By Bernie Barringer
The photo of the bear on my trail camera made me sit up in my chair. This was a really big bear. Huge. Definitely an old male; and he was a regular at this bait in Minnesota’s Zone 24. I would get a couple dozen photos and videos of him over the next couple weeks. Every single photo was at least an hour after dark. He was very recognizable because he had square DNR tags in each of his ears.
I filed the info in the back of my mind. During the following year, the 2021 season, I would not be baiting back up in that area, but he was always in the back of my mind. Imagine my surprise when I got another huge male bear with tags in both ears on camera again in 2021, but this bait was miles from the other, it was even in a different zone, Zone 27. As the nighttime photos of this bear persisted, I became curious. Could this actually be the same bear?
Well, my question was answered in a phone call to the Minnesota DNR bear biologist, Andy Tri. First off, he asked me what color the tags were, which I couldn’t answer because I didn’t have a single color photo of the bear, all were nighttime with a black flash camera. The he told me something that narrowed it right down. He said if it has square tags in both ears, is a male, and doesn’t have a GPS collar, it has to be bear #6007. So there you have it, it was the same bear, but he was now at a bait 14 miles as the crow flies from where he’d been on my camera the previous year.
He then emailed me some more interesting information about Old #6007. Info that really made me rethink a lot of the things people consider normal in bear movements and bear home ranges. I have long been skeptical about the way we look at home ranges; in fact I have written about that in this column in the past. Inquisitive, and thirsty for knowledge about bears as I am, I needed to know more.
In short, bears will go where the food is. If you’re thinking that a bear has a home range of whatever square miles, you’re probably thinking of a block and there are distinct boundaries he rarely if ever crosses. This is simply not true. We now know that black bears, especially adult males, can cover a lot of ground.
Turns out that when bear #6007 was three years old, he had denned on top of the ground in a cedar swamp by Big Falls Minnesota which is more than 30 miles from where he was currently visiting my bait station. He no longer has a GPS collar, but the biologist did tell me that they know him to be 8 years old.
And he’s big. Really big; probably at least 500 pounds, judging him in the trail cam photos against other bears who were visiting the same bait. One of my clients, Jason from Fargo, North Dakota, killed a 375-pound bear on that bait and it was the third biggest of the bears I had on camera.
What I learned from the info that Andy sent me was that bears seems to know where the concentration of quality food is found and they will go to it, even over long distances. There is a place in Minnesota that has a high concentration of acorns and the bears come from miles around to feed there when the acorns drop. Many of them come from as much as 60 miles away.
How do they know where this food is found? There are a couple theories, both of which seem plausible and if the facts were known, it’s probably a combination of the two. One theory is that the generations of bears have been taking their cubs to this area and its location is passed down through the years from generation to generation.
The other theory is my theory so take it for what it’s worth. I believe that bear put a lot of value in smelling the droppings of other bears. They can find out what other bears are feeding on. I really believe its one of the primary ways new bears find your baits and show up out of the blue even after the bait has been out for weeks. If a bear smells some droppings and realizes that this other bear is eating a lot better than he is, he’s likely to follow that bear’s scent trail. As this is confirmed by the scent trails and droppings of other bears, he eventually figures out where the food source is found.
Of course I am speculating, but I have seen a lot of evidence of this over the years. Can this lead a bear to a food source 30, 40 even 60 miles away? Over time, the cumulative collection of this information can lead a lot of bears to one place, and that appears to be the case. I have no doubt that if large numbers of bears are moving towards an area with quality food in Minnesota, it’s happening where you hunt as well. So these are some of the things that bear #6007 has taught us.