Rochester, Minn. — It seems like every couple of years, the number of bear sightings rises in the southeastern part of the state. This would be one of those years, but the sightings are even higher than usual.
“We just happen to have two bears this year that have been highly visible,” said Don Nelson, DNR area wildlife supervisor in Rochester. “They have been seen on a daily basis.”
One of the bears first was spotted in the St. Charles area, then around the southeast edge of Rochester, Stewartville, and Spring Valley. The last report Nelson received was from the Preston area.
The other has been seen in the Whalan area, and there have been reports from around Winona, too.
Nelson hasn’t received any nuisance complaints, though one bear apparently destroyed a beehive.
“We have a handful of bears that have taken up residence in this part of the state,” he said. “I don’t think we have a breeding population of bears.”
Indeed, the bears likely are young, dispersing animals, or males looking for a mate. To date, Nelson hasn’t received any reports of anyone seeing a sow and cubs.
It’s not surprising to find bears in the southeast, he said.
“The bears would do pretty well in this part of the state,” Nelson said. “For a long time, the Twin Cities really have blocked their movement in this direction. But bears have expanded in Wisconsin and we have seen a few areas where they have swam across the river and have been hit by cars. We suspect most of the bears that have shown up down here have come from Wisconsin.”
Nelson said people shouldn’t fear the bears.
“The animals are not dangerous,” he said. “We would like to know of any sightings, just for tracking purposes.”
If you see a bear in the southeast, call Nelson at (507) 206-2858.
The lack of nuisance complaints related to the bears in the southeast is about par for the course for the entire state.
“In general, it’s been pretty light,” said Dave Garshelis, a DNR bear researcher. “It’s been this way since 1996 or so. We haven’t had a bad nuisance bear year. We keep thinking that some year we are going to have it, but there really hasn’t been.”
Part of the reason is likely that the abundance of natural food sources has been relatively stable. But hunting probably has played a role, too.
Between 1997 and 2007, hunters killed more than 3,000 bears in 10 seasons. Two of those seasons saw kills of more than 4,000 bears.
“I think the bears have changed their behavior, somewhat, in response to some of the bears that were prone to nuisance activity being eliminated from the population through hunting and through the killing of nuisance bears,” Garshelis said.
Hunters tend to take bears that are attracted to baits, and bears that are attracted to baits likely would be prone to nuisance behavior, he said.
“We probably took out a chunk of the population that were prone to be nuisances,” Garshelis said.
Another possibility for the low number of nuisance complaints is that the agency no longer responds to them in the same way it once did. People can call in and get advise, but it’s rare for an agency staffer to actually go to a site and investigate a nuisance bear.
“We have totally abandoned moving nuisance bears – translocating nuisance bears,” Garshelis said. “The public (likely) has come to know that, so they don’t call very much anymore.”