Handling the all-American black bear encounter

Hattie Lesmeister points out some black bear warning signs to her grandpa so he knows to take all the necessary precautions in case an encounter occurs.

I spend my summers on Madeline Island in northern Wisconsin these days. It’s the only island in the Apostle Islands chain with permanent dwellings. All the other islands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and not open to development.

The town of La Pointe sits on the west end of Madeline Island and greets people as they exit the ferry and drive or walk off to enjoy the restaurants and shops. There is a marina and an 18-hole golf course. The state of Wisconsin has a beautiful state park with camping, and there is a town park with campsites, too. Both parks sit on a long swatch of beautiful sand beach that gets smoothed by the waves of Lake Superior’s crystal-clear water.

Madeline Island has a wealth of wildlife. There are deer, fox, coyotes, many types of birds, fishers, mink, otter, and a burgeoning population of black bear.

I was sitting with a group of people at the golf course recently watching a doe and her two fawns wander through a flock of geese that were pulling at the fairway grass. The conversation had us sharing the stories of bears that were showing up on our properties. One couple living right in town had two cubs, a 2- or 3-year-old and the mother, a big sow, all wandering around the house. The sow entered the screen porch, looked in the window, and then wandered back out into the yard.

My next-door neighbor’s dog recently treed a huge black bear. Now this dog barely weighs 40 pounds, but he sent that big bear up a huge pine and held it there until being pulled off.

I have a 2-year-old bear wandering around on my property. He likes to nap in a clearing just a few hundred feet to the east of my house. My next-door neighbor’s beagle will chase him into my woods when the two meet, but that little dog doesn’t intimidate that young bear enough to get him to climb a tree.

With all these bear meet human connections, it’s amazing there are no negative encounters that result in an aggressive bear mauling a dog, or worse, attacking a human. Is it just luck, or are the bears on Madeline Island just conditioned to humans and dogs?

The answer is in the statistics. There is fewer than one black bear attack a year in the United States according to the National Park Service. Chances of being injured by a bear are one out of 2 million. Since the year 1900, there have only been 67 black bear fatalities in North America. That’s just one fatality every other year.

So black bears are shy and non-aggressive by nature. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of inflicting some major damage to a person if they want. Get between a momma and her cubs and see what happens. Wander up on a big boar that is eating on a fresh kill, and be prepared to see a mean animal. Certain conditions warrant caution when a bear is present.

I now carry pepper spray with me on the hiking trails on Madeline Island. I keep that one eye in the back of my head wide open all the time, paying close attention to what surrounds me in the woods. I’m staying on high alert no matter where I’m standing these days whether it be in my backyard or on a trail in the middle of the woods. When you are in bear country, it pays to be diligent, even if the bears seem friendly.

Categories: Tim Lesmeister

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