Black bears at the bird feeder: Why conditions in Minnesota are ripe for more bear-human conflicts

A one-two punch of a May frost and dry spell could lead to a natural food shortage.

SHAYMUS MCLAUGHLIN

JUN 15, 2021

Read through any of the Minnesota DNR's conservation officer reports from the past few weeks, and you'll spot a common refrain: "Nuisance bear."

These are calls and complaints from people who find the state's sole bear species, the black bear, rummaging through their garbage, ravaging their bird feeders or generally poking their noses in places people don't really want them.

While the number of nuisance bear reports so far in 2021 are about the same as last year, biologist Andrew Tri said a challenging stretch of weather has impacted bears' normal food sources.

"If this drought weather continues, it's just going to cause bears to get hungrier," Tri, bear project leader with the Minnesota DNR, told Bring Me The News, "meaning they're more likely to find those human-provided food sources."

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So what, exactly, is happening? There are two significant factors, both related to abnormal weather events.

At this time of year, bears are consuming clover, grasses, wetland plants, and insect brood (ants, larvae, etc.), Tri explained, biding their time until berries begin to ripen in late June and early July. But the dry conditions, which have impacted much of the state, means there's been "less overall green-up, less availability of those foods."

Because of this, black bears – coming out of their den in search of sustenance – "would have increased their reliance on other food sources." Think birdseed, trash or uncleaned grills, all of which are examples of "unsecured attractants."

A second punch might be coming this summer. A chilly frost in late May hit right when blueberry plants were flowering, killing the flowers and potentially impacting berry production this summer, particularly in patches throughout the Northland.

Other berries bears will happily "gorge on" – Wild Sarsaparilla in late June, then raspberries blueberries, followed by blackberries and serviceberries – could also suffer due to the ongoing lack of rain.

"In general, if one food fails, they'll be fine and be able to make do with others," Tri said. "But if there are many foods that fail, that's when we get into trouble."

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This combination of the late May killing frost and the subsequent drought means bears are more likely to scrounge for alternate food sources, nutrition that humans leave out like an inadvertent attractant.

This, in turn, increases the chances for human-bear conflicts, as it did last summer – and Tri noted he hates to see a "nuisance" bear shot and killed simply because it was looking for a bite to eat.

Tri stressed the importance of prevention, noting it's much easier, in the long run, if people take small steps to secure attractants - take down bird feeders overnight, don't leave garbage out, etc. - than it is to resolve the issue after it starts occurring. "If people aren’t careful and secure their attractants before a bear finds them, then a bear gets a 'food-reward' and knows that this house or cabin had some tasty treats and will keep coming back until the food source is gone."

This is particularly important for people spending time at a cabin up north any time soon - especially those who are doing so for the first time after a long pandemic lockdown. They may not be used to coexisting alongside black bears, and should familiarize themselves with how to prevent bear conflicts.

Especially in the weeks and months ahead, when their natural food sources may be severely lacking.

"You certainly can’t fault a bear for being a bear," Tri said. "They are smart critters who have evolved to capitalize on patches of calorie-rich food on the landscape."