March Of The Black Bears by James L. Bruner
Last week I awoke to 2 inches of new snow followed by 8 hours of rain which was complimented by 50 mph winds and a drop in temperature that found us sitting at -10 Fahrenheit by midnight. Mid-March in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan can be a mixed bag of weather and the resident population of black bears perceive these weather changes as a wake-up call. It’s a sure bet that some bears have left their silent slumber and are on the prowl for a quick meal. With very little food substance readily available bears will make use of their previous knowledge and feeding routes in an attempt to fill their stomachs and your yard could be at the top of their dining list.
Now let’s set the tables straight right from the start here. I will not be writing this article from excerpts and research that others have published in regards to black bear behavior and activities. I have had more than my share of black bear encounters which, more times than not, were a direct result of my own actions or lack thereof to deter this powerful and adaptive animal. In essence I set the table and left the door open for the hungry bear and the invitation was accepted with open paws.
Living In Bear Country
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we have a healthy, and thriving, black bear population. With our sprawling forests even an animal as large and visibly noticeable as the bear can easily dissect a safe travel route from one feeding area to another without being detected. Often this means that the bear can traverse the multitude of sporadic homesteads, often under the cover of darkness, in an attempt to satisfy his burgeoning appetite. A bear is not a picky eater. An opportunistic feeder like the black bear will take advantage of anything from birdseed and pet food to roadkill and an entire menu that falls in between those lines. Although the word opportunistic may cast the thought that the bear will eat anything, he is still intimately aware that some food sources are of better nutritional value than others and will capitalize on those sources first. Here’s an example.
In this scenario it’s easy to see why so many people are lulled into viewing the bear as a big cuddly, warm and fuzzy, circus performer whose only flaw is it’s major appetite. But, let’s fast forward one week. You’re now sitting in this chair where I type this article, again, at 4 a.m., and that same cuddly teddy bear has just ripped the window off your cabin a mere 10 feet behind you. The sound of glass shattering in the still of the night and the constant woofs coming from the bear now fill your senses and your home. He’s hungry because the sunflower seed he enjoyed has mysteriously disappeared.
To get to the point this bear was acting no differently than most other bears. The one exception may be the fact that he seemed to conditioned to humans as he showed no immediate signs of fear. Could this be because he also visited every backyard feeder in the area without confrontation? Could be. A number of my somewhat distant neighbors also reported their feeders being hit at night but had never viewed the culprit. I won’t suppose anything here. In reality the bear continued to appear each night at the same time nearly like clockwork even though I had removed the food source. We watched him actually rolling in the grass, eating grass, and sitting on our patio like a big dog. He began to circle the cabin and inspect every window and doorway. The following night he decided there was something in here he wanted and came through the window. Although I stood with the barrel of my shotgun practically touching his nose, and screaming like a little girl, I refrained from pulling the trigger and he backed down. Two days later the DNR set a culvert trap and after two more days of somewhat sleepless nights the bear sprung the trap and was ready to be re-located.
Coincidentally. When the trap was set it was baited with a bag of donuts. I took it upon myself, which was frowned on by the DNR, to once again hang my bird feeder out. The bear went for the nutritious black sunflower seed before ever heading over to the bag of donuts. Was he just leery of the trap or did he find the seed more nutritious? It’s a guess but considering he had already broken through my cabin window while I sat there in plain sight I would have to side with the fact that he probably wasn’t too judgmental about the trap itself and chose the food source with the higher nutritional value. In either event he was relocated and, as all years have progressed, another bear took it’s place.
With this event fresh in your mind I would like to take this opportunity to express some methods for living with black bears and their emergence from their long winters nap. As it’s been said many times over, a fed bear is a dead bear. Whether inadvertently feeding bears or not you’ll find some tips below for keeping most bears from becoming a nuisance and creating a dependence of your yard as a feeding station.
Do I really need to say it? Spring really is a great time to watch the birds congregate around your feeder. Birds that have migrated away from your area for the winter months often fill your yard as they move back to their summer ranges. For some species this is the only viewing opportunity before the birds continue further North. We keep our feeders filled and clean until April unless a bear makes an earlier appearance. After that you’re best served to remove the feeders and also rake any seed that has fallen to the ground. This includes hummingbird feeders. Try planting perennial flowers that attract the hummingbirds and you will still be able to enjoy your viewing during intervals of the plant blooming. It’s a pretty safe bet that you will also attract other bird species while not providing anything of real interest to the bears.
Although bone meal is a great food source for many flowers it’s also an attractant to the bears. The very first bear we ever saw here came shortly after we planted a rose garden. Hundreds of dollars and many hours of hard work were all for nothing when we awoke the following day to find every rose had been ripped from the ground as the bear searched for the source of the bone meal that we worked into the dirt. It was a hard, and expensive, lesson learned but we have successfully grown roses since without the aid of bone meal with no problems from the bears.
Gardens are another source of attraction for bears. Our garden use to consist of your prominent vegetables hardy enough to proliferate during our short growing season. The garden was also a major source of attraction for raccoons, deer, and yes, bears. Obviously you can stop the deer and raccoons with a fence but a determined bear will always find a point of entry or simply create one. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a garden. It simply means that with our bear population density, or persistence of a couple bears, a garden became a fruitless effort for anything that required a lengthier growing season. Set onions, radishes, leaf lettuce, and tomatoes all provided some yield but others like sweet corn and melons never bore a ripened fruit that we were able to harvest before the bears sat down for lunch.
Compost piles go right along with the gardening and often a decent compost will consist of food substances. Although the pile itself may not provide a food substance to the bear it does provide an attractant. If you limit the amount of rotting foods in your compost pile you stand a good chance of maintaining a viable material for your garden while detracting from the attraction to the bears. Typically the bears work through the compost and merely spread it about the ground. As such it only takes a few minutes with a rake to gather the pile back together. If the bear’s interest continues in the compost you’re probably further ahead not to use it on your plants as the bear’s interest may turn towards your garden and flower beds.
It doesn’t take a bear specialist to explain the fact that pet food is also an attractant and food source for a bear. Often your pet food is very high in nutrition and can become a preferred source of food when other natural or higher value target foods are not available. In the case where your pets are in an outside kennel your best option is to feed the animals in amounts they can completely consume. It won’t detract from the attraction aspect but often the bear will associate the prospect of food, in this case being the lack of food, as a lower percentage of value. In time the bear will probably work though the scenario realizing there is no payoff regardless of his efforts and move on to another source. For pets that are not in a kennel, such as cats, the same feeding habit holds true. Small amounts that the animal will consume is the best. Any food that has not been consumed can be removed easily to deter the habituation process to the bear.
There are many other considerations such as garbage, trash burning barrels, barbecue grills, and similar elements that should receive your individual thought if you’re going to effectively make a calculated attempt not to attract bears to your property. Most include common sense but require months of continued routine to be effective while the local bear population is active.
It may sound like a lot of work and some may wonder why anyone would choose to live in bear country to begin with. The fact is most people will never see a wild black bear, or any bear for that matter. The sight of these powerful animals sauntering through your yard isn’t something you will forget the next day by any means. They can evoke feelings of amazement and respect while capturing a true essence of the wild nature of the outdoors. Even a fleeting glimpse can bring your senses to attention while stirring that curiosity factor to lean forward for a further look into the life of a truly wild animal. Out of respect for the bears I’ve been extremely fortunate to witness some of their most subtle attributes and behaviors while at other times experienced first-hand the harsher exposure created when humans cross the lines of tolerance. In every event this twisted trail has always led me back to the starting point and the beginning of spring where I wait, pecking away at my keyboard, wondering when the first bear of the year will appear.