The Bear That Spent The Summer

By: John Moriarty & Erin Korsmo

December 14, 2020

Category: Nature Notes

On an afternoon in June, a couple arrived at Eastman Nature Center in Elm Creek Park Reserve to go for a hike. As they walked around the side of the building toward the trails, an unusual sighting stopped them in their tracks. “Well, there’s a bear,” one of them said. 

Since this spring, several black bear sightings have surfaced in and near Elm Creek. In late May, a young black bear was reported in a backyard near the park. In mid-June, a photo of the bear at someone’s bird feeder was sent to the press. 

The next report was even more interesting: A park visitor reported seeing a mother bear and one cub. That meant three bears were using Elm Creek. The mother and cub were seen in the City of Dayton prior to being spotted in Elm Creek.

Over the following few weeks, several people saw the bear crossing trails inside Elm Creek and on adjacent properties. 

A young black bear walks near a boulder in a grassy area.
A young black bear visits Eastman Nature Center. Photo by Hannah Wachtler.

What Does It Mean To Have Bears In the Parks?

“The presence of one or two bears in Elm Creek would not have a significant effect on the ecosystem,” said John Moriarty, Senior Wildlife Manager at Three Rivers. It also would not change how Three Rivers manages habitat. He did, however, anticipate one possible change: “Our staff may spend more time trying to see the bear.”

The presence of bears in the park would have a greater effect on some human-related activities, like bird feeders, bee hives and trash containers. “We would need to remove bird feeders in the summer, protect bee hives with fencing and install bear-resistant trash containers,” John said.

Eastman Nature Center experienced these effects firsthand. Kim Nowicki, Supervisor at Eastman, was locking up the building one night when she spotted the young bear at the feeders in the nature center’s wildlife observation area. “It did the classic bear thing where it stands on its back legs and grabbed the feeder. The feeder tipped at an angle and all the seed poured out onto its head. You could see it in its ears and everything,” she said.

A young black bear stands next to a wooden bird feeder it has just tipped over.
The black bear tips over a bird feeder at Eastman Nature Center. Photo by Hannah Wachtler.

If bears became regular park residents, it would likely lead to new ways of communicating with park guests, too. “We decided not to share a lot about the bear on social media [this year] because we didn’t want to sensationalize it,” said Kim. “We knew that if we shared something without being able to fully interpret it for people that we could unintentionally feed into people’s fears, and our goal was to respect the boundaries of the animal.”

“If the bear were to stay the winter or return to Elm Creek, we would definitely develop some formal interpretation around it to help people understand that they’re sharing a space with this amazing animal.” 

Are Attitudes Toward Bears Changing?

Bears are large animals and it’s normal to be afraid of them. However, they are rarely aggressive. 

“Black bears are like large black raccoons – not ravenous predators,” John said. “I blame the Wizard of Oz for associating bears with lions and tigers, making them seem like dangerous predators.” 

Bear reports this year indicate that attitudes toward them may be shifting. 

This year, John said, everyone who reported seeing the bear noted that it was not aggressive and was just acting like a bear. At Eastman, they had a similar experience. “Everyone who called was positive and just wanted us to be aware it was there,” said Kim.

This is a positive change from a few years ago when fears that a bear seen in the Twin Cities was dangerous led to it being killed. 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers good advice on how to behave should you meet a bear on the trail.

Will Bears Ever Be Common in the Twin Cities Area?

Bears are becoming more common in the southern half of Minnesota, and John thinks their presence could increase in the Twin Cities, too, if attitudes toward them continue to be positive. They could even become occasional residents in some Three Rivers park reserves.

As for whether the same bear will come back to Elm Creek next year, John doesn’t think so. He says most bears leave the area in the fall to hibernate, but noted that one bear did hibernate in Elm Creek in the early 2000s, so it’s possible a bear would stay for the winter. 

The last bear sighting in Elm Creek this year was in late October. See all bear sightings in the metro area and other areas outside of their typical range on the DNR's website.

Coexisting with Bears

The hikers who spotted the bear at Eastman that day in June stopped for a while to observe it. Kim and a naturalist joined them. They watched as it shimmied up a tree and eventually scooted back down it. Then it walked a little farther away and sat down, still within eyesight. 

“The couple was totally intrigued and excited to see it,” said Kim. “They had never seen a bear before.” 

The bear occasionally looked over at them, but kept its distance. They pointed out the bear to a few others who walked by, then everyone left it alone and went about their day.

If you see a bear in a Three Rivers park, please report the siting to our Wildlife department by calling 763.694.7840 or emailing wildlife@threeriversparks.org.

 

Banner and archive images by Hannah Wachtler.

About the Authors

 a man in a hat and tan collared shirt holding a turtle upside down and pointing to it's underbelly.

John Moriarty is the Senior Manager of Wildlife at Three Rivers Park District and has been with the Park District for 15 years. He has been involved in many of the wildlife restoration efforts and initiated the snake and butterfly efforts. John has led several projects to increase prairie habitat in the Park District. John likes exploring natural areas and looking for all types of plants and animals, but especially turtles.

A woman in a black jacket smiles.

Erin Korsmo is the Web Coordinator at Three Rivers Park District. Her background is in journalism and content strategy. Erin has a longstanding passion for the outdoors. As a child, she went camping every summer and volunteered to count loons for the DNR with her family. Erin is a Minnesota Master Naturalist in the deciduous forest and prairie biomes. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, kayaking, identifying and photographing plants and wildlife, crafting, and spending time with her husband and cat.

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