The number of black bears in Minnesota is growing, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife managers say there might be too many bears in the state. But there haven't been many phone calls about nuisance bears this year. There was plenty of natural food in the woods, so not many bears are raiding garbage cans and bird feeders. Except in Duluth.
Biologists believe some bears now live full-time in the city of Duluth. And these bears are persistent pests -- even when there's plenty of wild food. The D-N-R is asking the city to consider a special bear hunt next fall -- inside the city limits.
Jack Birk lives on the east side of Duluth. The house is right in the city. It's miles from the edge of town. But a little stream cuts through the yard. The stream is lined with trees. It's a ribbon of north woods winding right through the backyards of the neighborhood. Duluth has dozens of creeks and rivers like this. They're wildlife highways that bring animals into the heart of town. Jack Birk can watch wild animals out his picture window. But sometimes, the animals watch him.
"You can see the bear tracks here on the window where he's put his muddy paws here on the glass on the window here," Birk says. "He's a big bear. And there are several others, I'm sure. I was talking with another friend who lives a few blocks away from here, and he at one time saw five bears in one tree -- two adults and three cubs. So, they're all around here."
Jack Birk has lived here for 30 years. He says there have always been bears passing through the neighborhood. He learned years ago to keep his garbage cans in the garage. And he brings his bird feeders in at night. But in the past few years, the bears have gotten bolder. Biologists with the Department of Natural Resources like Martha Minchak say some of them are now city bears.
"These are bears that are living in town, probably were produced in town, have denned up in town, and we have a resident bear population," she says.
Minchak, a DNR wildlife manager in Duluth, says there could be a couple dozen bears living in the city. These bears grew up eating out of bird feeders and trash cans, and they're weirdly calm around humans.
Minchak says black bears are usually afraid of people and dogs, but these city bears aren't. She's getting a hundred phone calls a year from people who've had run-ins with bears.
"A young boy was riding his bike in town and almost ran into the bear, and the bear turned and swatted at the bike," Minchak says. "People are coming home, and a bear will come around the corner of the house, or out of the shrubbery or the trees, and kind of short-stop them between them and their house. Some of the other things that we hear from the mail carriers and the paper carriers is that these bears will follow them around on their routes. So, they're really starting to show signs that are worrisome because they're not acting like wild bears."
No one's gotten hurt yet, but some people have gotten scared. Martha Minchak says she doesn't want to be an alarmist, but she thinks these urban bears are a public safety problem.
"We can't believe that actually we haven't had something more serious happen before now," she says. "With the number of bears, with their activity levels, the time of day that they're out - which is all times of night and day it seems like. So we're looking at trying to avoid further problems, accidents, close calls like the boy on the bike, that kind of thing."
Martha Minchak says the citified bears won't ever return to the wild. So the D-N-R wants the city to come up with a plan to get rid of the urban bears. Minchak says the DNR will recommend three possible plans. The city could allow a bow-and-arrow hunting season for bears. The city of Superior Wisconsin does the same thing with deer. Or, Minchak says, Duluth could hire sharpshooters. Or, the city could hire a professional trapper.
The city council and the mayor say they're willing to meet with the DNR to talk about the possibilities. That meeting will happen sometime this winter.
In the meantime, the DNR wants more people in Duluth to keep their garbage cans inside. That might keep more bears from moving into town. In Juneau Alaska, the police have started writing tickets for people who leave their garbage cans outside. The fines start at $50.
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