The first sighting of black bear in Indiana occurred this summer in June, after a 144-year absence. Several sightings of bears also occurred in Western Michigan. Several years ago, a female bear spent the winter near Ada and emerged in the spring with a cub.
Most of the 15,000 bears in Michigan are found in the Upper Peninsula, where extensive suitable habitat is present. In heavily human populated areas, bears are bound to encounter difficulties. All animals require adequate food, water, shelter, and appropriate living space.
Forests are reclaiming areas that were cleared in the late 1800’s. Bears are dispersing, exploring and claiming the developing habitat. Finding water is easy and shelter is not too difficult. Finding adequate food is more difficult. Bears feed on insects, fruit, vegetation, dead mammals, and live mammals when they can catch them.
The arrangement and availability of food, water, and shelter create good or poor living space. When the three are not in appropriate distribution, life becomes a challenge and wildlife does not succeed. It does not matter if the wildlife is an insect, fungi, bird, fish or mammal. Larger animals like black bears require more living space for their nature niche than smaller species.
It might be fun to see a bear where we live but living with bears is a challenge. Bears seek accessible food. Bird feeders concentrate high fat seeds, garbage can be a good food source, and even our gardens and apple orchards are attractive.
I recall a bear in an orchard on the heavily human-populated Old Mission Peninsula, between East and West Grand Traverse Bays, when I was state park ranger in the area. It was not suitable for the bear and the decision was made to move the bear. It was shot with a tranquilizer that was not adequate, so a second was used and the bear dropped dead. Giving the correct dose of anesthesia is tricky business, as is living with bears.
A beekeeper friend kept beehives but has given up the practice because he lives in bear country, in Northern Minnesota. Bears raided his hives and bird feeders. He adjusted to living with bears by eliminating his beehives and restricting bird feeding to when bears are in a deep winter sleep.
At Bryce Canyon National Park, where I was park ranger, a bear learned backpackers have food. Even when packs were hung in trees, the bear raided camps. Most bears run in the presence of people but this bear did not. It entered camps and took packs and food from campers. It destroyed packs and drove campers away. After several reports of the problem, three rangers investigated. The bold bear came toward the rangers and would not be deterred. It was shot and killed. Bears habituated to people become the most dangerous.
Many of us might recall a bear entering a Tennessee campground and killing a 6-year-old girl a decade ago. Over-hunting and habitat loss resulted in disappearance of bears in most regions a century ago. Habitat restoration requires we find ways to live safely with bears. It is important that bears remain fearful of humans. I have been fortunate on several encounters with bears, in wilderness areas, where they ran away when they saw me. Most bears fear humans.
Karen and I encountered a bear with a cub at Grand Tetons National Park. They approached the trail. We stopped and gave them plenty of room. Other people came from the other direction and did not hesitate. They kept walking toward the bears with disregard, despite our warning. Fortunately, the mother bear did not attack to defend its young. The stupid behavior of the people could have caused them injury or death. If that occurred, I am sure the bear would have been killed. Learning to live responsibly with bears requires appropriate human behavior.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.