Somehow the topic of bears came up in our house the other day. My daughter said offhandedly “I didn’t know there were bears in Wisconsin.” I guess it’s not surprising given that she’s lived her whole life in Madison, where bear sightings are quite rare. But I was somewhat shocked that she didn’t realize the American black bear is a native Wisconsin species. The environmental educator in me couldn’t help but chime in. Black bears are in fact listed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as “abundant” or “common” in most of the northern half of the state. Additionally, their population has grown over the past decades from about 9,000 bears in the 1980s to more than 24,000 today.

This population growth and the increasing spread of urban landscapes has lead to a number of bear encounters not too far from here. Earlier this summer, black bear sightings were reported in both Waukesha and Washington Counties (between Madison and Milwaukee). And in Franklin, Wisconsin, a southwest suburb of Milwaukee, a driver caught footage on his phone of a black bear emerging from a line of conifer trees and looking (somewhat bewildered) at the passing traffic.

Tracking Bears

The Wisconsin bear population is carefully monitored and maintained by the DNR. Department staff, along with federal and tribal partners, set hundreds of “hair snares” each year throughout the bears’ known habitat. The snares collect hair samples from animals who amble by. The hair is then assessed for DNA markers to identify and track individual bears.

The bear hunting season, which begins in early September, allots just 11,500 permits despite requests from nearly 130,000 hunters. The highly-sought permits can take up to twelve years to obtain.

Avoiding Confrontation

Meanwhile, if you’re not actively hunting bears, the DNR has some tips for how to avoid bear encounters and what to do if one should happen.

  • Remove attractants like pet food, bird feeders, or food waste (including scraps on the grill) from your yard
  • If you see a bear, make it feel uncomfortable in human settings by yelling, banging pots and pans, or blowing an airhorn
  • Do not approach the bear, nor run away – stay calm, make sure it has an escape route, and back away slowly
  • More tips and resources for nuisance animals is listed here.

Life as a Bear

Did you know there’s a Black Bear Education Center located in Wausau, Wisconsin? Check out this video from PBS’s Wisconsin Life for a glimpse into the life of four captive, rehabilitated black bears:

Other Bear Notes:

  • The Environment Education for Kids (EEK!) website notes that “Native Americans honored the bear as a supernatural being and treated the bear hunt with great ceremony and respect.”
  • When I was a kid, my grandma had an ancient-seeming record player in her basement. One of my clearest memories of my afternoons spent at her house includes carefully dropping the needle on “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” and imagining a forest full of “every bear that ever there was” gathering for their annual picnic.
  • Throughout much of American history, bears were seen as a threat to human life and property. Some credit Teddy Roosevelt’s sparing of the bear’s life as not only the origin of the Teddy Bear, but also a turning point in how our lives are entwined with bears. Bears and other species are now reliant on humans for their survival – not the other way around. I wrote about the idea of “conservation reliance” in this 2018 Nature Net News.

In Case You Missed It…

News from Nature Net Members​​

Dr. George Archibald and Spike Millington of the International Crane Foundation were featured on the Atlas Obscura podcast in “Cranes of the DMZ.” They discuss the opportunities and challenges of the unlikely habitat found at the border between North and South Korea which is now home to many endangered cranes. The Welty Environmental Center has concluded their Sky’s the Limit STEM Camp for autistic youth. They partnered with the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at UW-Madison and others to develop the new program. The camp provided a great summer experience, inspiring a love of exploration, learning, and STEM! Keep an eye out for goats! Madison Parks is conducting targeted grazing in some parks this summer to combat invasive plants. The goats work in predetermined locations that would benefit from grazing, and their assistance helps reduce chemical usage and prevent erosion.

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