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Bear problems on rise in areas near Baudette, Detroit Lakes

GRAND FORKS - It's not happening everywhere - so far, at least - but nuisance bear complaints are on the rise in parts of northwest Minnesota, wildlife officials say.

Bear problems traditionally spike early in the spring when the animals come out of hibernation and again late in the summer as they begin fattening up for winter. Complaints are most prevalent when natural foods such as acorns and berries are in short supply, which is the case this year in northwest Minnesota.

With less natural food, bears turn to crops such as corn, oats and sunflowers or food supplies homeowners leave within easy reach.

That's when they get into trouble.

"We're getting a lot of nuisance complaints of bears getting into garbage or bird feeders or interacting with people," said Robert Gorecki, conservation officer for the state Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn. "Unfortunately, sometimes, that can be dangerous."

Problem areas

Gorecki said he's gotten eight nuisance bear complaints in the past week and a half, compared with maybe one a week in a normal year. Four of the bears were in farmers' fields, one raided a commercial beehive, two got into residents' bird feeders and another took a liking to a homeowner's trash can.

Most years, Gorecki said, yearling male bears cause the problems; not this year.

"This time, I'm getting everything," he said. "I've had some that are sows with cubs; I've had 200- to 300-pound males and then some of those yearlings. It's all kinds."

None of the bears acted aggressively, he said.

John Williams, assistant regional wildlife manager for the DNR in Bemidji, said he hasn't gotten widespread complaint reports from field staff yet, but the conditions are ripe for a busy time between now and Sept. 1, when bear season begins and the problems typically subside.

"I am bracing for a higher-than-normal complaint year, but so far, we're still in a normal pattern," Williams said. "But the food doesn't look good from what I've seen in a couple of places."

Karen Noyce, wildlife research specialist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., said early responses to a survey of wildlife managers across the state indicated more bears and more complaints than normal in the Detroit Lakes, Minn., area. But aside from Baudette, the rest of northwest Minnesota has been relatively quiet, she said.

Managers said berries and acorns are scarce, while hazelnuts are in better supply, Noyce said. There's no reason to expect a repeat of 1995, when the woods were barren of food and bear complaints skyrocketed, Noyce said.

"I'd say overall, it's a poorer-than-average year but nothing like the really bad years," she said.

Shooting bears

Gorecki said property owners have the right to kill problem bears as long as they're immediately reported to the DNR. This time of year, he said, the DNR also allows hunters with the proper licensing to go into an area with complaints and shoot bears before season.

He said hunters killed three of the bears raiding oat fields in the Baudette area. Aside from going afield early, the hunters have to abide by the same rules they would the rest of the season, Gorecki said.

"We've been pretty lucky that way as far as farmers being able to find licensed hunters," he said.

Gorecki said home or cabin owners can reduce or eliminate bear problems by taking down bird feeders or placing dog food, grills and garbage cans indoors for a few days.

"If you remove that temptation, they typically move on their own, and you don't have to shoot them," Gorecki said.

Minnesota has 15,000 to 20,000 bears, according to DNR estimates, down from a high of nearly 30,000 in the late 1990s.