BEAR WEEK: Black bear range expanding south in Minnesota

- Black bears are one of nature's more adaptable animals and hunger is most often their main motivator. Bears have the best sense of smell in the forest, which means a bear will range far and wide if food can be found.

Changing forests and the need for more space have pushed black bears from the north to farther south in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Bear research scientist Dave Garshelis has been following bears for more than 30 years and he has witnessed their migration.

“It's some dispersing animals as the population builds up a little bit,” Garshelis said. “We also have bears coming in from Wisconsin. Their population is actually growing faster than ours.”

Finding bears in our backyards in the Twin Cities metro and in the south is not uncommon today. Many are seen marauding birdfeeders or garbage cans.

Neighborhood bear encounters can be alarming, but you may need to get used to them. Minnesota now boasts a black bear population of around 12,000, and it’s continuing to grow.

Black bears now range in half of Minnesota. They're even been found with a growing population in the southeastern part of the state. And with a population that’s trending up, the black bear range in Minnesota could expand even further.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Andy Tri conducts regular bear population studies. He's finding that bear density in the traditional northern forests fluctuates with food availability. A bad berry or hazelnut year will force bears to look elsewhere for food, so they straggle into other areas and some never come back.

“We have a study area up here north of Grand Rapids of about 100 square miles and the bear population since the 80s has declined about 50 percent,” Tri said. “Density wise it's down about 25 percent since the 80s, which means larger home ranges.”

Black bears are opportunistic. They learn quickly how to adjust to their new home surroundings.  While they prefer their natural foods of berries, acorns, hazelnuts, roots, insects and some meat, a black bear will learn to love other things. In farm land, they’ll eat corn. In populated areas, bears will eat anything you or your pets will.

“They'll only come to places that they can find some food and part of the food is agricultural, so they'll follow strips of corn fields or something like that and they keep moving,” Garshelis said. “They actually follow each other. Bears leave a trail through the woods and a bear will follow another bear."

In the eyes of the Minnesota DNR, an expanding home range for black bears does not necessarily mean there are too many bears.

"We actually want more bears so we've backed off on the hunting pressure and we want the population to increase a bit,” Garshelis said.

So with that, don't be surprised if you're lucky enough to see one of Minnesota's most elusive forest animals a little farther from the northern forest than you might expect.

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