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Black bear sightings seem to be increasing in ND, so are they breeding here?

Brent Hemly of Plummer, Minn., shared this April 2015 trail camera photo of two bears doing a little dance on his property, which lies on the fringe of Minnesota's bear range. Bears that wander into North Dakota likely come from Minnesota, officials say.1 / 4
Stephanie Tucker2 / 4
This trail camera photo of a black bear reportedly spotted near Mekinock, N.D., has been making the rounds on social media.3 / 4
Marty Egeland, North Dakota Game and Fish Department4 / 4

Any time a bear is spotted wandering around North Dakota, it gets people talking.

There've been plenty of confirmed reports in recent years, biologists say, but there's no record of a breeding black bear population in the state.

So far, at least.

"The jury is still out" on whether bears are becoming more abundant in North Dakota, said Stephanie Tucker, game management section leader and furbearer biologist for the state Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

"We confirm six to eight black bears in the state every year, and it's been that way for quite some time," Tucker said. "Pretty much since I've been with the department, which has been about eight years."

Though unconfirmed, the most recent sighting, which has been making the rounds on Facebook, reportedly was spotted Sept. 20, 2017, on a trail camera near Mekinock, N.D.

Blake Riewer, district game warden for the Game and Fish Department in Grand Forks, said a bear was spotted a few weeks ago northeast of Hatton, N.D., but he hadn't heard about the reported Mekinock sighting.

At the same time, there's no reason to question the report.

"I see pictures on Facebook or other social media," said Marty Egeland, who recently became education supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck after 15 years as the department's outreach biologist in northeast North Dakota. "I don't run and track them down to see if they're legitimate or not, but I have no reason to doubt them.

"I mean, if you see a picture of a bear and they tell me it's by Cavalier, I believe them. I don't know if it's actually by Thief River Falls, but there's no reason to doubt them. But then again, 15 years ago, there wasn't a trail camera hanging on every tree. Were (bears) here and no one was seeing them?"

Annual occurrence

Bears that wander into North Dakota most likely come from neighboring Minnesota, Tucker said. The Department of Natural Resources has documented a westward expansion beyond the species' traditional forest range in northeast Minnesota.

Hunters also are shooting more bears in the western part of the no-quota zone that's on the fringe of Minnesota's bear range, said Jeremy Woinarowicz, DNR conservation officer in Thief River Falls.

Bear hunters can buy permits over the counter in the no-quota part of the state, while the DNR issues licenses farther east by lottery.

Bear hunting success in the no-quota zone averages about 20 percent, which is consistently lower than the quota area where licenses are issued by lottery, DNR figures show. This year's season continues through Oct. 15.

"Bears are being harvested in some places that were not traditionally hunted in the no-quota zone," Woinarowicz said, citing a bear shot by a hunter east of Argyle, Minn., as an example.

This past spring, Woinarowicz said he received a record number of nuisance-bear complaints in his work area, which includes far northwestern Minnesota from north of East Grand Forks to the Manitoba border and west from near Grygla, Minn., to the Red River.

"I don't know if I can attribute that to the bears moving west out of the traditional bear areas like Beltrami Island State Forest and places like that into this ag country, but I definitely saw that increase in bear activity in my area," he said.

Bears, especially in northwest North Dakota, also could wander down from Saskatchewan, Tucker said. In 2006, a dead black bear was found along Interstate 94 near Hebron, N.D., in the western part of the state.

"Like anything else, they have the potential to wander long distances if they don't get into trouble beforehand," Tucker said.

Problem bears

Occasionally, problem bears are killed. The most recent case occurred in May 2016 in Ward County in northwest North Dakota, where a bear was killed for damaging a honey producer's bee hives, Tucker said.

Ironically, the beekeeper had moved from Colorado to North Dakota to get away from bear problems.

In Grand Forks, police in November 2014 shot a bear in a tree near the Grand Cities Mall after the bear ran through residential areas and resisted authorities' attempts to push it out of town. The bear was sent to Bismarck for testing, where a necropsy determined the bear was a 1-year-old male, "a typical dispersal-age bear," Tucker said.

The department's database shows eight bears have been shot across the state—about one every year or so—and all but one were young males, Tucker said. The exception was a lone female shot in 2009 in northeast North Dakota, she said.

Garbage left in trash barrels, dog food on the porch or birdfeeders filled with seed all can attract bears and cause problems, Tucker said.

"There's just all these things that are attractive for bears, and so it's not uncommon that when a bear comes into North Dakota, it quickly gets into trouble for all those variety of reasons," Tucker said. "One thing we hear a lot this time of year is bow hunters or deer hunters in general have their deer feeders out. And when a bear does come in, that's one way they have a tendency to get into trouble."

North Dakota doesn't offer a season on black bears, so they can't be shot unless they pose a threat to people or property, and anyone who kills a bear must report it to Game and Fish, Tucker said.

"I just encourage people that if they have a bear hanging around one of the feeders to either take the feeder down completely or at least remove all the food until the bear moves on," Tucker said. "Otherwise, they get used to that free meal, and we don't want to create problem bears."

Winter residents

Though uncommon, there also have been reports of bears denning in North Dakota. A black bear spent the winter of 2009 hibernating near Larimore, N.D., where it was documented by game warden Gary Rankin, who retired in 2013.

More recently, a bear likely spent last winter hibernating in the Cavalier-Walhalla, N.D., area, Tucker said.

"There were late reports last fall with it, and early reports this spring with a bear in that area" that might have been the same animal, she said.

"But again, we have yet to document a female denning up here and having cubs here, and so in our minds, they're still the occasional wanderer—not a breeding population."

Historically, Tucker said, prairie grizzly bears were more common than black bears in North Dakota. Black bears were most abundant in the Red River Valley from 1800 to 1808, UND Professor Emeritus of Biology, Robert Seabloom, wrote in his 2011 book, "Mammals of North Dakota." Fur trader Alexander Henry reported 906 bears taken from the region during those years, Seabloom wrote.

"We expect bears to wander in from time to time, and maybe someday we'll discover a breeding population somewhere," Tucker said. "But are there ever going to be tons of black bears in North Dakota? Probably not. We're just not considered great habitat either historically or now for black bears."

This story was originally published Oct. 8, 2017.

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. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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