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DNR introduces new tool for bear sightings as they spread west and south in Minnesota

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has launched an online reporting tool for the public to report bear sightings outside of the state's traditional bear country. (Photo/ Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)2 / 2

It's been a busy few weeks for bear sightings in northwest Minnesota and other parts of the state, and a new online tool the Department of Natural Resources launched for reporting bear sightings is filling up with dots.

To date, the interactive map shows 10 sightings in Polk County, nine in Pennington County and five in Marshall County in far northwest Minnesota. And since the map only shows reported sightings, there's a good chance even more bears have been seen and not reported.

The DNR developed the interactive map to better document the gradual southward and westward expansion of bears from their traditional range, which covers about 40 percent of Minnesota, matching the location of northern forests.

In recent years, more bears are showing up in Minnesota ag country and even into North Dakota, where a cinnamon-colored black bear spotted near Michigan, N.D., made news a couple of weeks ago. A few bears also have been seen near the Iowa border, and sightings are increasingly being reported in the Twin Cities and metro suburbs, the DNR said.

One of the most recent sightings in the Red River Valley occurred Saturday, when two different people reported seeing a black bear north of East Grand Forks. Margaret Laumb of Grand Forks and her daughter, Hannah, saw the small bear running across a farm field north of Polk County Road 19 east of Northland Community and Technical College shortly after noon Saturday, and Tony Hart, a detective for the East Grand Forks Police Department, said he saw the bear later that afternoon near his residence north of town along state Highway 220.

No further sightings of the bear were reported, and the bear likely wandered into forested areas along the Red River and stayed out of East Grand Forks city limits.

"They are fun to see but obviously stressful on them when they get in town and get confused," East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund said. "They are better off in the country."

Research benefit

Dave Garshelis, bear project leader for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., said most of the bears roaming beyond their traditional range are wandering males, but the new online reporting tool was set up to help the DNR document how far female bears have expanded from their primary range.

Users also can report sightings of bears with cubs using the tool, which only records bears spotted outside their primary range.

To document a sighting, anyone spotting a bear can zoom in on the map provided with the tool and mark the location. There is no need to enter an address or legal description, and all information about the identity of people registering a sighting is considered private and only will be used by DNR staff when it is necessary to verify an unusual sighting.

"Hunters have long contributed information about bears to assist our management program," Garshelis said. "This is the first time we're asking all of the 'citizen scientists' in the public to help."

Minimize problems

As bears move into new areas, reports of conflicts with humans are on the rise. In Minnesota, wildlife managers and conservation officers have recorded 700 to 900 bear complaints annually in each of the past three years, the DNR said, a slight increase over the past decade.

Many of those complaints involve damage to bird feeders and trash cans.

"Bears use a feeding strategy called 'high-grading' where they seek out rich patches of concentrated food and skip over places with low food density," Garshelis said. "They also have excellent memories about where they've found good sources of food. A birdfeeder is a bountiful source of high-calorie food."

In an effort to minimize conflicts between bears and humans, the DNR recommends homeowners keep tabs on birdfeeders, especially late in the day, when bears are more apt to check out the feeders for an easy meal.

"If a bear found an easy meal at your birdfeeder or trash can, chances are it will remember how to find your yard again," Garshelis said. "And you can plan on that bear and possibly others coming back."

The DNR does not trap and relocate bears because it is nearly impossible to find a release site in Minnesota where a food-conditioned, traveling bear wouldn't find another house to frequent. Relocating a bear also can put it in conflict with other resident bears or disrupt its ability to find natural food sources in a new location. The DNR discontinued the practice of trapping and relocating bears in 1999, and relies instead on the public removing attractants.

That might sound simplistic, DNR officials say, but the only other option is killing the bear—an outcome wildlife managers and most of the public would prefer to avoid.

• On the Web:

The DNR's online bear reporting tool is available at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/bear/bear-sightings.html

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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