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Feature

A map of Minnesota indicating the location of bears in the state.

Minnesota has about 23,000 black bears; most bears can be found in the northern parts of the state.

The truth about bears

By Jennifer Amie

From eNews, August 4, 2005

Kristina Timmerman, a researcher in the University of Minnesota's Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, has spent five years studying black bears in Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park. She has crawled headfirst into dozens of bear dens, tracked roaming bears with radio telemetry, and surveyed Minnesota campers about their attitudes toward bears. Here, she unravels six common myths and misconceptions about bears.

Different color, different species In Minnesota, you will usually see bears with black fur, but you might also see brown-colored or even cinnamon-colored bears. All of them belong to the same species: the American black bear. In some parts of Canada and Alaska, black bears even have cream-colored or blue-tinted fur. Grizzly bears and Pacific coast brown bears belong to a separate species: the brown bear. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there are 23,000 black bears in the state; brown bears only lived in Minnesota up until the late 1880s.

Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear Despite what children's tales say, bears do not live together in family groups. They are solitary creatures that usually live and travel alone. The only long-term relationship is between a mother and her cubs, who stay together for about 16 to 17 months before the cubs strike out on their own.

If a bear is chasing you, run downhill Perhaps this dubious piece of advice derives from a belief that bears, which have shorter front legs, will stumble if they try to run downhill. In fact, bears are fast runners over any terrain. Lean bears can run up to 30 miles per hour for short distances. It's best to never assume you can outrun a bear.

Hibernating bears sleep through the winter Many people believe that hibernating animals sleep so soundly that they're practically comatose. That's true of small hibernators, such as marmots and bats. But bears are light sleepers and can awaken relatively quickly. A bear's denning or hibernating season runs anywhere from late September until April.

Bears live in caves Occasionally, Minnesota bears will make their winter home in a rock den. More often, they will excavate a shallow cavity in a sandy hillside or beneath a natural structure such as a fallen tree or a stump. Some bears build nests of grass or leaves right in the open, on top of the ground.

Bears live on berries Bears are omnivorous. In spring and early summer they eat emerging aspen leaves and catkins, tubers, grasses, forbs, ants, caterpillars, and young deer. In mid-summer, they eat sarsaparilla berries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, currants, arrow-wood berries, and occasionally insects. In late summer and early fall they feed on acorns, hazelnuts, mountain ash, dogwood, and plums. But in truth, bears will eat (or drink) virtually anything they can get their paws on--including a beer or soda can, which they can easily puncture and drain the contents. Bears are also attracted by scents and will sample anything that has an odor, including toothpaste, lotion, and even scented toilet paper.

Bear watch

You can observe black bears and other wildlife in their natural habitat at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, nestled in the north woods of northern Minnesota (two hours northwest of Duluth). On August 20, 21, and 22, the American Bear Association will host a photography session at this 40-year-old sanctuary; visitors are invited to take photos of the black bears from the special viewing decks.

Timmerman's campsite advice When a bear ambles into your campsite in Minnesota, there's probably no need to be alarmed, says Timmerman. But that doesn't mean you ought to let bears hang around your picnic table. Bears that are rewarded for foraging at campsites will keep coming back for food. If they become dedicated scroungers, they may be classified as nuisance bears and, ultimately, may have to be destroyed.

When a black bear comes into your campsite, try to make that experience a negative one for the bear. Shout, bang pots and pans, or throw small rocks in the bear's direction. "Black bears typically do not aggressively defend a space," says Timmerman. In nearly all documented cases of serious attacks on humans by a black bear, the bear appeared to be exhibiting some predatory behavior. "The best thing to do if you encounter a bear at close range in the woods is to stay calm, identify yourself as a human by talking in a low voice or waving your hands slowly, then leave the area, giving the bear plenty of space. Usually when a bear becomes aware of you, it will move away first."