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Drought drives bears to search for food in Minnesota's north woods

Extreme drought in the north woods is making it hard for bears to find food sources needed to prepare for hibernation.

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Black bears looking for food are oportunistic and will even raid bird feeders in broad daylight when natural food sources like berries are in short supply. (Shutterstock)
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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Joe Markell lives on East River Drive, just across the river from the Cenex station in Park Rapids. He learned a bear had visited their birdfeeders at 12:10 a.m. July 21 when he saw the large bruin on their Google Nest camera.

“Our feeder was damaged and I thought it might have been racoons,” he said. “Then I checked the video. It looked well-fed and like a really big bear. It looked like the back legs were brownish in color or maybe it’s shedding. It was probably about 20 feet from our door. We didn’t hear anything and the dog was inside, but didn’t bark. We had garbage in cans outside but didn’t see anything ripped open.”

The bear bent the hinged rod of the suet feeder down and ate the suet.

“So far we know of two neighbors that had bird feeders damaged too,” he said. “We’ve lived here seven years and haven’t had any trouble with bears but I’ve only had the camera out there for a couple of years.”

He said they are no longer putting out suet as a result of the bear encounter.

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Berry shortage impacting bears

A long-time Lake George resident said she went out looking for blueberries recently, but the few she found were too small to pick.

“Bears generally start to gain weight when the berry crop ripens,” said Erik Thorson, area wildlife supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. “We had a late frost near the end of May, when a lot of plants were blooming. Frozen flowers hurt protection, and so does dry weather. So I think there will be a shortage of natural foods this year. The flowers that did survive the frost are producing berries the size of BBs. It was bad timing.”

Thorson said berries are the main summer food for bears here in the north woods.

“When we get towards fall, they’re into acorns and hazelnuts and crops,” he said. “That’s when they really pack on the pounds.”

He said bears are opportunistic, which means they will eat whatever food source they can find. This summer, he is fielding bear calls from residents every day, and multiple calls some days.

“There are certainly a lot of bear issues, and most of the calls are from people who haven’t had bear issues in the past,” he said. “I think bears are quite hungry and they’re getting into trouble. One was tearing into a shed. One was a bear outside a fence harassing livestock. But most are complaints about bears getting into bird feeders or garbage. They are looking for food around homes. Depending on what happens with the hazelnut and acorn crops, they might be getting into farm fields more this fall.”

Thorson said if food continues to be scarce, bear hunting could be easier this fall. “Bear bait will attract them more easily,” he said. “With a lot of bears in the area, it’s looking like they’ll be hungry and hitting the bait.”

The lack of food sources to build up body fat and weight could affect the condition of bears come spring.

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“But bears are pretty resourceful about finding food and will make seasonal movements in the fall if they need to find a better food source,” Thorson said. “They can utilize a diversity of foods too. They are adaptable and will move to where they can find what they need.”

Advice to keep bears at bay

If bears can find high-calorie, easily accessible foods around people’s homes and campsites, they are easily enticed away from their natural food sources, especially when food sources are scarce. That means this year it is especially important to secure those food sources.

Don’t condition bears to associate a home or campsite with an easy meal by leaving out unsecured garbage, birdseed or pet food. Learn more about how to reduce property damage, and the chance of human-bear conflicts, at www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/bears/index.html .

Thorson said calls about other wildlife concerns are a daily occurrence this summer as well. “I think it’s because more people are coming up to stay longer at their seasonal places and some have moved here permanently,” he said. “They are not as familiar with wildlife-human interactions and how to handle them. The big ones are bears, beavers, fox, deer and wild turkeys. We’ve also fielded a number of otter calls this year.”

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Thorson said the DNR website has a wealth of information on common issues when dealing with wildlife, as does the DNR information center at 888-MINNDNR.

Other drought impacts

Thorson said the drought is also affecting the growth of vegetation. “It was a warm June with lots of 90s, which is unusual,” he said.

“There is a lot of water here, so animals have drinking water in lakes, streams and ponds, unlike out west, but I’ve seen low water levels on some lakes and wetlands. Sometimes drought cycles are good for wetlands because they can help rejuvenate vegetation. It also helps invertebrate and plant growth there. It can also benefit wild rice, which usually does well when water levels are low. There are some smaller streams that have stopped flowing, and that impacts aquatic organisms that go down into the muck or move where there is water.”

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Thorson said if the drought continues into August it will have more of an impact on wildlife.

“These conditions are challenging for a lot of critters,” he said. “With all of the plants actively growing it takes a lot of water, especially with the drier air we’ve been having. In order to make a dent in the drought, we need much more precipitation.”

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Joe Markell's Google Nest camera outside his residence on East River Drive shows this bear about 20 feet from the door in the early morning hours of July 21. He later discovered the bear had taken suet from a birdfeeder. (Submitted photo)

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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