Game managers studying bear migration south

Newaygo, Mich. — State biologists are gaining new insight into black bear behavior through a multi-year study of how the animals are spreading south into more densely populated areas.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife research biologist Dwayne Etter said wildlife managers are intentionally allowing bears to naturally expand their range in Michigan and biologists launched a study in 2010 to track how they migrate south through areas of Oceana, Newaygo, and Mecosta counties.

“Basically, we’re looking at how they will potentially populate southern Michigan over time so we can use that to educate the public,” Etter said. “We would like to find out how they are using the land in southern Michigan.”

With equipment purchased by Safari Club International and U.P. Bear Houndsmen, DNR biologists have trapped and collared about 18 bears with the help of Michigan State University interns.

Etter said it hasn’t been easy – two males broke their collars off, three bears slipped out of them and another bear died. Fitting the radio collars on the animals properly is a challenge, Etter said. They need to be snug enough they won’t slip off, but loose enough that they don’t choke.

“We’ve had bears put on over 100 pounds of weight in one year,” Etter said.

The GPS collars record the bear’s location every half hour, and DNR officials fly once a week to track their general movements. During winter hibernation, biologists retrieve the data from the collars, replace batteries, and take vital biological measurements.

“We had hoped to have about 10 bears … with collars on any given year,” Etter said. “It’s been a struggle.”

Four bears were collared last year. Etter said there are currently eight with collars, and they hope to get a few more this summer.

Despite the low numbers, the study is yielding some interesting insight into bear behavior and their interactions with southern Michigan residents, Etter said.

“When we started the project, I thought agricultural areas, cornfields” would attract the bears, Etter said, but it’s now evident that “typically they avoid them.

“They’ll walk five miles around a field they could walk one mile to get through,” Etter said, adding that a bear’s defense mechanism is to climb a tree.

“If there are no trees … they stick to the wooded habitat,” he said. “They may not look to move into southern Michigan in any numbers if that agricultural habitat is something they don’t prefer.”

As anticipated, most of the bear movement has been along riparian corridors like the Muskegon and White rivers, through swampy lowlands.

The move south has been relatively uneventful, Etter said, with a few exceptions.

A young male black bear in May swam from north Muskegon and roamed briefly in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood before swimming back across the same evening.

The event commanded two local newspaper stories and a television newscast.

“People in southern Michigan react differently to bears,” Etter said.

Gathering information about how the bears blend into life is a critical component to educating the public about how bears will behave as they populate the fragmented landscape, he said.

Bill Walker, member of the board of directors for the Michigan Bear Hunters Association, said he hopes awareness from the project will help increase the public’s acceptance of black bears in general.

“We would like to see bears expand their range … and to raise their social carrying capacity,” Walker said. “The more they can tell the public in these new areas, the better.”

Walker believes bears could greatly benefit from a more harmonious relationship with residents in southern Michigan, and expects the animals to continue to expand their range south. Bears “are very adaptable,” Walker said, and will take advantage of bird feeders and other easy food sources. The winters are also milder, he added.

“There is an innate resistance to something wild and strange,” Walker said. “The more people understand them, the better off the bears are going to be.

“Their biggest problems in coming south are … cars and people not wanting them here.”

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