February 28, 2021

Your Neighbor, the Bear

A close-up look at summer's backyard burglar
By Kristi Kates | June 17, 2017

The American black bear — aka Ursus Americanus — is the only species of bear that calls northern Michigan’s forests home. Or, perhaps more accurately, that should call northern Michigan forest’s home. 

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the  state’s bear population is on the rise. And though the omnivores are typically shy, elusive creatures, their increased numbers, plus summer’s alluring scents — think: birdseed, garbage cans, and your barbecue grill — are boosting the likelihood that you’ll see a bear in your backyard.

Steve Griffith, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan DNR, said that the most recent calculation of Michigan’s bear population, completed in May 2017, confirmed that there are between 10,000 and 11,000 bears living in the state. Estimates point to about 8,000 bears in the Upper Peninsula and 2,000 in northern lower Michigan.

“The black bears’ range in Michigan normally extends down to between Newaygo and Grand Rapids, and then across the state,” Griffith said. “Sometimes the bears wander further south, but there are too many people there for them, so they just head back up north.”

The growing black bear population isn’t a sign of a problem; it’s actually an indication that the state’s bear population is healthy, said Griffith. He said that more and more, the Michigan DNR is seeing female bears (sows) with four cubs, when two cubs traditionally has been considered normal. “It’s unusual, but that mostly shows that the bear population is healthy, and that’s good,” he said. “There’s definitely room for them to grow.”

Unlike their western cousin, the grizzly bear, which number only about 1,500 in the continental United States, black bears don’t actively hunt. “If they come across something wounded, they might eat it,” he said, “but 75 to 80 percent of a black bear’s diet is vegetation — seeds, nuts, grasses, and fruits — while the rest is mostly insects.”

In the summer, bears will raid ant mounds and rip open rotten old logs looking for grubs and insects. And unlike the cartoon character Yogi Bear, black bears are not on a constant quest for honey. “I mean, they’ll eat honey — they do like sweet foods,” Griffith said, “but where a beehive is concerned, they’re mostly after the bees themselves, and the bee larvae for protein.”

Another difference? Unlike grizzlies, black bears don’t hibernate all the way through the winter. Griffith called it “more of a long, heavy nap” that the bears start when they retreat into their den in late October or early November. Bear cubs are born right in the den, usually in January, and the whole family makes an exit in April, when spring arrives; but the bears will often come out during warm spells in the interim, “especially if there’s still food around, like acorns,” Griffith said.

Another misconception about our resident black bears is that they can’t see very well. Griffith said that, contrary to popular belief, black bears actually do have good eyesight, as well as excellent hearing and an extremely well-refined sense of smell that can outdo most dogs.

“They’re also hardwired to be shy, timid, and to avoid human contact,” Griffith said. “I’ve gone out picking wild blueberries, found a steaming pile of bear scat, and realized that a bear must have been right near me, and I scared them away just by being there.”

Griffith knows black bear cubs well; they’re one of the Michigan DNR’s specialties. The agency even has a “surrogate sow” program for orphaned cubs, to help little bears who’ve lost their mother. “We have a small number of sows that we’ve put radio collars on,” Griffith said. “So when we find, for instance, a mama bear hit by a car, we catch her cubs and try to set up a surrogate for them.” 

To set up a surrogate, DNR officers coat the orphaned cubs with Vicks VapoRub to cover up the scent of the actual mother bear and of people; then they located one of their current sows that already has cubs, and the covert introductions begin.

“We scare the cubs a little, just enough to get them to go up a tree, and then we put our orphaned cubs up into the same tree,” Griffith said. “When the mama bear returns, she can’t detect the cubs that aren’t hers, because with the Vicks, they don’t smell ‘wrong.’ So most of the time, once she cleans the Vicks off [each cub], it establishes her own scent on the cub, and she’ll accept it as her own.” (Griffith said the Vicks is safe for the bear to ingest.)

Now back to our backyards, where bears most often find themselves unwelcome. “Bears love cracked corn, suet, sunflower seeds, even hummingbird sugar water,” Griffith said. “If they go into your yard and get a reward, they will remember and might come back.”

Your job is to make the yard as far from a free “bear café” as it can get. It’s often suggested to not feed the birds in the summer, since there’s plentiful food for them in the warmer months; Griffith also said it’s a good idea to keep garbage cans in a shed or garage until pick-up day, and to keep grills inside as well. “Grill one single burger, and a bear will know that there was meat there!” he said.

If you do see a bear in your yard, Griffith said the best thing to do is keep your distance. Briefly watch through your window and take a few photos if you’d like — then use light and sound to chase them away. “Knock on the window, put on a porch light or, if you’re safely away from the bear, step outside and yell,” he said. “These are all ways to say ‘We don’t mind that you live here, but please keep your distance.’ Negative reinforcements that will remind the bear that it’s time to go.”

Nature trails are another place where you might encounter a black bear, so remain alert when you’re out in the wilderness. “Even though black bears don’t see people as food, they often associate people with food, so if you’re hiking, and you have a peanut butter sandwich in your pack, they can smell it,” Griffith said. 

You can purchase bear spray as a deterrent, or carry a walking stick to put some distance between yourself and any wild animals, but again, the best approach is simply to scare bears off. “If you’re yelling and waving your arms around and flapping your coat and throwing sticks at them, then the bear will most likely think, well, That sandwich just isn’t worth it,” he said. “Bears want the easiest route to food, and you’re not it.”

Increasing numbers and backyard attraction aside, black bears likely won’t be a feature of your next hike, Griffith said; they’re quite timid creatures, especially when they can hear people approaching, and most Michiganders — even those living Up North — will go their entire life and never encounter one in the wild.

“Black bears are surprisingly timid,” Griffith said. “For the most part, they’ll avoid us. But they’re still a wild animal, and still unpredictable – and we’re in bear country, so we need to be mindful.”


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