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What's with these black bears showing up in Burnsville?

Though there's an impression that bears are increasingly migrating to the suburbs, the DNR is suspicious of that thesis.

Though there's an impression that bears are increasingly migrating to the suburbs, the DNR is suspicious of that thesis. Getty Images/iStockphoto

It all began in 2014 in Savage. A bear was spotted crossing Highway 13. It was a young male -- maybe a year-and-a-half, somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds.

Bears are not a common sight in the southwest metro. Black bear territory is traditionally in the northeast third of the state. As a rule, they generally try to avoid people. They’ve been known to raid the occasional garbage can or wreck the occasional bee farm, but they prefer snuffling around in the woods to loping down highways.

That evening, the bear ventured near the crowded Town and Country Campground. Savage police headed to the scene. Corralling bears is not a normal part of suburban policework. The officers called the DNR for advice.

“Well, if you see him, you’re going to have to put him down,” the DNR rep said. There were too many people, too much food roasting over too many fires. Food and people are a bad pairing when it comes to pacifying black bears. There was no telling how it was going to react.

But surely it could be sedated? Carted lovingly back to some forest and left to run free?

Nope -- this isn’t a Disney movie. Most DNR staff don’t even have access to the chemicals required to knock out a bear. Besides, it could end up running down a busy street before its body finally gave out. And then what? Dump an unconscious, defenseless bear in the woods and hope for the best? Even if it survives, it’ll remember the relative ease of eating human food. It’ll come back, or terrorize some other town. It had to die.

Officers found the bear in a nearby backyard. They had their orders. One aimed and fired. It was a hit, but not fatal. The bear loped into the woods before officers could finish the job.

It turned up again less than a mile away from Harriet Bishop Elementary School. Officers escorted the kids inside, out of the warm May weather, and advised parents to pick up their children by car rather than walk or bike them home.

Then it popped up at a Kwik Trip on Vernon Avenue. The search for the bear was turning into a game of Whack-A-Mole… one where the mole weighed a few hundred pounds. DNR officers joined the hunt.

A week after the campsite incident, Savage Police Chief Rodney Seurer got another call. A bear was spotted in Burnsville, near McAndrews Road and 1-35E. Now it was the Burnsville Police Department’s problem.

Burnsville sent out a press release after a sighting on 134th Street, noting that the bear was holding its left rear leg aloft, as if it had been wounded.

Burnsville officers never caught the animal. It had moved on to Eagan.

A week passed. Then, some news from West St. Paul. Officers had cornered a wandering black bear, hoping to tranquilize it. It was a young male with a wounded leg. Before an officer could get to the scene with a tranquilizer gun, the bear fled north.

“The officers had a grave concern the bear might flee to an even more populated area before the animal control officer could have responded,” said West St. Paul Police Chief Manila Shaver. So they shot it.

Four years would pass. Then, last Thursday, Burnsville announced that another uninvited guest had been spotted: a black bear. Residents took a few surreptitious photos of the bear walking by a first-floor window, or standing by a tree south of Highway 42.

It was another young male -- probably 2 years old. The city said the bear didn’t seem to be in a dangerous mood, but instructed residents to keep kids and pets out of its way.

There’s a perception that more and more black bears are pushing their territory southward and westward, down into the suburbs, says Bob Fashingbauer of the DNR. But that perception hasn’t been backed by data. The DNR just created an interactive map for bear sightings outside of their normal haunts, hoping that information will help them know for sure.

When bears end up within the 494-694 loop, he says, they’re more likely to be an immediate threat. The latest Burnsville bear has a chance to run free, provided it makes a point of roaming north back to the woods.