Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Young bears roam in Wisconsin seasonally in spring when forced out of their mother's territory. © Ryan Brady

Young bears roam in Wisconsin seasonally in spring when forced out of their mother's territory.
© Ryan Brady

June 2009

Bear in mind

As black bear populations spread, play it smart. Learn why they do what they do, and why bears should not be feared or dismissed, but respected.

Linda Olver

Attitudes toward one Wisconsin native, the American black bear (Ursus americanus), have changed for the better and the worse over the past 200 years. Native Americans revered it and made full use of bears for food, clothing and spiritual purposes. Early European settlers valued the black bear's fur, meat and fat. In fact, melted bear fat is considered a premium oil for frying doughnuts and a delectable ingredient in baked goods. Yet, as Wisconsin's human population increased, tolerance for black bears decreased.

Prior to the 1950s, bears were unprotected and considered "vermin" by many people. Black bears were shot or trapped at any time of year in unlimited numbers. With the advent of legislative protection, bear populations rebounded, however hunting pressure continued to increase. In the early 1980s, fewer than 5,000 black bears roamed northern Wisconsin. Very few, if any, were found south of Highway 64, which runs east-west 20 miles north of Wausau. In 1985, the bear hunting season was closed to prevent overharvest, and in 1986, the Department of Natural Resources sought and received authority to limit the number of bear harvest permits and the number of hunters through a quota system.

Since then, Wisconsinís black bear population has been slowly increasing. Currently, black bears are commonly found in the northern third of the state and are moving into the central forested portion of the state and points south.

Today, the black bear is again viewed as both a symbol of Wisconsin's wildness and as choice prey. Seeing a black bear in the wild is an exciting experience for many and an equal thrill for those who prize the black bear as a big game species. The number of hunters applying for bear hunting licenses far exceeds the number of harvest permits available and each year the number of applicants grows. For the 2009 bear season, nearly 96,000 hunters applied for 7,310 allotted permits.

More routes to southern range bring more bears to more places

A two-year study, in which black bears were marked and then recaptured, was conducted in 2006 and 2007 by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Dave MacFarland under the direction of Tim Van Deelen, assistant professor of forestry and wildlife ecology. Results estimate Wisconsin's black bear population is between 23,000-40,000 bears statewide, substantially more than our previous estimates! While a large proportion of the population still resides in Wisconsinís northern counties, distribution is moving southward. Sows with cubs have been seen in southern Wisconsin, indicating bears are overwintering and these areas are developing resident bear populations.

Land-use changes may be enhancing black bear movement, Van Deelen believes. Some farmland is moving back into corn production and other biofuels, and farmland is also purchased for hunting and recreational uses. Those managing their land for wildlife increase the amount of woodland edges and hedgerows that act as wildlife corridors, and that decision is changing Wisconsin's rural landscape.

"Lands that were active dairy farms 20 years ago are now hunting properties or hobby farms," Van Deelen says. "The fencerows get thicker, and the woodlots get bigger over time. Farm fields are becoming more favorable bear habitat and provide more corridors for dispersal."

As development in bear habitat continues and bears disperse south and west, more human-bear interactions are inevitable. To keep interactions more positive, it is important that we understand black bear behavior and motivations.

The journey from home is a scary path for young bears

Black bears possess a number of physical traits and behavioral adaptations that help them survive long, cold winters when food is scarce. Bears are omnivores that eat animal, insect and plant foods. Bears are also opportunistic feeders that will ingest most seasonal sources of food. In spring, bears feed on greening vegetation and will prey on deer fawns. By midsummer they gorge on ripe berries and roots. They will fatten up on nuts and other seeds in late summer to early fall. Bears will eat carrion, fish and insects when they can find them. Bears have excellent senses of smell that help them locate food, but relatively poor eyesight and only moderate hearing.

Black bears are very territorial and are loners most of the year, except for briefly interacting during mating and when sows raise cubs. They want their own space. The boar's home range is about 27 square miles, while a sow's territory is much smaller, usually about five square miles. A bear will mark its territory by rubbing, biting and scratching trees.

Good bear habitat has extensive forested areas interspersed with numerous swamps and stream bottoms. Bears prefer thick ground vegetation where berries and nuts are abundant and they can build up a large fat reserve during seasons of plenty. Dens are usually dug out under a fallen tree. Caves, hollow trees or stumps, dense thickets or conifer stands also make decent den sites.

