BEAR WEEK: Living with bears as their territory expands south

There are bears among us in places where, not so long ago, we never would have seen black bears in Minnesota.  

An expanding bear range means more of us are seeing and coming in contact with a creature that by nature is shy and elusive.

But it's food that drives a black bear. 

They're an adaptive and opportunistic forager, which means black bears are learning to tolerate humans especially if food can be found.

Animal experts say we too need to learn to tolerate the bear.

"It's that regular contact with bears that inspired the North American Bear Center to devote an entire exhibit to "Living and Camping with Black Bears.”

It could be argued that the man behind this exhibit, Dr. Lynn Rogers has been "living" with bears most of his life.

At the very least, he's certainly been as close to them as anyone in the country.

Educating the rest of us on how to relate to black bears has been a life-long mission of his.

Now with half the state considered normal bear range, including north and south of the Twin Cities, "city bears" are common.

Bird feeders are a regular attractant and once a bear finds them, they'll keep coming back.

So if you don't like seeing them, Rogers says the solution is simple.

“The only thing you can really do in the city is reduce the attractants,” said Rogers. “It's not that they want to be by people. It's all about hunger.”

The fact is black bears are ravenous eaters. The average bear consumes three to five pounds of food a day and that doubles in the fall when they're trying to fatten up for the winter.

While black bears will eat almost anything, they'd rather not.

“They prefer wild food actually, but some years there's not a lot of wild food,” said Rogers. “Especially here in the North Country where there's no acorns, only occasionally, a good hazelnut crop. You get a frost that kills the berries then the bears are into the campgrounds because they have no choice."

Anyone who has spent time camping in Minnesota's parks or the boundary waters, knows bears are frequent visitors and many have been educated.

"In many campsites, the bears are just making the rounds into those camps, so whether they have food or not, the bear might pay a visit,” said Rogers.

They will be looking for the food you planned to have on your outing.  So hang it, or put it in bear-proof containers. Even with that, you still might have a visitor.

Dr. Lynn says the best way to get rid of a bear is to run it out.

“If they see the person actually being aggressive, I've never seen in all my years a bear I could not chase away,” he said.

So whether it's your camp or backyard, black bears may find you. In that moment of truth, will you have enough bluster to scare them away? Dr. Rogers says a back-up plan is always good.

“If I'm talking about chasing a bear way, a lot of people don't dare do that because they grew up the same way I did - afraid of bears,” said Rogers. “If you carry a little can of "Halt" that you can carry in your vest pocket - bear spray, pepper spray - you're King of the Woods."

Maybe “King of the Woods” in that moment, but the real king will likely just move on looking for another meal.

Wildlife biologists say you should never provide food to bears. Once a black bear is conditioned to frequent a campsite or home looking for food, it's difficult to discourage them after that.

The best advice - remove the attractant and the bear will eventually move on.