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As spring begins, trend of Michigan black bears moving south continues

Apr 13, 2016

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

With the onset of spring, flowers are blooming, grass is growing, and bears are coming out of hibernation.

And black bears, the only type of bear that lives in the state, are already making headlines.

“Scruffy,” a 300-pound black bear who roamed around southwest Michigan and northwest Indiana for more than a year, was captured and euthanized on April 9 after attempting to enter occupied homes. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources deemed the bear’s actions as a “threat to human health.”

Mark Sargent, southwest wildlife field operations manager for MDNR, told Michigan Radio this bear in particular was no longer “scared of people, not scared of barking dogs, and not scared of light.”

But this bear isn’t a rare sighting anymore for southwestern residents. Black bears — mostly young, male bears — have been traveling south for 5 to 10 years.

“This used to be really uncommon, but as our bear population has grown, bears seem to be a lot more comfortable in a human environment,” Sargent said. “...For bears to survive in southern Michigan, they’re going to have to deal with people.”

Sargent attributed this movement to the behavior of mother bears “kicking out” these young, male bears to help spread the animal’s habitat and population.

“We have food — from blueberry farms to honey hives to people with bird feeders — so food’s available and they can tolerate the higher human densities,” Sargent said. “It’s not a bad deal for them.”

Black bears typically live in large forested areas in the Upper Peninsula and can be hunted in Michigan during open season.

To respond to this trend, the MDNR created a set of guidelines for southwestern residents to follow as part of the state’s larger Bear Management Plan, which aims to maintain a healthy black bear population in the state and limit bear-human conflicts.

The state also created Michigan Problem Bear Management Guidelines to “minimize conflicts between bears and people.”  According to the guidelines, bears can fall under six different categories of threat toward humans, and only two of these categories would require an immediate response from the department by means of trapping and relocating the bear or, in extreme circumstances, the bear will be euthanized.

Like “Scruffy,” these bears will have either directly injured or killed a human or exhibited consistent aggressive behavior towards humans.  Bears in need of relocation could also be injured, diseased, or trapped in an area with difficulty leaving.

“We monitor bear locations and what types of problems they’re causing,” Sargent said. "When they start threatening human health, that start escalating that level and our concerns.”

Last summer, MDNR warned state residents about "nuisance" bears, who were on the hunt for new territory and mating season. 

To prevent threatening human-bear interactions from occurring, MDNR has recommended residents use electric fencing around their properties and remove bird feeders and garbage from their yards.