Bears enter their dens in mid-October through early November as food supplies dwindle. They are not true hibernators. The bears fall into a deep sleep and their body temperature, heart rate and respiration decrease, but not to the low levels associated with hibernation. The bearís dormant winter sleep is called "torpor."

Cubs are born in mid-January, while their mother sleeps. The average litter contains three to four cubs, but litters of as many as six have been reported. The cubs stay with their mother for just over a year, learning how to gather food and survive. They den with their mother during their second winter when they are just under a year old. The following spring, the yearling females are encouraged to establish their own territories, but are tolerated within their motherís territory. The young males are a different story. They are strongly encouraged to leave their motherís territory and they are not tolerated by other adult males in nearby areas. So these yearling males strike out, looking to establish their own turf. The sows breed and give birth every other year, providing ample time to teach their offspring how to take care of themselves.

It's no picnic to meet a hungry bear

Bears are big mammals, second only in size to elk in Wisconsin. An adult black bear may weigh 250 to more than 500 pounds, but when they awaken in spring, bears have lost approximately 25-40 percent of their body weight and emerge from winter dens really hungry, looking to replenish reserves depleted over the winter.

In the spring, food may be limited and difficult to find, especially for young boars who are wary and alert as they wander into new territory, cross roads, or encounter cars and people just as vegetation is beginning to grow. They are up to the task. Bears can swim, easily climb trees and can run up to 30 miles per hour.

It was no Yogi Bear moment when an agressive bear disrupted a campsite picnic near Eau Claire. © Courtesy of Michele Woodford
It was no Yogi Bear moment when an agressive bear disrupted a campsite picnic near Eau Claire.
© Courtesy of Michele Woodford

In their drive to find food, bears will take advantage of any readily available food sources, whether natural or from human activity. Even though bears are naturally shy creatures that avoid people, a hungry bear exploiting a food source can quickly learn to associate humans with food and can become a nuisance. The bears are merely responding to their need to consume large amounts of food.

The southerly dispersal of bears coupled with the growth of recreational and residential land development in open areas increase the potential for human-bear encounters. Further, the bears can be attracted to a number of artificial food sources such as bird feeders, greasy grills, dog food, garbage, gardens and compost piles. While it is exciting to see a bear in your backyard and you might sacrifice bird seed for the chance to watch a bear up close, the encounter comes with a high cost: Once a bear associates people with food, it will be bolder, escalate efforts to obtain food and may pose a safety risk. Though bear attacks on people are relatively rare, they can be serious. Most often, these attacks are defensive when a bear has been startled. Learn to minimize the foodstuffs that attract bears and you can avoid problem encounters.

State law prohibits recreational feeding of bears. Even inadvertent feeding is illegal. A 2007 law requires that you cease baiting and feeding activities for other animals, such as deer or birds, for at least 30 days if bears are known to visit the feeding sites. Baiting bears in Wisconsin is only legal by permit when associated with hunting activities, which are viewed as an important means of controlling growing bear populations.

A bear can become a financial liability to farmers by damaging agricultural crops, wrecking apiaries and harming livestock. The Wildlife Services (WS) program of the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), manages bear damage and nuisance abatement work in Wisconsin in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources. Damage or nuisance complaints about bears, wolves and birds are answered by WS toll-free in Wisconsin at 1-800- 433-0663 (for problems south of Waupun) and 1-800-228-1368 (Rhinelander office for problems in northern Wisconsin).

Most nuisance complaints are resolved by providing information on removing food sources and suggesting other strategies to reduce bear visits. WS field staff investigate chronic nuisance complaints that do not involve a food attractant. If appropriate, field staff may trap and translocate a bear that damages property and agricultural fields. Bears that exhibit bold or aggressive behavior towards people, are highly habituated to people, depredate livestock, or routinely cross electric fences and destroy apiaries, may be euthanized.

In 2008, WS staff handled a total of 1,383 bear complaints – 1,101 nuisance complaints, 92 for property damage and 190 for agricultural damage. A total of 728 bears were trapped and relocated last year.

