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The Attraction of "Boo-Boo"
By Leif Enger
July 28, 1999
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The black bear is hot. Just ask the Minnesota Science Museum, current venue of "Bears", the most popular traveling exhibit it's ever hosted. And just ask the Department of Natural Resources, which in recent years has dealt with record numbers of bear sightings and nuisance reports. In fact, as the bear population continues to rise, wildlife managers are asking themselves if they're still in control of these usually-reclusive animals.

At last count, Minnesota was home to 27,000 thousand bears. Hunters here now take more bear than in any other state; yet the DNR keeps revising its maximum population goal upward, and the bears keep barging past it.
Photo: Leif Enger
IN THE 1970s,
bear hunting got so popular the DNR thought it had another timber wolf on its hands: a large reclusive mammal being driven, if not to extinction, at least to scarcity. So in 1982, with about 8,000 bears left, state wildlife managers decided to reduced the number of hunting permits.

If they could've peeked ahead to 1999, they might've done the opposite.
Garshelis: We'd have to harvest about 6,000 just to stabilize the population now.
DNR bear biologist Dave Garshelis has watched the animal's stunning resurgence. Like timber wolves, bears have expanded their range south and west into cornfield country, and occasionally into suburban trashcan country. Minnesota bears also have bigger-than-average families; three cubs is normal here. But Garshelis says at the heart of the bear revival is a change in humans.
Garshelis: It used to be a bear was a varmint, and if there was a bear around, you'd just kill it and no questions asked. People don't feel comfortable with that anymore. Most people will call the DNR and ask for advice. And even if the advice is, "maybe you have to kill it," most people don't want to do that. That mentality has changed in the last 20 to 30 years.

It's not like the bear ever had the ruinous PR wolves once endured. Bears - both powerful and clownish - have been stumping around in American popular culture since America got a popular culture.
In fact, bears have been seen as cuddly since long before Teddy Roosevelt's mercy to a hunted cub gave us the world's reigning currency of comfort. Garshelis says even as research yields new insights into the bruin mind, part of the intrigue of bears may be traced to mythology thousands of years old.
Garshelis: They do have this appearance, they have five fingers and five toes. When they stand up they're about our height. In particular when you take the skin off a bear, it really does look like a person. There's all this folklore about going down into dens with bears, and marrying bears, and living in this underground bear world, and going between the human world and the bear world.
Lutter: Lately it's been the dopey-looking bears. He used to do more serious bears, like this redwood piece, but just lately these whimsical bears have taken off.
Clover Lutter shows off dozens of lifesize chainsaw sculptures in the yard of her dad's business, on the tourist strip north of Brainerd. Her dad, A.J. Lutter, was 1988s national chainsaw-carving champion. The sculptures in the yard? Ninety percent bears.

MPR: What is it about bears that's so appealing?

Lutter: I don't know. I think it's like having a big dog. If you go walking a big dog, you get more looks and you feel better. It's having something big and powerful. But these bears also have dopey looks on their faces, so its like having something big and powerful but also friendly. Kind of like my dad. By the late '80s, the DNR was no longer worried about black bears. In fact they wanted to level them off a little; say at about 10,000 - which is, coincidentally, about as many as A.J. Lutter has carved.

The nearest you'll get to marrying a bear these days is a visit to the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary. From the Twin Cities, drive north to Virginia, then Cook. Fill with gas, then drive north some more. The first person you'll see at the sanctuary is intern Jason Pautz. One of his jobs is to protect cars in the gravel parking lot from playful bears, which explains the bucket he's carrying.
Pautz: Sometimes bears see cars as, like, their toys. Bears like to be on top of things, get other perspectives, you know? What we do is put out a bucket of scat, which, you know, other bears don't like. It works as a good bear deterrent.
Klari Lea, a co-founder with her husband of the American Bear Association. The organization's web site is at
Photo: Leif Enger
The Shute Sanctuary is a peculiar hybrid of nature park and zoo. It's a clearing in the woods 200 yards in diameter with a few RVs for the volunteers and dozens of stumps where food is laid out for the bears. There are far more bears than volunteers.
Lea: First thing: never let your guard down. Don't get the idea these bears are tame.
Klari Lea, a co-founder with her husband of the American Bear Association issues safety tips to a visitor.
Lea: Should one approach you, what you should do is put your arms up. Make yourself look bigger. Talk firmly and softly. Move back.
The sanctuary's founder, Vince Shute, was a logger whose camp boasted such tempting food it was persistently raided by black bears. By 1952, Shute had shot so many bears he was beginning to feel regret, so he put away his rifle and started putting out donuts. A few years ago, he turned over the sanctuary to the association, which has continued, against convention, to feed the bears.
Lea: We do not endorse feeding bears, where the bears associate food with people. So you're asking yourself, why are we feeding? Well, it's because there's a 50-year history of feeding at this place.
The defense of bear-feeding tops Clarice Lea's talking points, whether alone with a reporter or with a crowd of 50 on the sanctuary's viewing platform. But few of the sanctuary's 20,000 annual visitors are bothered by the practice; in fact, many bring scraps or bags of dog food to help out.

Below the platform, a dozen bears wander the clearing as if no one were watching. Most are black, a few are cinnamon or chocolate. A heavy, brown bear known as "Carl" has curled up with a stash of shell peanuts brought by a visitor.

At last count, Minnesota was home to 27,000 thousand bears. Hunters here now take more bear than in any other state; yet the DNR keeps revising its maximum population goal upward, and the bears keep barging past it.

Biologist Dave Garshelis says - for better or worse - black bears have outgrown efforts to control them.
Garshelis: There's a point where your government DNR can't be responsible for handling this population. It's like, "Well, we tried. But it's just not possible." Maybe we shouldn't be looking to the DNR to manage something like this, this closely.