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More bears may lead to more hunting
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
July 26, 2001
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There are lots of bears in Minnesota. The Department of Natural Resources says the number of black bears in the state has quadrupled during the past two decades, and they say that might be too *many* bears. So beginning with next month's hunting season, the D-N-R is allowing hunters to take two bears with each license for the first time ever. Some animals rights groups, and some hunters say the state's estimate of the bear population is inflated. They disagree with the two-bear limit.

The black bear population continues to grow rapidly in Minnesota. The DNR estimates it at about 30,000 this year. When the bear hunting season begins in August, hunters will be permitted to take two bears with each license, for the first time ever.
(MPR Photo/Leif Enger)
THE DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCE EXPECTS ABOUT 20,000 HUNTERS will try to bag a bear this fall. Most of them will fail, but still wildlife managers at the DNR hope hunters will kill thousands more bears than they have in recent years. They calculate that it might take a bear kill of 7,000 each year just to hold the population steady.

"Bear numbers in the area have been creeping up, in the northeast, at about five or six percent a year, and I would guess our area is following that same trend. There are more and more of them every year," according to Chris Balzer, the assistant wildlife manager in the DNR's Cloquet office. He says it's fine to have 30,000 bears in northern Minnesota - when there's enough wild food. But sometimes there isn't. Every few years there's a skimpy crop of berries and acorns, and the bears' search for food brings them closer to people.

Chris Balzer takes phone calls from people who've encountered bears. He has a file drawer stuffed with reports of "nuisance bears." Usually the bears break open a bird feeder, or get into some dog food that was left outside.

"Our advice is always pretty much the same - remove the food sources. Either get them locked up in the garage, or take the bird feeders down, or whatever," Balzer says. "For the most part, if you remove the food - they're not there just to bug people - they're looking for food, so they go somewhere else."

Balzer isn't getting many calls this year. Most bears are staying in the woods. They had lots of tent caterpillars to eat early this summer, and the DNR isn't hearing many complaints about nuisance bears. It's been quiet like this for six years because bears have had plenty of natural food. But back in 1995 they didn't, and that year the DNR got 10 times as many phone calls about bears as it gets in a quiet year. The DNR's lead bear researcher, Dave Garshelis, says bears come right into town if they don't have food in the woods.

"You know, doing really bad things - breaking into people's houses, breaking into restaurants, jumping into taxi cabs, all these sorts of weird kinds of things. And on top of that, they do a heck of a lot of damage," says Garshelis.

There's no record of a black bear killing a person in Minnesota, and there haven't been many maulings - but Garshelis says the more close contact there is between bears and people, the greater the chances for a person to get bitten, or swiped. That's why he's concerned about the number of bears in the state. At the current rate, he says the population will double again in the next decade - up to 60,000 bears. And "bad food years" tend to come around every five years or so, which means we're overdue.

"It's inevitable that we will get a bad food year. And if we have 60,000 bears when we get this bad food year, it will be that much worse than it was in 1995 or 1990, when the population was much less," he says.

The DNR hopes hunters take some 7,000 bears in this fall's bear hunting season, just to keep the population stable. The season begins August 22.
(Image courtesy of

Bear hunting information
Minnesota DNR
Garshelis says the DNR has tried to level off the bear population for several years by boosting the number of bears killed by hunters, but it isn't working. Going by Garshelis's math, killing 7,000 bears this year would hold the population where it is, but that's almost twice as many bears as hunters have taken in recent years. By Garshelis's calculations, that means the populaiton is still growing. So the DNR is looking for ways to increase the bear kill. Last year, the agency extended the bear season by a week, with hopes that more hunters would get a bear.

"That didn't seem to work very well. We probably ended up with about 250 extra bears that were killed because of a whole extra week of hunting," he says.

Garshelis doesn't expect many hunters to actually kill two bears this fall. He says the two-bear limit is more a psychological ploy. The DNR figures many hunters see a small bear early in the season, but don't shoot it, because they're hoping to get a big, trophy bear. Usually they don't, and end up going home with none. With a two-bear limit, the DNR is guessing more hunters will shoot the first bear that comes to their bait, and then wait for the elusive trophy bear. Hunting guide Mike McQuade of Two Harbors says it's a good plan.

"It makes sense. We eat a lot of wild game, and if I had the opportunity to get two, and I wanted a big one, and I saw the smaller one first, I'd probably shoot that one," says McQuade.

The DNR did a bear census four years ago, and bases its population estimates on that count. Some hunting guides say the DNR is overestimating the bear population, and they're unhappy with the two-bear limit this hunting season.

In a strange political twist, those hunters agree with animal rights groups on this narrow issue. The director of the Twin Cities-based "Friends of Animals and Their Environment," Howard Goldman, says the two-bear limit is unwarranted. Goldman says people are more tolerant of bears than they used to be. He says people in northern Minnesota expect a certain amount of damage from bears, and there's no need to reduce the bear population.

"I don't think it necessarily means we have to significantly increase the take, which of course is what's being proposed - more bears being killed," says Goldman. "We think the population is being very well-managed as it is. We don't see any basis for the department to significantly increase the take."

But wildlife managers with the D-N-R do hope to significantly increase the take of bears this fall. Before the season opens, hunters can set up "bait stations." One hunting guide in northern Minnesota just bought 600 pounds of stale candy to use for bait, and he's getting ready to pick up a trailer full of old doughnuts. For two weeks in August, he and other hunters will set out bait, trying to attract bears. Beginning on August 22, the hunters will hide near these bait stations with their rifles or bows, and wait for bears to come in. DNR officials hope that a third of the hunters are successful, which would mean a harvest of 7,000 bears. DNR reseaerchers are planning a new bear count next year, which should show if their current population estimates are accurate.

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