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.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.