Tom West: Red squirrel steals the show at bear sanctuary

I took a wonderful day trip Saturday to visit the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr. The refuge is otherwise known as the "bear refuge" or "the place where they feed the bears."...

I took a wonderful day trip Saturday to visit the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr. The refuge is otherwise known as the "bear refuge" or "the place where they feed the bears."

What won me over, however, weren't the bears, but a relatively tiny red squirrel.

At the sanctuary, an all-volunteer staff keeps feeding stations well stocked with seeds, berries, grubs and other bear food. Dozens of bears stop by between late afternoon and dusk to feed.

Intermixed are a few other animals, including the red squirrel. It was sitting at a feeding station, gorging on sunflower seeds, when a bear sat down to feed at the same spot. The squirrel was mightily irritated as it leaped out of harm's way. Then it ran around behind the bear and bit it right in the butt, before running on to the adjacent feeding station.

I don't know about you, but the idea of biting a bear in the butt had never crossed my mind before.


The bear naturally started, then stood up. It watched the squirrel run to the adjacent feeding station. Then the bear slowly lumbered over to it.

Just as it was almost upon the squirrel, the squirrel noticed and with a chitter-chatter, it leaped off the loose stump and scurried away. The bear opened its mouth and took a huge bite, but clamped down on nothing but air. It missed the squirrel's tail by no more than an inch.

Then the bear sat down at this second feeding station. Instead of merely eating the seed, however, it put its front paws around the loose stump, and tilted it and the seed toward it while it ate. It was as if it were saying to the squirrel, "This is mine, and you can't have any."

Many Duluthians have already visited the sanctuary, including my traveling companions, but this was my first visit. Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted by the volunteers.

Vince Shute, for whom the sanctuary is named, was a logger in the area. When he first began logging, bears were attracted by the loggers' food preparation. They became a nuisance, and the typical practice was therefore to shoot them.

Shute eventually came to believe that the bears were not a threat and if he set out food at a distance from the loggers' cabin, the bears would not bother them. He was right.

He came to realize that bears were essentially shy and non-aggressive unless hungry or threatened. Make no mistake, if a bear is in your garbage can or wants your pizza, you don't want to fight it. But at the sanctuary, the volunteer workers walked among the bears with buckets filled with seed. The bears were content to let them pour the seed into the feeding stations, and didn't demand a pail for themselves.

In 1993, Shute's health began to fail, and he began to make arrangements to take care of the bears into perpetuity. He donated his land to be the sanctuary. In 1995, he helped form the American Bear Association. On July 4, 2000, Vince passed away, but even today, four years later, volunteers are continuing his legacy.


It is a jaunt to get there from Duluth -- more than two hours. Drive up Highway 53 past Cook. A mile south of Orr on the west side of the road is the Dam Restaurant. Turn left there onto St. Louis County Road 23, which is also known as Nett Lake Road. Drive 13.3 miles. A tenth of a mile past County Road 513, turn right into the refuge. Proceed on gravel about a half mile into the woods until you arrive at the parking area.

From there, buses will transport you another couple of miles into the woods to the viewing area. Restroom facilities are primitive, so you may want to stop in Cook before proceeding on.

A gift shop is at the viewing area. Because the sanctuary receives no government grants, it gratefully accepts all donations. If you prefer to purchase bear paraphernalia, that's OK, too.

However, to visit this year, go soon. The sanctuary is open from 5 p.m. to dusk every day except Monday -- but only through Labor Day. (It will be open on the holiday, even though it is a Monday.)

The question of whether or not to feed the bears remains an issue, even at the sanctuary. The bears there become acclimated to being around humans.

I learned enough, however, to know that the bear scavenging in my neighborhood in Duluth most likely won't bother me if I don't bother -- or encourage -- it.

As for the ferocious red squirrel, I'm not so sure.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

What To Read Next
Get Local