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Why do bears keep showing up?

There are only a few reports of bears in the history of North Dakota, but in recent months five separate reports of black bears or cinnamon bears in Ward and Burke counties have been confirmed.

9/27/16 (Tue)

Carpio visitor . . . A black bear is photographed walking away from a trail camera near Carpio in August, one of two bears sighted there in three weeks. Since May there have been five confirmed sightings in the region, four in Ward County.

By Marvin Baker

There are only a few reports of bears in the history of North Dakota, but in recent months five separate reports of black bears or cinnamon bears in Ward and Burke counties have been confirmed.

According to North Dakota Game and Fish personnel, North Dakota doesn’t have a bear population so where are they coming from?

Numerous theories have surfaced since Kenmare High School student Austin Nelson photographed the first known bear, in his yard May 21.

Since that time, a cinnamon bear was shot and killed less than two miles east of the Nelson farm after it destroyed some beehives, Burke County Tribune Editor Lyann Olson saw a bear at dusk June 2 near the Canadian border and most recently, Wade Peterson reported photographing two separate black bears west of Carpio.

Prior to the five sightings this year, the last confirmed sightings in western North Dakota were both in 2006; one near Hannover and a week later a bear was killed on Interstate 94 near Hebron.

Stephanie Tucker is a furbearer biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. She isn’t surprised that bears have been spotted even though North Dakota doesn’t have a known population.

“Most research indicates bears travel great distances in search of food or to disperse away from their natal home range,” Tucker said. “One or both of these things could be contributing to bears turning up in North Dakota.”

If surrounding states and/or provinces are experiencing a lean year for blueberries or acorns, that could encourage bears to move into North Dakota in search of other food sources, according to Tucker.

That confirms what Dave Garshelis, a bear biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said.

“Bears can smell ripe corn or oil-seed sunflowers for miles and will gorge on those crops,” he said. “Corn and oil sunflowers are likely a key reason why bears are doing so well on Minnesota farmland.

Likewise, Outdoor Canada magazine states that black, cinnamon or blonde bears can be found anywhere in Saskatchewan with the highest numbers in wildlife management zones near farm land.

In addition, National Geographic reported in a recent edition that the American black bear is making an impressive comeback in the United States.

According to Tucker, it’s often young males who are seen outside their natural habitat.

“If there was a high number of juvenile bears in surrounding states or provinces because of good reproduction several years prior, there would be more juvenile bears dispersing this year in search of new territory,” she said.

 Tucker said bears will use actually use a wide variety of habitats, but prefer wooded areas because they offer some seclusion and good denning sites.

In the past five years, North Dakota Game and Fish has documented an average of nine black bear reports a year, with an average of five being verified annually.

“The verifications typically occur in northern or eastern North Dakota, although some have turned up elsewhere, presumably due to our proximity to populations of black bears in Canada and Minnesota,” Tucker said. “All the black bears we’ve been able to examine to date were young animals that weren’t yet reproductively active.”

Tucker said Game and Fish encourages people to report all sightings of black bears, as this helps keep track of distribution and modify management as needed.

North Dakota doesn’t have a breeding population, but right next door, in Saskatchewan, there’s an estimated 20,000 black bears and the population is growing, especially in the southeast, according to the Saskatchewan Wildlife Management.

“We do not have a handle on the black bear population in Saskatchewan,” Tucker said. “However, because of all the black bears we’ve examined were not reproductively active, it’s likely they were “transients” and not adults with established home ranges. Transients have been documented traveling hundreds of miles, so it is possible they could be coming from Saskatchewan, or any other state or province with a population of black bears.”

They could also be coming from the Turtle Mountains, as Tucker explained, there have been numerous “transients” spotted north of Bottineau. But there isn’t a verified population in the Turtle Mountains.

Tucker said although bears don’t prey on many animals, they will, but it’s a small proportion of their diet.

She added, they will eat almost anything and their food habits vary from place to place, depending on what’s available.

“They will hone in on foods that are easily accessible and provide lots of calories,” she said. “This can create conflicts when the most accessible foods are bee hives, landfills, grain from bird or deer feeders, or food from a dog’s dish.”

Tucker said it’s best to be aware of surroundings, especially those living in the country and they should ensure a food source isn’t easily available to a bear.

“The bear will likely move on after not finding an adequate food source,” she said. “This prevents human/bear conflicts.”

Despite the recent sightings, Game and Fish doesn’t have plans to do any research, at least not in the near term, according to Tucker, because bears are considered conspicuous visitors to North Dakota.

“We have not documented a significant increase in the last five years, nor have we verified that black bears are staying year round and/or breeding in North Dakota,” she said. “We would consider research should one of the aforementioned conditions change.”

Animal populations are cyclical and Game and Fish has seen this with other species.

“Populations of wildlife increase when they have an ample supply of habitat and food and/or protection from human-caused mortality,” Tucker said. “Often, these population increases take decades to manifest themselves.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!