Black bears moving south

Dec 6, 2011

Black bears have been doing well in northern Michigan for a while. There are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 bears in the state, mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula, but in recent years, bears have been on the move.

Some people are already getting a little closer to bears than they’d like to.

“There’s one coming up to inspect...”

Terry Klein is a commercial beekeeper and he’s checking on the hives in his backyard.

“These are in good shape if they’re that far down and there’s that much honey on them,” said Klein.

He lives in St. Charles. It’s about 20 miles southwest of Saginaw.

“This spring is the most recent fun we had with the bear, if you want to call it that.”

Klein had 20 hives set up near the Saginaw-Midland county line. Only two of them survived the winter. And those last two hives were the ones the bear decided to eat. He left behind a calling card.

“There was one very definite paw print in one of the frames that had fallen or got knocked out of the hive, and there were several other frames that you could see claw marks.”

Bears do love honey, but they also love to eat the bee larvae. So they can devour the entire hive.

Black bears are not just wandering into the Saginaw area. They’ve been showing up all over southern Michigan.

Adam Bump is a bear specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

“We get scattered reports especially on the west side of the state," Bump said. "But over the last five to ten years they’ve been coming much more consistently.”

He said bears have shown up in the Thumb, and around Flint, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Lansing, and the Chelsea area.

He said a lot of the time, the bears are young males that get pushed out during the breeding season. They’ll head down looking for new territory.

“It’s not that we’re completely full up in the north – it can’t take one more bear – it’s just that we’re getting more taking the chance and moving south.”

He said bears like to travel along rivers and forested corridors and they appear to be finding good routes to travel.

“Even in the greater Grand Rapids area you have a lot of green space, so when you have those connecting forest corridors or even forested blocks you build bear habitat,” said Bump.

Bump said some female bears appear to be moving south too. And some might be setting up camp... and having babies.

“We think we have an established population now as far down as Grand Rapids, possibly into Ionia County. We're getting more and more reports of bears in southern Michigan, even bears that are too young to have moved, so they had to have been produced in southern Michigan.”

But he said they don’t know exactly where those established populations might be.

Dwayne Etter is trying to figure that out. He’s a bear researcher with the DNR. He puts radio collars on bears and uses GPS to track their movements.

“We haven’t been able to get a female bear collared yet,"Etter said. "So we’d really like to get a female bear collared down here because then we could track and see if she’s reproducing.”

The DNR is planning to allow bears to expand naturally into southern Michigan.

Adam Bump said he’s hoping they can keep conflicts between black bears and people to a minimum.

“The reality is they’re not a very aggressive animal. The chances of them doing anything to a person or a pet are extremely low. If you do have reports or see one in the neighborhood, the best thing to do is remove any attractants, don’t put your trash out the night before trash pickup, pull in birdfeeders.”

He said the most important thing to know is to never feed a bear directly. He said black bears have a natural fear of humans... but if they lose that fear and associate people with food, they can become dangerous.

But  Bump said he expects bear encounters to be rare... and the bear will probably run away before you even see it.