Recent Minnesota bear attacks: Is there more than meets the eye?

Grand Rapids, Minn. — When a black bear earlier last week attacked three men and a dog along the shores of McDougal Lake near Isabella in northeastern Minnesota, it immediately raised eyebrows. Bear attacks aren’t common in Minnesota – there have been six since 2002 that required hospitalization – and there never before had been one in December, when the animals should be hibernating.

And yet there was no question something had happened.

At 10:41 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 19, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call that a black bear had attacked two carpenters working outside at a home near McDougal Lake.

As state conservation officers and Lake County deputies investigated further, they discovered another man about 150 yards away had been attacked minutes earlier in a successful bid to turn the bear away from his dog. Neither the carpenters – Daniel Boedeker, 58, of Winton, and Gary Jerich, 54, also of Winton – nor the other man, 68-year-old Bill Vagts, were seriously injured. The dog also survived.

The bear, a young male, did not. Officers shot and killed it after tracking it through the snow. Its body was taken to the University of Minnesota for a necropsy in an attempt to help determine if something about the bear – either physically or physiologically – might have played a role. While those questions haven’t yet been answered, officials say there could be more to the story than meets the eye.

The bear didn’t have anything in its stomach, though it was neither exceptionally thin nor exceptionally fat, said Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s bear biologist, whose office is in Grand Rapids. It didn’t have rabies and appeared to be attracted to human food sources.

Additionally, the animal was missing fur in a 2-inch strip around its neck, and its back claws either had been scraped down or clipped. It’s unclear what the missing fur around its neck means, though it’s possible the animal at one time had on a collar or something similar.

Of the latter two characteristics, Garshelis said: “Neither of those two things fit with a normal wild bear. There had to have been some human involvement previously with this bear. We don’t know what that was.”

Early speculation was that the bear had been in a den and was rousted, perhaps by the power tools the carpenters were using. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“If that happened, there would be more of a defensive burst,” Garshelis said, noting such a bear may come out of its den and swat someone. But in this case, the animal appeared to have walked up to the people it ultimately encountered.

“It’s not just a wild bear that popped out of its den and attacked people. It appears it’s a human-habituated bear and either was recently released or was out there but couldn’t hibernate. There is something abnormal about it.”

If the bear was a wild animal, the other possibility was that it was “predatory” and was “literally trying to track down people or pets,” Garshelis said. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. In both instances, the men were able to drive it away. And the man who intervened as the bear was going after his dog “actually had his arms around the bear’s neck and was trying to pull it off the dog,” Garshelis said. The man succeeded, though the bear bit him in the abdomen before taking off.

Garshelis wonders if the bear actually was trying to play with the dog. Following that line of thinking, it may have been a normal reaction for the bear to strike at the human, not understanding what was going on. Had the bear wanted to kill either the man or the dog, “It could have done that,” he said.

By the same token, it may have approached the two carpenters, looking for food, having become so accustomed to people that “it was just treating (them) in the same way it has other people in its past life,” Garshelis said.

After the bear fled from the carpenters, they called 911. Later on, a DNR conservation officer and Lake County deputy tracked down the bear, which was lying down. It didn’t run away, nor did it rise to attack, Garshelis said. Normal wild bears wouldn’t react like that, he said.

“They don’t just lie down in the snow and you walk up to them,” he said.

The next day, officers and wildlife staff tracked where the bear had been.

“They tracked it for about a mile and a half and noted this bear had investigated three unoccupied cabins,” Garshelis said. “It actually circled around, clearly looking for food or something.”

In addition to waiting on final results of the necropsy, officials also want to learn, for example, if someone raised this bear and then released it into the wild.

“Hopefully we will find out the origin of this bear,” Garshelis said.

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