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DNR biologist on black bears: 'The kids are alright'

A black bear cub rests in a tree in Northern Minnesota on August 19, 2019.
Courtney Celley/USFWS
A black bear cub rests in a tree in Northern Minnesota on August 19, 2019.

Andy Tri, an expert in bear biology, joined the KAXE Morning Show to discuss everything from the population status of bears in Minnesota to wildlife safety tips.

BEAR COUNTRY — Throughout the state, there are signs of bears emerging from hibernation. To learn more about bears — and how to live happily alongside them — Staff Phenologist John Latimer and Content Director Heidi Holtan spoke with Andy Tri, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources bear project leader.

An iNaturalist map shows research-grade black bear sightings across Minnesota. Most sightings are in the boreal forest and mixed deciduous forests in northern and eastern Minnesota. More sightings are reported where more humans are available to report them: near cities and roadways.
Screenshot from
An iNaturalist map shows research-grade black bear sightings across Minnesota. Most sightings are in the boreal forest and mixed deciduous forests in northern and eastern Minnesota. More sightings are reported where more humans are available to report them near cities and roadways.

Where, oh where, can I find a bear?

For many years, Minnesota’s “bear country” included the northeastern 40% of the state. But not anymore. Bear populations have expanded south and west throughout the majority of the state. The only regions lacking bears are the unforested prairie regions in the south and west of the state.

“We used to say, ‘Oh, when you’re in bear country, you take these precautions,’ that sort of thing. But we’ve just given up and, the point is: Minnesota is bear country,” Andy said.

A variety of factors have allowed bears to spread to new areas, including habitat and changes in how people value and interact with bears.

“The range expansion doesn’t really have anything to do with the [bear] population itself, it’s more just tolerance of people letting bears exist and not dispatching them when they’re in your yard to protect your property,” Andy said.

The abundant acorns available south and west of the bears’ historical range have also drawn bears to those regions, Andy explained.

While the population size may not be driving the expansion of bears throughout the state, the population is nevertheless increasing.

“The kids are alright,” Andy happily reported. “We kind of bottomed out population-wise somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 back in 2010. And then, we pulled the permits way back on harvest, and the bear population is coming back at a fairly good clip in the southern zones and is really stable up here [in Northern Minnesota].”

The state now hosts a population of approximately 17,000 bears.

Bear safety

While it might appear there are more human interactions with bears, it is really about the abundance of technology in our daily lives. With doorbell cameras and security cameras becoming more widespread, bears are detected more frequently than ever before. While most people have a positive regard for bears, conflicts can arise when bears raid bird feeders or garbage cans, scare people or pose a risk to pets.

Most of these issues can be avoided by removing or restricting access to bird feeders and garbage cans. Bird feeders can be removed at night from Tax Day through Thanksgiving or placed on a 10- to 12-foot-high pole or pulley system away from major limbs of trees. Alternatively, a solar electric fence can act as a deterrent. Andy explained that an electric fence won’t harm the bear but will temporarily hurt and scare it away.

The same tactics are used to reduce bears’ access to garbage cans. Bringing them in promptly, storing them in a garage or using a bear-safe container can help. Alternatively, a solar electric fence around your trash can storage area could protect your garbage from being pilfered by a peckish bear.

If an unwelcome bear does show up in your yard, Andy recommended turning the lights on and yelling out your door to chase it away.

Overall, bears pose little threat to humans. They are omnivores, but their diet is skewed heavily toward plants. Just 5-10% of their diet is comprised of animal matter, of which most are insects; most bears don’t see us or our pets as an appealing food source.

In fact, bears see us, and often our dogs, as threats to their safety. After all, bears evolved alongside bear-killing wolves and humans. As a notably risk-averse species, the mere presence of humans will be enough to scare most black bears off.

With that in mind, if you see one during a hike or find one in your yard, take some time to enjoy the experience of seeing a wild bear! If you need to, you can stand tall and make a lot of noise to scare it away.

“You know your dog best, and it depends on the breed and the size,” Andy explained. “But of the interactions that people have had with bears that have required hospitalization, about half of them are due to unleashed dogs. Generally, they’re smaller dogs with Napoleon complexes, where they chase right out and [think] they will defend their masters to the end. And then, they realize it’s a 250-lb animal, and they rip back to their owners.”

Unfortunately, the dog running away may trigger the bear’s chase response, so the dog might bring the bear right back to you!

Author’s note: This exact scenario happened to my parents and me two years ago, while visiting a cabin in a remote area of Ontario. While on a hike, our two unleashed dogs started making a ruckus while out of sight down the trail. When we called them back, they came sprinting down the trail — followed at great speed by a behemoth of a bear. We felt like tiny bowling pins cowering as the bowling ball careened toward us! Luckily, the path was mostly straight in that spot, so the bear had enough room to see us, skid to a halt, turn around and run away. 

While these occurrences make for dramatic stories, they occur very rarely. However, it’s a good idea to keep your dogs leashed or inside if you know there is a bear around.

Why bears?

Andy loves his job studying bears.

“They’re just cool critters, you know?” he said.

In wildlife biology, large and publicly appealing wildlife are called “charismatic megafauna,” and bears certainly fit that bill!

John agreed with Andy, saying, "Bears got rizz!"

Despite the 'rizz', bears are hard to survey since they tend to live in dense forests where aerial surveys are ineffective. Additionally, bears don’t reach reproductive maturity until age 5, so there’s a considerable delay between altering management practices and seeing the effect on the population.

“The more I learn about them, the more confused I am,” Andy said.

If you want to learn more about bear-human dynamics, check out Andy Tri’s webinar “No country for old bears” and the Minnesota DNR’s guidance on living with bears. You can help wildlife scientists by reporting bear sightings outside their normal range by filing an online report.

Do you have any bear stories to share? We’d love to hear about it! Email us at

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

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Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).