Hunter tags black bear in southeast Minnesota
Winona County, Minn. — A Lewiston man legally tagged a black bear in an unlikely place in late September: southeastern Minnesota. According to a DNR bear researcher, the kill marks only the second time in recent state history that a hunter has legally harvested a bear in the region.
Randy Hoekstra said he’d never had any desire to hunt bears anywhere, much less his 37 acres of bluff country hunting ground south of his home in Lewiston. But when a trail camera began showing a black bear regularly visiting a water tank on his property in western Winona County’s Rupprecht Valley, he figured he’d purchase a tag.
Five years earlier via a trail camera, something large, black and blurry appeared on an image that Hoekstra chalked up to being a wayward beef cow, but friends with bear hunting experience told him he was seeing a bear.
An electromechanic for a malting company in Winona, Hoekstra didn’t think much more of that incident until late this past summer when he saw potential evidence of bear activity in the form of flattened soybeans in an agricultural field. Though he could find no physical evidence of bear activity, the experienced outdoorsman said the several large swaths of flattened crops did not resemble deer damage.
Then, on Sept. 18, the black bear popped up on his trail cam.
“After it happened several days in a row, I researched bear hunting and bought a no-quota zone tag,” Hoekstra said. “I’d never hunted bears before. Never had, and never really wanted to. I’m a whitetail guy.”
That deer hunting experience came in handy, however, as Hoekstra considered the wind and his stand placement before heading out and successfully bagging the bruin on Friday, Sept. 25 with his muzzleloader.
Winona-area Conservation Officer Tom Hemker said he chatted with Hoekstra, and the bear hunter did everything right in legally harvesting the bear, a rarity in the southeast – the vast majority of black bear harvest in Minnesota occurs in the northeastern part of the state. Hemker said he had heard some bear reports in 2020, including an animal in the vicinity of Great River State Park near Nodine.
Andrew Tri, a DNR bear researcher with the agency’s forest wildlife and populations research group in Grand Rapids, wasn’t available by phone this week but did provide a quick email response to an Outdoor News query about southeast bears.
The agency, he said, knows there is a small population of bears in the so-called “driftless” zone of the state. There have even been documented females with cubs denning up in the region since 1996, he said.
“We don’t have any specific estimates for that part of the state, but the rich mix of oak forest in the driftless with abundant agriculture makes good bear habitat,” Tri said.
To his knowledge, only one bear has ever been harvested in the southeast, back in 2017, near Winona. The southeast is part of the no-quota zone, but only a few hunters ever hunt there each year.
“We presume most of these bears come from Wisconsin, rather than following the river. That said, there’s nothing preventing a few stray bears from up north from heading south,” Tri said.
Outdoor News tried touching base with Don Ramsden, DNR assistant area wildlife manager out of Rochester, for a more local report. He said via email that, for the past 20-plus years, six to eight bears are traveling in the southeast annually.
Hoekstra said he and a buddy estimated the male bear’s weight at 150 pounds, and “he was just full of corn.” They processed the corn-fed bruin into jerky, burger, and roasts, which family and friends have consumed rapidly.
“My son-in-law put bear burgers on the grill, and they tasted like beef. Just excellent,” he said. “We about got him eaten up.”
A taxidermist in Bethany, Minn., has the hide, though a heavy coating of southern Minnesota burdocks in the bruin’s hair could make brushing out a bear rug challenging, Hoekstra said.