce amid drought, bear sightings on the rise in Minnesota

A black bear climbs a tree in downtown Duluth on May 6, 2015.
A black bear climbs a tree in downtown Duluth on May 6, 2015.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News 2015

This time of year, Minnesota’s black bears are looking to load up on calories — as many as 10,000 to 15,000 a day — to prepare for winter hibernation. 

They start to feed nocturnally and for longer periods of time on nutrition-rich acorns, hazelnuts and berries. 

But due to the drought encompassing much of Minnesota this year, those food sources are harder to find. Bear sightings have been common across Minnesota, as the opportunistic creatures take advantage of backyard bird feeders and other readily available food sources.

“There have been a lot of anecdotal reports of bears all over the place this year,” said Andy Tri, acting bear project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In some parts of northeastern Minnesota, it’s actually the second dry year, Tri said.

“So the bears went to bed for the winter hungrier than they normally would be,” he said. “And then this year, we've had this awful drought and killing frost in May, and so natural food production is also poor.”

A scarcity of natural food sources tends to cause more interactions between bears and humans — and more frequent conflicts, as bears look for other accessible meals in people’s yards.

However, Tri said after two years of a higher-than-usual volume of calls about nuisance bears, the DNR hasn't experienced a significant uptick in calls this year.

He thinks people may be getting the message that they need to eliminate or secure food sources that attract bears, such as bird feeders, trash, compost bins and pet food. 

He suggested keeping trash cans in a locked garage or shed, and securing bird feeders with an electric fence — or refraining from feeding birds until winter, when bears are hibernating.

The DNR no longer regularly traps and moves nuisance bears. Tri said that practice doesn't solve the underlying problem, and it’s likely that other bears will be attracted to the food sources until they’re removed.

The state’s bear population has remained stable for nearly a decade at between 12,000 and 15,000 statewide, Tri said. However, their range is expanding, especially into the northern Twin Cities suburbs, he said.

“So people who grew up there and didn't grow up seeing bears are now seeing bears regularly,” Tri said.

With more people working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the growing popularity of doorbell security cameras, people also might be noticing for the first time bears that have been around for a while, Tri said.

“One of the questions that a lot of our area (wildlife) managers will ask when (people) say, ‘I've never had bears before my yard,’ is, ‘Have you put up a security system recently?’” he said. “Oftentimes, the answer is yes.”

People’s attitudes toward bears have shifted since the 1970s, when Minnesota offered a bounty for killing one. Tri said most people have favorable opinions of bears as long as they’re not causing property damage.

Spotting a bear in the wild for the first time can be startling, as evidenced by a recent viral video shared by WCCO-TV of two teens fleeing from a bear outside their Centerville home.

But Tri said while it’s important to be respectful of bears, there’s no need to fear them. He advises making sure the bear has a clear path to leave the yard, then watching it from inside the house.

“Yes, it can be an intimidating experience your first couple times seeing a bear in the yard,” he said. “But in general, just take a moment to appreciate it. And then just make sure to give bears their space, because they're wild animals.”

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