City bears emerge from hibernation
Walking along a Congdon Park neighborhood driveway in Duluth last week, Chris Balzer, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager based in Cloquet, found clear evidence of a bear den: a trail of bear scat, garbage and a broken bird feeder led to a hole under the home's porch.
"I suspect it's been in there all winter. It's just causing an issue now because it's waking up," Balzer said.
This led to the homeowner, Koni Sundquist, 88, confronting the bear this spring.
"He's been under my porch twice. I hit him with a broom the first time. That was probably dumb. The second time, I threw rocks at him," Sundquist said.
"I worry because five days a week I have Meals on Wheels delivered, and they're all senior citizens, both ladies and gentlemen," she said. "What if the bear stood up and scared the liver out of 'em?"
Balzer's remedy? Limit the bear's food supply.
"The two biggest complaints we get, whether it's in the city or in the country, are bird feeders and garbage," Balzer said.
Sundquist's neighbor, Leif Brush, 85, has lived in the house next door since 1972. He said bears will often pass through the yards, which are adjacent to a wooded area. But this one is different, he said. The bear has managed to take down six of his bird feeders.
"It just casually walks by. It looked like he owned the place," Brush said.
As bears come out of hibernation, there are sure to be more reports of bears in city limits.
Balzer said the DNR hears complaints about bears in the city later into the fall and earlier in the spring than bears in rural areas because the city setting provides more food, such as food waste and bird seed.
"It seems like they have this pretty reliable food source so they don't have that need to hibernate as long," Balzer said. "I mean, this bear gets up and it's got bird feeders and garbage right outside his den. You think of a bear way out in the woods — there's nothing to eat yet."
Balzer suggested homeowners limit the number of bird feeders in their yard and keep trash cans inside a garage or shed. Strapping down the lids could work, too.
To prevent a bear from living under the porch, Balzer suggests using smoke bombs, running a garden hose under the porch or playing a loud radio continuously to force the bear out. Once the bear is out, then the entrance can be boarded up.
"It's better if you can do something like a smoke bomb or water and actually see it leave, because you don't want to put the boards there and lock the bear in," Balzer said.
The DNR could be on hand to help with ensuring safety during that process. Balzer said that once the bear left, he'd want to go inside the den to check for any cubs before sealing it off.
The DNR and the city of Duluth share a responsibility in managing reports of bears in the city. The DNR can offer assistance in driving a bear out and it can make recommendations, but if a bear is a public safety concern, then lethal force may be necessary. That is rare, Balzer said, but live trapping, or catch-and-release, doesn't work.
"More often, they find their way back or get killed in the process of finding their way back. ... We move them 50 miles away in a trap and a week later, they're back," Balzer said.
Instead, the wildlife manager finds himself trying to change the behavior of people rather than the animals.
"It's hard to change the behavior of a bear. Our approach is really more to educate people and get them to think about securing food sources," Balzer said.
News Tribune outdoors reporter Sam Cook contributed to this report.