A bear up a tree is hardly a rare thing in Duluth. But this case was different.
Early Wednesday morning, as Duluthians went to work, they saw a young bear 50 or 60 feet up in a tree in the front yard of Duluth’s City Hall.
Then, at about 1:40 p.m., the bear decided it was time to scramble down the tree and take a little ramble. The young bruin loped up to Second Street behind City Hall toward the county’s parking ramp.
Up to five Duluth police squad cars and a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer’s pickup, with lights flashing, accompanied the bear, trying to gently herd it west.
“If we can get him west of Mesaba, he’s got all kinds of woods,” said Duluth police Sgt. Gayle Holton.
But the bear had different ideas, bearing south past the St. Louis County Courthouse, scattering inquisitive courthouse workers who had come outside to see the bear.
“We need to get back to work, but we can’t get there,” said Sandy Kohn, who works in human resources for the county.
The bear worked its way into the Duluth Civic Center, where it eventually climbed about 75 feet up a tree and sat at a confluence of two limbs, munching the tree’s buds with the American flag as a backdrop.
The large contingent of police and conservation officers dispersed, reverting to a lower-key monitoring of the situation with the hope that the bear would climb down later and leave the area on its own.
It did just that shortly before 4:30 p.m., climbing down from the second tree and heading around the back of the county courthouse, in the direction of the county parking ramp.
The same bear had chased a person on or near the Lakewalk sometime after 12:20 a.m. Wednesday, said Duluth Police Department spokesman Ron Tinsley. The bear also walked out on the north pier of the Duluth ship canal, then returned and climbed a tree by the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, Tinsley said.
By mid-morning, word had spread fast about the bear in the tree at City Hall. It was unknown when the bear climbed into the tree.
Throughout the morning, a steady procession of onlookers paused near the corner of Fourth Avenue West and First Street to gawk at the slumbering bruin.
“My boss went to a meeting and heard about it,” said Casey Yoder of Duluth. “He told me to shut down the office and go take pictures.”
So, being the only employee in the office at Kelly Services, that’s what Yoder did.
“I’m curious why he’s in the city,” she said. “I’m not sure what he was thinking.”
For the most part, no loud crowds formed beneath the bear. Nobody came and left food at the base of the tree. Bears aren’t uncommon in Duluth, and many residents have seen bears in their yards or neighborhoods. They know the drill.
Now, here came Duluth Mayor Don Ness, on his way to the Port Cities Luncheon, all sport coat and tie and slacks. He stopped, looked up.
“To see a bear that high in a tree is unique,” said the mayor.
He started listing other memorable city bear sightings - a bear in a boat, a bear at the old Hotel Duluth. And then he was off to his luncheon.
The bear, which appeared to be a yearling, was curled up nose to tail where a couple of branches forked. Occasionally, it would raise its smoky head, look around or yawn. Then it would curl up again.
Gawkers arrived, shot smartphone photos, moved on. Some assembled in impromptu groups and chatted with total strangers.
“It’s cool,” said Melissa Defoe of Cloquet.
Her daughter, Anissa Defoe, shot bear photos nearby.
“I live in the woods and can’t see a bear,” Melissa said. “I have to come to the city to see a bear.”
The bear lifted its head again.
“I like how he looks at us and then puts his head back down,” Melissa said.
Let’s face it. We like looking at wild things. Deer. Bear. Moose. Wolves. And here was a chance to study a wild critter for a while.
Laurie Sackett of La Crosse, Wis., in town for a visit, watched the bear and talked to a stranger for several minutes. She seemed to know her bears. Her brother is a bear-hunting guide, she said.
“He looks like he’s a yearling,” Sackett said. “My guess is he was kicked off from the mother.”
She liked watching the bear, but she harbored concerns, too.
“This is awesome,” Sackett said, “but it bothers me because he needs to be taken back to where he belongs. Maybe tonight it will quiet down, and he’ll go on his way.”
Some onlookers wondered why police or a DNR conservation officer did not tranquilize and remove the bear. Tom Provost, regional enforcement officer for the Minnesota DNR at Grand Rapids, said the DNR no longer tranquilizes wild animals in such situations. Tranquilizing drugs have a shelf life, Provost said, and can lose their effectiveness if not used promptly. Additionally, sometimes a tranquilized animal can escape, and that can pose a danger for the public, he said.
“We can’t account for a bear running around with medication in its system,” Provost said.
If the DNR wanted to have an animal tranquilized, it would have to pay another agency, such as a zoo, to do it.
The Duluth Police Department cautioned the public not to crowd the bear as it moved about on Wednesday.
“The department hopes this bear comes down and goes into the woods. The last thing we want to do is harm this bear in any way,” Tinsley said. “If a bear poses a danger to the public, we have to make some tough choices.”