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Bears are everywhere as fall approaches on Minnesota's Northwest Angle

Residents and cabin owners are generally accepting of the bears and the difficulty the starving animals face as they try to fatten up for winter, but there’s also concern about the animals becoming aggressive – especially sows with cubs.

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Dick Myers of Flag Island, Minn., photographed this bear in his yard Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 1, 2021, upon returning from a dental appointment in Warroad, Minn. Bear numbers at Minnesota's Northwest Angle and adjacent islands are higher than usual in recent weeks as the animals scrounge to find food, which is in short supply because of the ongoing drought. (Contributed/ Dick Myers)
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Living on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, seeing the occasional bear goes with the territory.

This summer, though, has been one for the books.

Bears are everywhere, especially the past month or so. Natural foods are scarce because of the ongoing drought, and bears are on the move just trying to scrounge up enough food to survive.

It’s a familiar story, both on the islands and the Northwest Angle mainland.

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“We’ve had days where we’ve chased nine out of camp,” Mick Messelt, an East Grand Forks native and a partner in Flag Island Resort, said Thursday morning. “We’ve chased two out already today. We haven’t shot any yet, but I don’t know what to do – there’s a ton.”
The influx of bears has been a regular topic among members of the “Northwest Angle Life” Facebook group. Residents and cabin owners are generally accepting of the bears and the difficulty the starving animals face as they try to fatten up for winter, but there’s also concern about the animals becoming aggressive – especially sows with cubs.

“If you get outside and there happens to be a sow and cubs there, that can be dangerous,” said Dick Myers, 82, a Flag Island resident whose family’s history on the island dates back to 1934. “She will do anything to protect the cubs.”

Myers says he worries most about his dog, a Labradoodle that will chase bears if given the opportunity.

“They can turn on a dog and be pretty vicious,” he said.

These days, Myers says he tosses a cherry bomb or other large firecracker out the door before letting the dog out on a long leash “to do her thing.” The bang generally scares off any bears, Myers says, at least temporarily.

Myers said he counted five bears in his yard Wednesday at various times, including a large boar that was standing maybe 100 feet from his house about 2 p.m., when he returned from a dental appointment in Warroad, Minn.

“I was going to barbecue something (Wednesday night) and I decided to cook it inside because I didn’t want that smell going out in the woods,” Myers said.

He also left the lights on and radios blasting Wednesday night in his house and a nearby guest cabin to keep the bears at bay. That seemed to work, Myers said, and he hadn’t seen any bears as of midmorning Thursday.

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That changed shortly after noon, when a sow and two cubs wandered into the yard scrounging for acorns.

Reminiscent of 1995

This year is reminiscent of 1995, another notoriously tough year for bears in Minnesota’s north country. That year, Myers recalls, there were 30 different bears that wandered into the yard one weekend.

“We have a bunch of oak trees in our yard, and there were a lot of acorns falling,” Myers said. “The sows would get up in the tree and break a branch and drop it down to the cubs. It looked like a tornado went through the place after the bears left.”

The oak trees don’t have as many acorns this year, but the bears are still getting up in the trees and breaking off branches, Myers said.

“I don’t mind that at all because there were no berries this year, and the bears are really hungry,” he said. “Quite frankly, the little cubs will probably starve to death this winter.”

By contrast, bear sightings are relatively uncommon when natural food supplies are more abundant, Myers says.

“A lot of years, if there’s good berries, you don’t see any,” he said. “One bear a summer would probably be an average.”

Going with the flow

Despite the abundance of bears, Ann Zavoral of Fargo says the influx doesn’t make her nervous, even though she and her husband, Pat, have had some close encounters of the ursine kind in recent weeks at their place on Flag Island.

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Early last Sunday morning, a bear wandered onto the cabin porch and nosed right up to the Zavorals’ bedroom window. Their security camera picked up the encounter on video.

“Pat got up out of bed and just told him to scram – and he did,” Ann said.

“They’re so cute; they're not really causing what I would call damage,” she added. “They’re just moseying on and looking for the next meal.”

Myers had to kill a bear a couple of weeks ago, when it broke through a window and got into the screen porch of his house. He chased it away three times, but the bear wouldn’t leave, even though there wasn’t any food on the porch.

Shooting a nuisance bear is allowed under Minnesota state law when a bear is causing significant property damage or posing an immediate danger to people or animals. Myers received a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to salvage the hide and meat.

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Dick Myers photographed this bear that broke a window to get into the screen porch of his cabin on Flag Island at Minnesota's Northwest Angle. (Contributed/ Dick Myers)

“I didn’t want to shoot it, but when I chased it out the third time, it went and sat in front of the cabin so it was waiting to come back in again,” he said.

Bear season opened Wednesday, Sept. 1, in Minnesota, and while hunting permits are limited on the Northwest Angle and only available by lottery, early reports are favorable.

Messelt of Flag Island Resort said a hunter staying there filled his tag in an hour, shooting a 300-pound boar and seeing three other bears in that time.

For the third consecutive year, Messelt said he didn’t draw a tag; nor did five other resort employees who applied.

“It’s frustrating with this many bears around,” Messelt said. “I mean, what do you do?”

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Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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