When bears are too close for comfort – reducing contact at home

If you encounter a bear, remain calm. Bears are shy and if not conditioned to humans, will usually flee quickly. If you see a bear in the woods, make noise so the bear knows you are there. Slowly back away and allow the bear a clear exit that doesn't intersect your path.

Never feed a bear! The bear will not forget the feeding experience and will tend to get more demanding with time.

Bird feeders – Bears love bird seed. If you live in prime bear habitat, take down your feeders in early spring and donít replace them until late fall. If you must feed birds during the months when bears are active, make the bird feeders inaccessible to bears. Hang feeders at least 10 feet off the ground and five feet away from tree trunks on a limb that will not support a bear. You can refill the feeders easily by using a pulley system. If a bear visits your feeders, discontinue all feeding for at least 30 days. When you bring your bird feeders in, remember to clean up all spilled seed or suet below the feeding area.

Bears love bird seed. Clean up spilled seed and put feeders away for at least 30 days to encourage bears to move on. © Midge Bolt
Bears love bird seed. Clean up spilled seed and put feeders away for at least 30 days to encourage bears to move on.
© Midge Bolt

Garbage – Don't let garbage pile up and place garbage, especially food wastes, in cans with tight-fitting lids. Empty garbage cans regularly and occasionally don some rubber gloves, wear eye protection and wash down the cans with sudsy ammonia and water. Let the solution sit in contact a few minutes, then scrub the inside walls and bottom to minimize odors. Rinse and air dry the containers to make the trash cans less attractive to bears. Store garbage cans in a sturdy building until pick-up or disposal day. If bears are raiding your garbage, consider using a commercially available bear-resistant container or 55-gallon drum with a locking-ring lid.

Don't discard cooking grease in your yard. Collect cooking fats in a glass or metal container with a sealable lid. Transfer to a plastic bag and seal tightly when ready to dispose.

Grills – Donít leave food cooking unattended. Burn off greasy residues and any remaining food. Scrub grease off grill racks, smokers and other outdoor cookers after each use.

Compost piles – Compost piles may attract bears. If you do compost, place the pile a safe distance from the house. Do not compost meat, fish or other pungent scraps in compost piles. Electric fences are an effective way to keep bears out of compost piles. Follow appropriate safety precautions.

Pets – If feeding your pet outside, only feed enough so all pet food will be completely consumed at one feeding and not left in the dish. Bring in any unconsumed pet food at night and store pet food in sealed containers inside a sturdy building. Do not leave bones or scented chew toys laying in your yard.

When you go out in the woods tonight

Keep your distance. Do not approach a bear in the wild. If you encounter a bear, let it know you are there. Slowly back away. Do not run or climb a tree to get away from a bear.

Camping – Do not cook, eat or store food in your tent. Also keep your sleeping bag and tent free of food stains and odors. Do not sleep in the clothes you wore while cooking meals. Residual food odors may attract bears.

Where practical, do your cooking, eating and dishwashing well away from your tent (100 yards recommended). Store food and cooking utensils away from your campsite, preferably in a hard-topped vehicle or hung in a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and five feet out on a limb that will not support a bear. Odorous items such as toothpaste, soap, lotion and deodorants could also attract bears. Treat these items as you would food.

Keep your campsite clean. Do not be careless with food, beverages or garbage when camping. Dispose of scraps in a closed container away from the campsite, not in the campfire. Do not bury garbage.

Do not leave pets unattended at your campsite.

Viewing and photographing wildlife – Use binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses to get a closer look at bears. If a bear approaches, back away slowly to maintain a safe distance. Never approach a bear to get a closer look or a better picture. Never sneak up on or surprise a bear. Never try to get a bear to move to a different location. Avoid direct eye contact with a bear; it may be interpreted as a threat. Stay away from cubs and dens.

Hiking – Walk in groups, if possible. Always let someone at another location know where you will be hiking and when you expect to return. Avoid hiking at dusk and at night when it is easier to startle a bear. Keep children and pets close at all times. Keep your dog on a leash or leave it at home if you know you will be traveling through bear country. Make plenty of noise – talk, sing, clap, rustle leaves while hiking.

Make a little time to better understand bears' habits. Take these preventative steps and you can enjoy seeing bears while lessening the likelihood of problems should you encounter bears near your home or on your travels.

Linda Olver is the assistant bear and deer ecologist in DNR's Bureau of Wildlife Management.