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The bears go to town
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The bird feeder in Alison Clarke's Duluth yard is designed to snap shut if a bear tries to take seeds. She's done away with conventional feeders after repeatedly losing them to bears that live in the neighborhood. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Black bears have lumbered into Duluth looking for food ever since the city was founded. Now, bears have taken up residence inside the city. The Department of Natural Resources says about 10 bears live fulltime in town. And some of those bears are making people anxious. But there's disagreement over what to do.

Duluth, Minn. — Alison Clarke has big windows that look out on her backyard. There's a pair of binoculars on the dining room table, along with a list of birds she's seen in the yard. Actually, she has more than birds on her list.

"Let's see," she says, as she turns the pages of her wildlife log. "March 16 was the first observation of bears this year. Grabbed the neighbors' suet that was hanging out there. That was probably the 300-pound-or-so sized one."

Clarke records a new bear sighting every two or three days -- sometimes in the middle of the afternoon.

Out in her yard, she points to a bird feeder sitting on top of a wooden post.

"It's 8-and-a-half feet from the ground to the base of the feeder," she says. "The largest bear that we've known can reach with its claws and nose up to the base of that feeder."

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Image The bird feeder

This is the middle of town, but the yards are full of pine trees. Creeks wander all through the neighborhood on their way to Lake Superior, and they make great thoroughfares for bears.

Alison Clarke is on the lookout for bears. She keeps her garbage in the garage. The bird feeder is specially designed to be bear-proof. She doesn't leave her windows or her sliding door open unless she's nearby. But one time, she walked around the corner of her house and came face-to-face with a mother bear and her cubs.

"They're not going to eat me," she says, "but if I were to surprise one of them, it's a significant potential danger."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources put a trap in her yard a couple years ago, but they didn't catch anything. The bears are so wise to the ways of people that one of them would stick his head in the trap to check out the bait, but he never stepped into the cage.

So Alison Clarke wants the city of Duluth to get rid of the bears that live in town. That means killing them. The Department of Natural Resources says there's no place to relocate the bears. Minnesota's woods are full of bears, 20,000 or more. And besides, the DNR says bears come right back if you catch and release them.

Some people in the neighborhood want the bears removed. Some want the bears left alone. And some of them aren't sure.

"I'm conflicted," says Kirstin Peterson.

She's in her wooded backyard with her daughter, Kyra, 4. They don't come out in the backyard after dusk, and Kyra isn't allowed to play out here alone during the day.

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Image Kyra Peterson

"I don't know if I want the bears to be killed," Kirstin Peterson says, "just because we've entered their territory. Or I'm not sure if they've entered ours."

"Bears are scary," Kyra interrupts.

Kirstin Peterson smiles and shakes her head. She likes bears, she says. But there are limits.

"When it comes to threatening my child, I get to be a mother bear myself."

She wishes the city bears would simply go away. But that doesn't seem likely.

Martha Minchak is the DNR's wildlife manager in Duluth, and she says the bears are comfortable in the city. Minchak says the DNR will bring in professional trappers to catch bears that are persistent troublemakers, but that's a last resort.

"If we do have really chronic problems, where folks have tried everything else they can do to clean up the situation -- remove the bird feeders, gas grills, pet food, that kind of thing -- and the bears continue to come back, then we'll try to get the contract trappers out and try and remove some of these bears," says Minchak.

Last year in Duluth, a bear took a swipe at a 10-year old boy on a bike. Martha Minchak says people are lucky that no one's gotten hurt yet. She wants the city of Duluth to bring in sharpshooters, or have an archery hunt. But she says state and city budgets are so tight that nothing like that will happen this year.

City hall is getting phone calls about bears, but the city council has no plans to take any action.

Some bear activists from Minneapolis are planning a workshop in Duluth. They want to demonstrate guns that fire bean bags, and other non-lethal methods to chase bears away. Some cities in western states have used non-lethal techniques.

State wildlife managers say they'll go to the workshop, but their number one priority is to get people in Duluth to lock up their garbage and pet food, and quit tempting the bears.

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