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THE BLACK BEARS ARE ALRIGHT

July 3, 2024

Erik Ness


This is a story about bears and people, but not those bears and not those people.


Because while the Internet mainstream has exploded into chaotic threads of man/bear threat assessment, a much smaller — but equally animated — bear discourse was rumbling among people who obsess about camping and paddling in the wilderness of the Upper Midwest.


On April 19 the Superior National Forest in Minnesota announced that its recommended food storage techniques — proper hanging or “an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certified bear resistant container” — were now mandatory. Violators risk up to a $5,000 fine.


The Superior National Forest is home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a rugged and lake-strewn landscape and the most popular destination in the U.S. for wilderness travel by canoe. Major policy changes here usually excite a fierce online cadre of canoe trippers. They often disagree with the Forest Service, and sometimes also with each other. Many don’t like being asked to change their behavior. A classic genre of comment often runs like this: “Been visiting all my life and never had a problem. I’m going to keep doing it the way I learned from Grampa.”


Among the most grievously opposed was canoe guru Cliff Jacobson, who posted “This is war!” on a popular BWCA forum on Facebook. I’d never presume to tell Jacobson what to do on a canoe trip — he’s probably forgotten more on the subject than most people will ever know. But Jacobson is an outlier, with decades of experience and a rational argument for his way. (You can read that perspective here.)


Bears are not hypothetical in canoe country. In Minnesota, before closer record-keeping began in 1983, there were only 2 instances of bears making physical contact with humans: one in the 1930s and one in 1965. In 1987, the state’s first recorded bear attack in the modern era of bear management happened in the BWCA.


Attacks elicit a flurry of concern, but actually seeing a bear in wilderness like the BWCA is quite uncommon. And statistically speaking, black bear attacks remain relatively rare across their range.


There are few charismatic megafauna in North America that are quite so large, so determined, so clever, and so strong. But beyond this bears are also a dynamic part of the landscape. The new food storage order is partially a response to last year’s “banner year for natural bear forage” in Minnesota. Many sows with cubs have been seen prowling for forage while they wait for the beginning of berry season in July.


But it’s also about managing people. The forest has gotten many more visitors since COVID, including a lot of back-country rookies. People who either don’t understand or don’t care about the leave-no-trace rules have inflicted a record amount of damage. Last year the Forest Service reduced available permits as a partial remedy. Bear-human conflicts are another side of this coin. Human behavior plus the abundance of hungry bear family units led to the new storage order.


It’s an evolving story, too. As marvels of adaptation, the American black bear already outnumbers all other bears on the planet, combined. And it’s a probable winner in a warming climate. If you want to understand bears in the BWCA, it’s worth looking at the trajectories of change on the Minnesota landscape and how bears reflect that change.

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“You can find them from the edge of the tundra all the way into Central Mexico,” says Andrew Tri, Bear Project Leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). “Think about all the changes and habitats that they can handle with all of that range change there.” 



A montage of screenshot arguments about the new food storage arguments, from Facebook.


CHANGES IN THE FOREST


Minnesota is a great place to ask if the bears are all right because of hunting. Bear hunting raises its share of ethical questions, particularly around baiting (legal in Minnesota) and the use of dogs (not legal). We’re going to (mostly) skip over those issues to focus on the rise and fall of the bear population over the last few decades.


Because bears are managed by hunting, the state studies them closely to unravel the ups and downs of their numbers. “For licenses, we need relatively consistent monitoring of the population to be able to allot quotas,” explains Tri, who oversees MDNR’s ongoing research, which is now in its fifth decade.


Long considered a varmint species, black bears were hunted for bounty in Minnesota until 1965. Elevated to a big game species in 1971, the population was healthy by the early 1980s. By the late 1990s there were estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000 bears. Conflicts and relocations were high. DNR office lore claims two relocation teams once passed each other on the highway, each preparing to drop a problem bear in the others’ territory.


The population was growing so fast that state biologists worried that they might lose the ability to manage the population by hunting. Permits were increased, dropping the population back down to between 10,000 to 12,000 by around 2010. 


