The Strategic Bear Hunter

Traveling Bears

I have been warning bear hunters for many years to avoid getting caught up in trying to understand black bear home ranges. Biologists seem to prefer framing things; they want to put boundaries on things and quantify their data in specific ways. But the emergence of GPS collars that can be put on bears—and batteries that last for many months—have changed the way we look at black bears and the ground they cover.

            Several states are doing these studies with GPS collars, but I am most familiar with the results of studies that have been done right here in Minnesota. I suspect the studies done in other states will be similar in their results, although mountainous regions will likely show some variation versus the boreal forest areas of, say, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There will also likely be variations in the southern and eastern U.S. as the habitats are different than they are here in the northern midwestern forested areas.

            Let’s go back a couple dozen years when biologists were using the old telemetry collars, which were archaic compared to the technology of today, but these collars were the root of knowledge of black bear movement. The collars transmitted a signal and biologists had to follow the signal with their antenna to record the direction of the signal and guess about the distance of the signal based on how strong it was. It was very inexact, but better than nothing.

            Poor as they were, this effort led the biologists to learn some pretty critical info such as where bears spent most of their time when the acorns were ripe, what bears preferred for denning areas, and daytime cover versus nighttime movements. Much of this has been confirmed by the more reliable GPS data.

In some cases, the tracking of the bears with telemetry allowed the scientists to stumble onto some surprising information. An example is that a sow black bear up in the Grand Rapids area of Minnesota disappeared after having been tracked closely for quite some time. She just vanished. The biologists happened to be south of the study area for an entirely different reason when they pulled out their antenna just out of curiosity. Imagine their surprise when the signal of that lost bear came in loud and clear! They were more than 60 miles away from where they last contacted her.

The following year the bear disappeared again and, sure enough, they headed down south and there she was. Upon further investigation, they learned that the area she had gone to had an abundance of oak trees and the acorns were thick and easy to pick up.

These days, GPS collars on bears have revealed a large migration of bears making that 60-90 mile trek each year. Some of them stay a month or so, some a little longer. Surprising numbers of bears make that round trip every single year.

Here are a few more examples. A nuisance bear was caught in a trap and relocated 50 miles away from the capture site, but returned to the capture site in only 48 hours by a straight direct line. A sow bear left the study area in the Chippewa National Forest of northern Minnesota and headed northeast in the fall of 2021. She traveled across northern Minnesota and into Ontario, Canada, finally settling down near Atikokan about 125 miles as the crow flies from where she started. She then went into a den for the winter. When spring arrived, she emerged from the den with cubs and headed back to Minnesota: swimming rivers, lakes, and streams, climbing granite hills and slogging through swamps with those little bitty cubs, and arrived back at her original starting point in late spring.

I bumped a sow with three small cubs off one of my baits in early September last year only to have her turn up just a few hours later on another bait two miles away. She and the cubs made the trip in a surprisingly short time frame, so she knew exactly where it was. In fact, when I checked the trail camera I found that she and the cubs had been at that bait earlier in the same day!

I wrote just a few months ago of a tagged bear—an 8-year-old male—who I had on two bear baits that were 14 miles apart. I know of an outfitter who followed the track in the snow of a large male bear who checked several of his baits, also 14 miles apart, in one night after a fresh snowfall. Also, a large male bear tagged in the UP of Michigan was killed in southwestern Wisconsin the following year, a straight-line distance of nearly 200 miles.

We also now know that many bears have summer areas and fall areas, and will travel significant distances from these areas to den. Clearly, 30-50 miles between summer distances and denning areas are not uncommon. Several other bears with GPS collars have gone on some lengthy walkabouts. Often 30-100 miles of cruising around takes place in a relatively short time frame, but they usually end up back roughly where they started.

So what does this mean to bear hunters? Here are some things to think about. If you have a bear that’s regularly visiting one of your baits and you run out of bait, think about how hard it might be to get that bear back again. He may travel quite a distance, and what are the odds that he is going to find another bait site and settle in there? Pretty good, I would say.

Anyone who has been baiting for quite a while knows that bears can just turn up out of the blue. This is especially true of adult males. I have heard bear hunters explain that they are baffled by the thought that the bear could have been in that area and took so long to find their bait. Well, that bear may have been 30 miles away just a few days ago.

Another thing we can learn from this new info is that bears really do congregate around quality food more than we ever realized. Large numbers of bears are migrating each year towards food abundance. If you have ever found an oak ridge where the piles of bear scat are so abundant you can see a dozen from where you are standing, you better take note of that spot. Same goes with berries, plums, hazelnuts, beechnuts, chokecherries, apple orchards, etc. You get the idea.

The new knowledge we are learning about bears makes the animals all the more fascinating to me. And the more I know about bears, the more I can be effective in hunting them. But also, the more I know about bears, the more I realize how much more there is to know.