By Steve Griffin
Midland? Bear country?
The DNR's Wildlife Division says Midland County is indeed home to black bears, as are an increasing number of areas in Lower Michigan.
And to slow what biologists generally see as a healthy trend, the agency proposes to expand hunting units, to include Midland and some nearby counties.
The habitat can support its bears and more, but there's a question whether people can or will.
"There are two kinds of carrying capacity," said DNR bear and furbearer specialist Dave Bostick Wednesday. "Biological carrying capacity concerns habitat. Social carrying capacity is what people will tolerate."
One sometimes can increase the social carrying capacity, said Bostick, "by educating people, talking about bear biology and ecology. People tend to be afraid of things that are new. And an adult bear is a large animal."
A large animal with so-so PR.
"Nationwide, there are a dozen to 20 bear attacks a year, a fatality about every other year -- just enough to keep them in mind," said Bostick. "You're more likely to be attacked by your neighbor's dog. But when folks are scared, numbers don't matter."
Bear education efforts, such as a program Bostick presented at the Chippewa Nature Center a couple of months ago, aim to reduce the fear.
In his "Living in Bear Country" presentation, said Bostick, "I talk about bear biology, but also about how to live in bear country. Things like keeping your garbage secure, taking down bird feeders if there are bears in the area.
"Bird feeders are like candy to bears. If you have a bear in the area, you'll see it at a bird feeder."
And people are seeing bears.
"We've had more and more reports from the counties just south of our (Gladwin and Baldwin) bear management units," said Bostick.
"Starting about five to seven years ago, we began getting more reports of females with cubs in these areas, evidence of resident bear populations in those counties. Before we had occasional reports of dispersed males."
The sex of the bear you see reflects what's going on, said Bostick. In early summer, male bears 15 or 16 months old are kicked out of family groups by their mothers, and set off to find and establish their own home ranges.
That movement is what occasionally puts young male bears in headlines and trouble as they wander into towns and other unbearish places.
Unlike adult male bears, which establish county-sized home territories of 100 to 300 square miles, female bears spend more of their time within a township-sized area of just 20 to 50 square miles, Bostick said.
Young females, when they leave their mother's side, generally establish their home haunts at the edge of the mother's range, often within the same human-sketched county.
Bear hunting is managed in Bear Management Units (BMUs), the nearest the Gladwin BMU. Also on the border between northern and southern Lower Michigan is the Baldwin BMU.
A proposal before the Natural Resources Commission next week would expand both to include counties adjacent to them. The Gladwin BMU then would expand to include Midland and Isabella counties and parts of Bay, Mecosta, Iosco and Ogemaw counties.
The proposal would be eligible for action by the NRC, which oversees DNR policies and programs, at its March 2007 meeting.
More hunting, as well as more widespread hunting, would be likely. Bear licenses are eagerly sought by many hunters, and are awarded through lotteries. "Typically, when we add that much territory to a bear management unit, we add some permits."
The Gladwin area typically gets 150 to 200 bear hunting licenses, but because of relatively low bear density, only about a dozen bears per year are harvested.
Adding even 50 licenses, said Bostick, would increase the harvest only by a few animals. "But if some of those were breeding-age females, that would help slow the growth of the population, and that's what we're doing right now, trying to slow down the range expansion."
Those females would have to be loners, since it's illegal to kill a female bear if cubs are present.
DNR biologists are drafting a new statewide black bear management plan, "and a major issue will be bears in southern Michigan," where, as in northern Michigan, they were once native, said Bostick.
"They're still not in extreme southern Michigan; and at the moment, we'd like to keep it that way, to slow down range expansion."
That would give biologists time to teach people about bears.
Some people are already fans.
"I love the thought of having bears in the area," said Chippewa Nature Center naturalist Janea Little, while acknowledging that not everyone feels the same.
Little said she often asks participants in night nature hikes at CNC if they would be more or less likely to hike there if bears were known to be in the area.
"It's about half and half," she said of the typical response -- adding that the pro-bear vote likely is inflated by its hypothetical nature, and the fact that those asked already are comfortable being outdoors.
But bears in the Midland area are not hypothetical.
"About three years ago," said Little, "multiple people saw a large bear, a big male, where Homer Road crosses the Chippewa River. Another person saw what was apparently the same bear, more to the southwest."
About five years ago, a sow with cubs was seen on West Gordonville Road.
And, Little said, a CNC staffer has seen a female bear with cubs near his home in Hope.
More bears? "They would be great to have," said Little, "but we would all have a learning curve." She noted that she behaves differently when visiting the western Upper Peninsula, where bears are numerous, than when venturing outdoors here.
Bostick said he couldn't guess how many bears live in the Midland area. "There aren't a lot of bears there, but there are some. If you live in Midland County, technically you live in bear country."
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