“We basically doubled and halved their population — and again — in a 30 year period,” says Tri. Now the bear population stands between about 14,000 and 18,000, and is slowly increasing.


The bear project has focused on 4 areas of the state. Over the decades nearly 400 bears have been collared — first with standard radio collars, and now with satellite GPS capability. Newer models even have a GoPro, allowing close monitoring of what the bears are eating.



Bear range in Minnesota, the BWCA, and the four areas where bears are collared for intensive study. (Map adapted from MDNR source.)


The basic bear is fundamentally motivated by food. They must put on enough weight to survive the winter, and that focused eating — called hyperphagia — happens in just 15 weeks. In Minnesota, berries don’t show up until around the Fourth of July. By Halloween the berries are gone or dried, and all that’s left in nature’s cupboard is a few remaining acorns.


Food also drives reproductive rates. In the Southeast, bears sometimes breed as yearlings, giving birth in their second year. That’s never been recorded in Minnesota. But in the more agricultural part of their range, nearly half of the collared females have had surviving litters at three. A small percentage of bears in the Chippewa National Forest, around 5%, breed at two years and give birth at three. 


Reproductive age climbs as you travel north. In the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park, bears don’t reproduce until at least six years. Moving even farther north into the boreal forest of Canada, females have cubs at seven or eight years. The scrappy thin soils of Canadian Shield bedrock are less productive than the patchwork of oak forests and agriculture, and bear biology in Minnesota reflects that.


Between food motivation and breeding, it makes sense to look at food on the landscape for a better understanding of bear biology. Perhaps no one has done that more thoroughly than the MDNR in a multi-year project that looked at changes in the landscape over 30 years. An analysis led by Nongame Wildlife Specialist Spencer Rettler documented a significant reduction in natural food availability in this forested landscape.


In the Chippewa National Forest of north central Minnesota, baseline research from the 1980s identified a dozen major food sources. As forestry practices changed and stands matured, some of these food species declined — notably sarsaparilla and raspberry. Fruit production significantly declined for 10 of 18 monitored species. Biomass of the fruit production dropped as well.



MDNR biologist Spencer Rettler kneeling in a forest clearing and tracking bear food sources. (Photo courtesy Andrew Tri, MDNR.)

This is what scientist call a patchy landscape, so the changes weren’t uniform. Raspberry and blackberry declined in pine plantations, while chokecherry declined in lowland aspen. Beaked hazel and sarsaparilla biomass fell in most forest types.


The most likely causes were landscape-level changes in forest management practices and climate change. The team identified other possible factors, including invasive earthworms — they harm the mycorrhizal communities that many berry species benefit from — and deer overpopulation. It’s a little like death by a thousand cuts.


Overall the work documented an approximately 70% decline in natural food available for bears over the course of three decades. There are still places with good berry production scattered across the landscape. But they are fewer and farther between than 35 years ago.


“We knew there was less food, but we weren’t expecting how little food there is,” says Tri, a co-author on the analysis. But here’s where things get a little crazy: while the study documented a population decline (probably due to over-harvesting) overall the bears were doing fine.


A major measure of this adaptation is changing home ranges. Male bears in the 2010s ranged over an area approximately twice the size of their forbears in the 1980s. Over the same period, female home ranges tripled in size.


The implication is clear: bears were putting their ambulatory nature and their extra-sensory nose to work. “They seem to still be able to find those concentrated food patches on the landscape,” says Tri.


“Spencer’s work threw a monkey wrench into our understanding of what we thought was going on. We expected the bears to be in poorer body condition and delaying their reproductive age, but that hasn’t occurred,” says Tri.


“We weren’t really expecting that bears are doing just fine.” 



Natural bear foods, clockwise: acorns, blueberries, beaked hazelnut, serviceberries. (Photo courtesy Andrew Tri, MDNR.)

A MOVEABLE  FEAST


The MDNR does not keep close tabs on bears of the Boundary Waters. It’s difficult terrain to work in, and wilderness rules restrict mechanized travel. Bear traps are tough things to portage.


