The black bear is a miraculous animal.
In any given year, if anecdotal evidence collected in Minnesota can be believed, the state's only species of bear can be simultaneously endangered and part of an infestation.
Every time one knocks over someone’s suburban trash can, people scream for its immediate removal. When that same bear is inevitably shot, still others bemoan the imminent destruction of the species.
Dave Garshelis is a bear research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and he really wishes non-bear-scientists would stop throwing out their theories on the size and scope of the bear population -- and telling him how to do his job.
“I’m not saying we can’t be wrong,” he says. What he’s saying is they have a vested interest in the health of Minnesota’s bears, and know a thing or two more than the public does about how they’re doing overall.
The problem is, people talk about the bear population as if it were an accident or an invasion -- as if there just happened to be more bears in one decade and fewer in another. The truth is, there’s no mystery to it. We did it. Pretty much every time.
And not in the way we’ve accidentally caused invasive species or global warming. Just about every recent swing in the animal’s numbers has been a conscious choice made by ordinary non-bear-scientists -- folks like you, unless you're Dave Garshelis, and me.
Back in the mid -'80s, Minnesota's bear population was on a rapid rise. In 1991, the DNR received nearly 2,000 complaints about nuisance bears lumbering through yards and robbing bird feeders. Every year, Garshelis tries to explain to people the same thing: Bears don’t know you’re trying to feed birds. They just think you put a bunch of calorie-dense sunflower seeds within reach, and isn’t that great?
“The obvious thing is to stop feeding the birds,” he says.
It was not obvious to everyone, because the same message came the DNR’s way again and again: There were too many dang bears, and people wanted DNR officials to do something about it.
So they did. The most effective bear management tool has always been hunting; this year's bear hunting season began this past Labor Day weekend. To this day, it’s responsible for 80 percent of bear deaths. The DNR had stepped up the number of bear hunters, from just 3,700 in 1985 to nearly 17,000 in 2000. In 1995 alone, 11,600 hunters went out and killed nearly 5,000 bears.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, there were something like 25,000 of the bears roaming their northeast Minnesota territory. According to reports from the DNR, in 2008, the population dropped to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000. Garhselis says the 2008 population was actually closer to where it is today: 12,000 to 15,000.
And suddenly, the DNR had egg on its face. Garshelis says they weren’t monitoring the population’s precipitous descent as closely as they should have, and as a result, the decline was sharper than intended. The agency was obeying the whims of the public, Garshelis says, when perhaps they shouldn’t have been.
For the past 15 years, the DNR's been getting a different kind of complaint: People aren’t seeing as many bears around. And now they miss them.
Today, the DNR finds itself rebuilding Minnesota’s black bear population. Limited permits ensure hunters kill an average of 3,000 black bears every year (that's according to the DNR's website, but Garshelis says it's more like 2,000) -- enough for female bears to continue to have their standard three cubs every two years and bolster their numbers.
Garshelis does not want you to get it twisted. Black bears are not endangered in Minnesota. If the previous three decades have taught us anything, it’s that their numbers are completely under human control. When we want them to bounce back, they do. These past few years, their numbers are on a slow but steady upswing.
And now, the DNR is getting yet another gripe -- this time from hunters, who think the population has recovered quite enough, and don’t want to "wait four years" to get a license. This time, the DNR is sticking to its guns -- or rather, forcing hunters to set theirs down. No open season yet. Not until they’re sure they’ve hit a satisfactory 18,000 to 20,000 bears.
Thoughts? Concerns? Go ahead and let the DNR know -- they want to hear them. But if you're not a bear scientist, you don't get to call the shots.
“I have spent 35 years in this job,” Garshelis says. “This is all I do every day -- it’s all I think about.”