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Save a bear: be "Bear Aware"

Young cub with his mother look up at noise in forest
There is a robust black bear population in this area. They usually avoid humans unless there are smells that lure them to a food source at a campground or residence. Then they may become habituated to the location as a food source and need to be removed. It’s a human problem, not a bear problem, ” Kristi Coughlon of the DNR said.
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Following some simple guidelines can save a bear’s life.

Kristi Coughlon is the northwest region information officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). She said that when campers are careless and leave food that attracts bears, they will often keep coming back.

In some cases, they may be able to relocate bears, but in others they are dispatched.

“When relocation is not an option, bears may need to be dispatched (killed) to protect humans in public areas,” she said. “It is not the preferred action of the department but bears need to be dispatched when it becomes a public safety issue. A decision is made based on resources and information available at the time. Human safety is paramount, so when bears become a public safety threat we dispatch them. No one at the DNR enjoys having to dispatch bears. If there are cubs, we try to send them to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.”

Bear issues at Itasca

Itasca State Park staff provide campers with information about what to do to decrease the likelihood of bears coming around, but that advice isn’t always followed.

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When food and other enticing smells are around, bears will naturally come to investigate. When that happens repeatedly, they may come to view the campground as a food source. That’s what has happened at Itasca State Park.

Park staff contacted the DNR for help addressing the problems of bears becoming regular campground visitors. Coughlin said that Itasca has always been a bear habitat.

“Staff at the park are doing their best to alert folks about the situation,” she said. “Over the past month, there has been more bear activity in the park. We have a healthy bear population. Food is attracting them to interact with people more, lose a bit of their fear and become conditioned to the campground as a food source. Unfortunately, not all of the campers have followed proper camping practices and where garbage and food available to them it's an easy meal.”

Coughlin said that over the weekend of June 25-26 a sow and cub were trapped and relocated to an area outside Itasca.

It’s a human problem

Couglin said removing bears doesn’t resolve underlying issues that attracted them to the location in the first place.

A bullet riddled yellow you are in bear country warning sign
There is a robust population of black bears in Minnesota. By following the rules, humans can reduce the risk of bears becoming habituated to humans as a source of food.
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“Our preferred action is to eliminate the food source,” she said. “Without those attractants, bears won’t become problem bears because they have become habituated to humans. It’s a human problem, not a bear problem.”

Coughlin said while bears are usually not aggressive towards humans, if they are in situations where they are in close proximity to people they could become defensive.

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“Bears prefer not to be around people, but when they get used to going to a place where people are for a food source that’s when we start to have situations,” she said.

Remove food sources

Coughlin said staff at Itasca State Park have been encouraging campers to do their part. “They’ve been reaching out with information on camp safety and food storage practices and tips on how to respond to any encounter with bears in the park,” she said. “Normally, bears aren’t inherently dangerous, but if they become habituated and a situation arises where they become not afraid of humans and are in close proximity to humans, that is a human safety issue and it becomes paramount that the situation is handled,” she said.

“If we move a bear to an area they are unfamiliar with and they are used to finding food at bird feeders and campsites, that's what they will return to. They have learned the behavior of identifying human food sources and cubs can learn that behavior by coming with the sow.”

070922.N.PRE.BearsDumpsters.jpg
Unsecured dumpsters or garbage cans are an invitation to come for a free meal.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

In the spring of 2021 a late frost that killed much of the blueberry crop was followed by a drought lasting into fall. That meant bears had fewer food sources available in the wild and may be trying to make up those calories now.”

Keep scents out of tents

Bears have a very sensitive sense of smell.

Coughlin said grills that aren’t cleaned thoroughly, clothing that has been worn while cooking on the grill, food remnants on picnic tables, unsecured garbage, snack foods and scented beauty products can all attract a bear into a campground.

“It’s natural for a bear to smell a food source and come to check it out whether it is a natural source or a human source,” she said. “Bears eat lots of things: acorns, chokecherries, blueberries. If those natural sources aren’t available they will seek out other sources of food and that’s when they can get in trouble. They’re just looking to put on those calories before they enter winter and hibernate.”

Black bears live in the forests throughout this area and normally avoid people. But when humans leave out food sources with enticing odors, such as bird feeders, unsecured garbage cans or remnants of campfire cooking and picnics, bears will come. When they come repeatedly to the same location and find food they can become used to humans and select that location as a regular dining spot.

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Some other tips Coughlin shared are keeping grills at residences inside a garage once done cooking and burning off as much food as possible, then cleaning the grill thoroughly with a brush.

Coughlin said taking all the recommended precautions will eventually eliminate the attraction of the campground or residence where bears are coming.

“The goal is that bears learn there is no food source available here any more and move along,” she said.

This year’s late spring means berries are later in ripening, another factor that could lead bears to travel farther in search of food.

Living in bear country

Coughlin said people living and camping in bear country have additional responsibilities and should take every precaution available to prevent bears from coming to the location. That means removing feeders, keeping pet food in secure containers and securing garbage where it is inaccessible to bears in a garage or other sturdy building.

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When bird feeders are readily available, bears will quickly become habituated to making a residence a meal source.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

“There are a lot more people living in bear country now,” she said. “Your actions can directly affect bear behaviors. If the mother is coming around homes for food the cubs may do it as well when they go out on their own looking for food. That’s why we try to emphasize how human actions directly affect the behavior of bears.”

Coughlin said when going out, especially at night, it is good to make some noise to let bears know you are around. “Announce to whatever out there that you are a human and you’re coming outside,” she said. Motion activated lights are another option. “When hiking in the woods you want to let bears know that you are coming by making noise too,” she said. “You announce yourself and they move off. You might not even know they are around.”

Other resources

Minnesota is Bear Country, and coexistence is not difficult. It just means everyone has to do their part to keep a clean camp and keep bears wild. For resources on how to coexist and live responsibly with bears, more information is available at bearwise.org or the website ( https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/bears/index.html ).

Other links with information about bears are listed below:

http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/assistance/backyard/privatelandhabitat/bear_country.pdf

http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/bears/homes.html

http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/blackbear.html

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Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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