But we certainly know that bears leave the National Forest. Lynn Rogers, who led the first generation of bear research in the region, found some bears moved all the way from Thunder Bay, Ontario to near Duluth. Bears collared by MDNR in Voyagers National Park have traveled well over 100 miles to a playground behind a Grand Rapids middle school. Hunting is not allowed on two of the MDNR study areas — Camp Ripley, a Minnesota National Guard facility, and Voyageurs National Park — yet hunting is still the leading cause of death for bears collared in those areas. 


Bears move for food. In the fall, many head south to access the acorns dropped by oak forests. There’s currently a lot of oak forest in Minnesota in the 80-100 year range, in the prime of acorn producing years. That’s good for bears today.


The future is more uncertain. Many predictions show expanding oak range due to climate change, and this could expand food sources for bears.


But other ecological factors may limit oak success. Oaks benefit from fire, but humans suppress fire. Oak also gets out-competed by maple, which further shifts the forest away from burning. Overall there’s a huge dearth of oak regeneration in more recent forest regrowth. 


“It takes at least 50 years for acorns to peak, so there’s going to be a time lag for sure,” says Tri. “It depends how fast the climate warms and how fast the habitat shifts. In general, bears will be fine. They’re super adaptable to whatever they find.”



TRAIL MIX, COOKIE DOUGH, & GUMMY BEARS (OH MY!)


The other wildcard on the black bear tasting table is bait.


Minnesota allows hunters to bait bear: high quality food is strategically stashed by the barrel-full in rural redoubts. It draws the bears in and, some would argue, allows for better shots. (A quick kill is one measure of a humane kill.)


But it’s also clear that bait is probably serving as an alternative food source in the fall for those bears that dodge a bullet. “That’s probably muted some of these changes that we’re seeing on the landscape,” says Tri. “When it’s a bad food year, filling up at a bait station can be the difference in carrying off pregnancy. That’s our leading hypothesis.”


Bear-human conflicts drop precipitously during bait season. And the quality of the bait has certainly increased over the last 20 years. Hunters now put out barrels of trail mix, nuts, gummy bears, even cookie dough. It’s a dream menu for a bear in calorie-seeking hyperphagia. 


Tri keeps beating the food drum: With rare exception, almost all human bear conflicts are about food. “Most of the ecology, the movements, the reproduction, the survival, it’s all driven by that food drive,” says Tri.


If you’re a camper — particularly a modern-day voyager paddling the lakes of the Upper Midwest — is there a connection between bear baiting and the Superior National Forest food storage order? First, to clarify, while bear hunting is allowed in the BWCA, baiting is not.


It’s probably not ecologically relevant, but it’s still eye-opening to realize that some of the high-calorie food beloved for camping is also being used by bear hunters for bait. 


I’ll probably never look quite the same way at my GORP bag. But maybe that’s the lesson? As curmudgeonly endearing as those cranky canoeists may be, it’s also foolishly sentimental to not adapt to change. Visitor behavior has clearly shifted. The landscape is changing too. Of course animals will respond. It would only be surprising if they didn’t.


“We’ll never reach a point where there’s no human bear conflict,” says Tri.“It’s just a natural byproduct of a healthy and resilient bear population.”


Right now, he’s curious what’s going to happen this season. Last year, despite drought, oak trees produced epic bumper crops. This masting event encompassed the Upper Midwest and beyond. “I’ve never seen so many acorns in my life,” says Tri. “Just ridiculous levels of food.”


Since the bear project began, Minnesota has never had three good food years in a row. “I would have said it’s going to be bad,” he says of this year. “But I also didn’t expect the winter that didn’t happen.” 


Now his fingers are crossed for at least an average food year: “The goal is to keep bears wild and doing their wild thing, let people enjoy the forest, the lakes and the Boundary Waters, and keep those conflicts down.”


FOR MORE INFORMATION


Check out BearWise for more information about safely co-existing with bears.

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