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City bears emerge from hibernation

Chris Balzer, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager based in Cloquet, looks over the trashed scene at the Duluth home of Koni Sundquist and finds clear evidence of a bear den. An opening in the porch at right is big enough for the bear to get through and den up under the home. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
An unsealed opening near the base of the old front porch at Koni Sundquist's home has allowed a bear access under the house. Garbage the bear took from nearby garbage cans lies strewn about. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Leif Brush has seen bears on his property before, but the current bear is unusual in that it seems to have made its home under his neighbor's porch. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Chris Balzer, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager, examines a bird feeder that was bent by the bear so it could more reach the bird feed inside at the home of Koni Sundquist. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

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.

Bear tracks filled with windblown leaves pockmark Leif Brush's front yard in Duluth. Bob King / News Tribune

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.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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