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Bear moves in under Duluth front yard

Not quite ready for its long winter nap, the bruin is still making nightly garbage raids.

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The entrance to a bear den in a Duluth yard Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. The den drops down before angling alongside a retaining wall. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH -- A black bear has decided to spend the winter sleeping under a Duluth yard, but that isn't so unusual. Bears are pretty common in this city on the edge of the woods.

What is unusual about Jeanette Anderson’s bear, however, is that it keeps waking up for midnight snacks.

“It has a penchant for pizza boxes,’’ Anderson said of the bear that dug a hole in her Congdon neighborhood front yard and moved in. “And pumpkins. Its scat is full of pumpkin seeds.”

It appears the bear is still packing on a few pounds before settling in for winter. There’s bear scat, trash and food scraps strewn about Anderson’s and her neighbors’ yards, and the strong, musky odor wafting from the den leaves little doubt about what’s napping below.

The hole is about 24 inches across, but the den goes so far back under the yard that you can’t see the bear from outside.

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“No one has been interested in crawling down in there,” Anderson said.

The hole was dug out on a hill along a concrete retaining wall. It goes back between boulders that Anderson said were likely blasted out to make way for the foundation of the house 100 years ago.

“We don’t know how far back it goes. But there wasn’t any hole here before. … Somehow, that bear seemed to know that if it dug down a little she’d find this huge cavern under the yard,” Anderson said. “She has quite the little underground apartment down there.”

The only problem now is the mess the bear is leaving. For some reason, possibly the unusually warm fall weather, or the easy availability of food in the neighborhood, or both, the bear is not hibernating yet.

“You know it's eating well by how much scat it’s leaving in our yard. … We cleaned up six piles of it yesterday,” Anderson said Thursday.

Just about every morning, “there’s another bag of garbage that it drags back here from my neighbor’s garbage cans,” she said.

The other night, the bear went up onto a neighbor’s front porch and ate a FedEx package, Anderson said, leaving only the wrapping.

Because Anderson’s family almost always uses their back door, it took a visiting neighbor to notice the big hole that was dug sometime in November, after their yard chores were done for the season.

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Black bear are fairly common in Duluth. And a DNR wildlife manager says the abundance of people food in town, especially garbage, may spur them to hibernate later and wake up earlier, like a bear that’s still raiding garbage cans in the Congdon neighborhood in December 2021. Clint Austin / 2015 file / Duluth News Tribune free

Anderson doesn’t mind the bear, which seems to come out only at night. In fact, she’s kind of excited about being its landlord for the winter. Someone is coming this weekend to put up a trail camera to see if they can get bear photos.

“I don’t mind. We’ve had bears in the yard before. I’ve chased them away. … But we never had one spend the winter before,” she said, adding that part of Duluth's charm is the variety of wildlife that live inside the city limits, like foxes, deer and bears.

Anderson called the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources local wildlife office and then a private wildlife removal expert for advice, but didn’t like the answers she got from either.

“The DNR said to pour water down the hole to flood it out and (the wildlife removal expert) said to use an air horn to make it leave,” Anderson said. “The problem is, even if the bear leaves, the den is so big, we don’t have enough material to back-fill, and I think it would come right back and lay down.”

Anderson said she is more worried about people bothering the bear than the bear bothering people. She’s also concerned some neighbors are intentionally feeding the bear, causing it to keep coming out of its den for the handouts.

“We’re going to let it stay if it wants,” she said. “I’m going to protect the bear’s quiet for now. Let it be.”

Most Northland bears are hibernating by the end of October or early November as natural food runs out in the woods as daylight wanes and their bodies tell them they have enough fat to survive not eating all winter. Once in the den, while not always fully asleep, they generally conserve energy for their long nap without food. They usually emerge in March or April to start foraging again.

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Martha Minchak, assistant Duluth area wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR, said she’s taken calls on wayward bears nearly every month of the year, especially around Duluth.

“This one is probably just late in going to bed,” Minchak said. “It’s mostly a matter of daylight hours that triggers them to go to their dens. … But with Duluth bears, I’ve had calls into February, and then starting up again in March. If there’s good food out there in the city, sometimes they keep eating rather than go to sleep.”

“Duluth bears seem to go to bed late and wake up early,” Minchak added.

There have been numerous bear complaints in Duluth and across the Northland the past two years, when droughts caused poor or nonexistent berry crops and reduced the crop of acorns, hazelnuts and other natural bear foods.

Experts say, to keep bears from hanging around, store your garbage cans in your garage or a shed until the morning of pickup; don’t feed birds from April to October; and make sure not to leave any pet food or compost out where bears can get it. (Of course, your neighbors have to do the same.) If you have a vegetable garden or fruit trees, it may be tougher to keep bears away, but fencing options are available.

The DNR generally does not remove or relocate nuisance bears, as they did years ago, because many of those bears perished anyhow, often trying to return to their home areas. Instead, the DNR asks people to learn to live with the bear or, as a last resort, the bear is destroyed. That happened in mid-November in Moose Lake, Minchak noted, when a bear was shot while trying to den under a deck of a home.

Bears are fairly common across Duluth. Surrounded by an arc of forested areas and streaked with densely forested creek and river ravines that run into the heart of town, bears often wander into neighborhoods, even downtown.

In recent years, there was a bear hanging around outside City Hall and another wandering around the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. And there’s the famous story from 1929 of the bear that broke through the front window and entered the downtown Hotel Duluth.

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The city has a resident population of bears that probably live here year-round. Stocked with fruit trees, oak trees with acorns and, especially, plenty of easy-picking garbage cans, the city offers a lot for bears willing to put up with the occasional dog or human encounter.

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