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Blane Klemek: Black bears are 'Eating Machines'

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I like to refer to the American black bear this time of year as an "eating machine." Not in a derogatory way, but in a respectful, appreciative manner. Aside from taking a break now and then from consuming food in order to rest or sleep, there's not much else a bear would rather do than eat.

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Indeed, responding to a near insatiable appetite and innate need, a bear's main purpose -- aside from reproducing of course -- from almost the moment they emerge from their dens in early spring to the moment they lay down for their long winter naps, is to fill their ever expanding stomachs and to pack on additional fat reserves and pounds.

It is also why staff from DNR wildlife offices throughout bear country begin fielding telephone calls from anxious folks worried about the bear or bears tearing down their backyard birdfeeders, or rummaging through their garbage cans, or knocking over their barbecue grills, or just plain getting into things that smells good to eat. As understandable as these bear behaviors are, it's still unnerving to people not accustomed to observing black bears behaving like overgrown raccoons or squirrels.

Right now, in Minnesota's forests, black bears are on a feeding binge. Bears need to gain as much weight as possible from now until den-up. Hazel nuts, acorns, berries of all kinds, tubers, roots, herbs, grasses, and sedges are just some of the many natural food items on the menu now or later. And though the diet of black bears is primarily plant material -- up to 75-percent -- animal matter such as ants, grubs, beetles, small rodents, white-tailed deer fawns, and carrion are also eaten.

But, as already eluded to, now is the time when human-bear encounters increase. Black bears, led by their noses and voracious appetites, sometimes wind up in bee hives, backyards, campgrounds, dumpsters, and even towns and cities. The drive to eat is paramount in the daily and nightly activities of all black bears.

One particularly astonishing story of a hungry bear that I enjoy telling was recounted to me by a wildlife biologist friend of mine many years ago. The story illustrates the comical nature of bears and how their noses tends to be their guiding light, so to speak, not to mention sometimes getting them into "a fix."

On a warm summer night while fast asleep in his rented trailer that he shared with two other research biologists, my friend awoke suddenly to the sound of something in the hallway. While lying in a dream-like state inside his dark bedroom and listening, he began distinguishing the sound of heavy breathing. When he turned his head to see, he could barely make out the form of a bear standing on all fours in the doorway.

After my friend summoned his housemates to "beware of a bear," the entire household shook with not only the weight of the fleeing intruder, but by those humans trying desperately to encourage their visitor to leave through the same hole in the screen-door it had created. Miraculously, the latter actually occurred, and the bear, no worse for the wear, hastily left.

But what does one do in cases of more typical, yet unwanted bear encounters? There are numerous things we can do to not only discourage an initial visit in the first place from black bears, but to rid yourself and your property of the animal should one happen to show up and not want to leave. What it all boils down to, really, is learning how to live with bears. After all, many of us live in bear country, so it's inevitable that, sooner or later, a sighting, encounter, or incidence will occur.

I'll be the first to admit that feeding birds is enjoyable throughout all of Minnesota's glorious seasons. Thus, many of us feed birds in the summer months in order to better observe those species we don't get to see during the wintertime. However, if a bear should happen to discover the high-protein food sources that your bird feeding activities provide, you might find yourself with a nuisance bear in your feeders.

Not only will your bear consume your birdseed, it will likely destroy your birdfeeders in the process -- something you won't obviously appreciate. Worse yet, a black bear that grows accustomed to daily handouts might lose its natural fear of people. Or, another scenario that's possible, is finding yourself regrettably between a sow and her cubs. Such situations can be very unpredictable and dangerous.

Still, in nearly every single case, bears are only interested in the food, not you. So, the solution to ridding yourself and your property of bears making a nuisance of themselves is generally easy: simply stop feeding birds and other wildlife that you might be providing food for, remove your feeders and feeding containers, and clean up any residual seed or foodstuffs from the ground and area. This means removing your hummingbird feeders, too. Bears LOVE sugar-water!

Once the food, and the scent of food, is gone, your bear will likely go away. In fact, if you live in the woods where bears are known to reside, it's best to not feed birds from at least early spring to mid-October. As well, avoid feeding your pets outdoors, or, if you do, don't leave pet food outside overnight.

Garbage, and the proper storing of it, is another important consideration. If receptacles must be stored outdoors, make sure they're bear proof -- that is, containers that cannot be ripped apart, opened, or carried off by persistent bears. Better yet, keep garbage containers clean and inside an enclosed building or shed.

Barbecue grills (another bear attractant that's full of irresistible smells) can lure a hungry bear from a long distance away. Keep your grills clean, don't leave them outdoors after using, and store them inside the garage or other out-building when not in use.

Learning to live with black bears is important for anyone that lives in bear country. Bears are normally very shy mammals, but, because of hearty appetites, keen noses, reduced habitat, and more of us living in the woods where they have always lived, bears sometimes find themselves -- through no fault of their own -- in precarious predicaments.

That withstanding, the American black bear, or the "black ghost of the forest," is a creature to appreciate as we continue learning and understanding how to best live with them as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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