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Bears and people getting too close?

Photo by Alan Vernon

Black bears are doing well across northern Michigan.  In fact, they're doing so well, people are complaining more about bears getting into bird feeders and bee hives and damaging orchards.

It’s still rare to encounter a bear in the woods. But last year a hunter was attacked near Petoskey. And state wildlife officials say bears become aggressive when people forget they are wild animals.

Sometimes bears just out of hibernation wander into town or into someone’s back yard to rummage for food.

Last spring, hundreds of people in Traverse City flocked to a tree with a bear in it near the airport. State wildlife officials captured the young male and moved it to a distant swamp.

But an incident from last fall near the Bear River in Emmet County continues to raise concerns.

On an October evening, three yearling bears and their mother attacked a bow hunter up a tree in his stand.

DNR wildlife chief Russ Mason says the problem likely had been brewing over the summer.

“There were reports of a sow with three cubs showing up in people’s yards and on their porches and people feeding the bears. They liked looking at them and thought they were amusing. People do things like that. They ought not to.”

In this case, the deer hunter says he kicked and hit a couple of the cubs when they climbed up his stand.

DNR wildlife biologist Brian Mastenbrook looked into the incident. He says it’s not unusual for cubs to be curious and to check out a tree stand.

“And if the sow perceived a threat to the cubs then the sow would address that threat by climbing the tree or the stand to try to get to the guy. That’s a little on the aggressive side for a sow. But it’s not out of the range of normal behavior.”

But Mastenbrook can’t say for sure why those cubs would come up the tree stand in the first place instead of running away when the hunter yelled and threw his bow at them.

Art Clute thinks it was because those were the same bears that were being fed and they no longer had a normal fear of humans.

It was his 21 year old grandson who was attacked and bitten. And he has pictures of the wounds posted on the wall of his archery shop just outside Boyne City. They show a huge flap of flesh torn from his grandson’s calf and puncture wounds on his shoulder. And Clute says those same bears are still out there.

“There’s bears in them woods right now where you’ve got mushroomers and everybody else out there that could attack and kill them, instantly. Cause you see the holes that they put in that kid’s leg and shoulder to know that they’ve tasted human blood.”

After the incident last fall state wildlife biologists attempted to trap the mother bear with the intention of killing her.

But they say it was late in the season too close to hibernation and they didn’t catch her.

Art Clute says they should have called in local hunters with their dogs and shot all four bears right away.

The DNR is trying to reduce conflicts with people by allowing more bears to be taken during hunting season. The agency also is putting out the word for people to clean up bird feeders, BBQ grills and any potential food source that could attract bears.

But already this spring, the DNR says there have been reports of a group of bears in the area of last fall’s attack.

And biologists hope last year’s cubs will be grown up enough now that the sow will kick them out of her territory and they’ll scatter to other areas and won’t cause any more problems.

But wildlife chief Russ Mason notes that young animals do learn from their parents.

“So those little bears could have learned something from mom in terms of people providing food. Gosh, I hope not. It’s a tragic situation for wildlife. It’s a tragic situation for people who care about bears. And it could all be avoided if people would just leave them alone.”

Agency officials acknowledge that while they discourage people from feeding bears, it’s not against the law.

-Bob Allen for The Environment Report



Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.