TRAVERSE CITY — Local residents in recent weeks reported a black bear known for scrounging around town returned to familiar stomping grounds to bulk up for the coming winter.
This comes after state wildlife officials last spring trapped the bandit bear in Garfield Township once it became well known for traipsing around Traverse City’s west-side neighborhoods and shopping centers; that followed months of the large mammal’s raids on bird feeders and trash cans, with a winter hibernation in the middle. They carted it 90 miles away for release, but the bear came back.
“He was here in the spring three times. He definitely knew where to come back because he made his way back here,” said Donna Miller, who has lived with her husband for more than three decades on Cedar Run Road.
“We noticed the red ear tags so we know it was the same bear.”
Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologists in April fitted the big, male bear with some ear tags and a radio collar, then released it near Alpena. They tracked the bear’s movement back across the mitten from spring into the midst of summer, up until the wily creature found a way to slip the noose — literally.
About two months ago and toward the end of the species’ breeding season, the bear’s radio collar sent out a mortality signal from a spot in central Manistee County, said Stephen Griffith, DNR wildlife biologist.
But when officials went to the site they did not find a dead bear. Instead, they found the radio collar at an ideal back-scratching spot, he said.
“Bears will stand up and scratch their backs against a tree,” Griffith said. “They found the collar at the base of a good-sized tree.”
No indications of a bear fight were found, so “as far as we know he’s doing fine,” Griffith said several weeks ago.
This particular bear was the sole male fitted with a radio collar in Lower Michigan. All the others are sows in the state’s surrogacy program for orphaned cubs.
DNR airplane pilots tracked the male bear’s signal and first found it on April 16 in a rural area in the vicinity of Hillman, where the bear remained through the end of that month. By mid-May, they tracked the bear north toward Onaway and then west to Harbor Springs by May 18, state data shows.
The bear then took a two-day, approximately 70-some-mile haul to the woods around Scheck’s Place near the Boardman River in Grand Traverse County, where pilots found its radio signal on May 20.
That means it was just about a month until the bear returned to the county where wildlife officials trapped it, data shows.
But Griffith said the male bear’s return is likely less to do with affinity for Michigan’s sunset coast and more to do with learned habits on familiar territory. Most black bears avoid humans, but this one seems unbothered by proximity to people if it means easy-to-come-by meals, he said.
Those were Miller’s observations when the bear returned to her porch last weekend and sat eating birdseed, indifferent to lights turned on and people watching through a window. He even put on a bit of a show, she said, playing with a birdseed bin between mouthfuls of seed and suet.
“He’s definitely habituated to people. One time he just sprawled right out on the ground and I wondered if he’d go to sleep,” Miller said. “He was happy and fat.”
The bear took a summer tour of the area’s most heavily wooded places before coming back to his favorite Traverse City honey holes.
DNR data shows after the bear trekked back to the Boardman River, it began to march past Arbutus Lake toward Chum’s Corner by the end of May, then on toward Grawn and Interlochen by early June. The bruin headed south toward Thompsonville by summer’s calendar start, then on into Manistee County.
The radio collar pinged from the forested areas around Copemish on July 1 and 15, then the mortality signal went out on July 21 near the Manistee River by Brethren, data shows.
The bear managed to stay off the radar for about six weeks. That’s when 911 calls began around Traverse City again.
“He’s been back for a little bit now,” said Jason Torrey, Grand Traverse County’s 911 director.
He said dozens of emergency calls about the bear plundering birdseed and household garbage have since come in from across Traverse City’s west side and now even from Central neighborhood, inside city limits. Callers seem to want to help state wildlife officials find the bear and re-trap it.
“He’s a pretty elusive fellow,” Torrey said. “Hopefully they get him and relocate him for good this time.”
Several DNR bear traps are now placed in hopes of catching the brigand bruin.
Miller said she hopes the bear is trapped again, but not destroyed because of problematic behavior around people. She said this is the fault of humans — even unwittingly — but not the bear.
“I think he should be relocated or taken to a bear park or a zoo,” she said. “I don’t want him euthanized. We hand him really great food and he can find it. He’s very clever and very curious.”
In May, Griffith said there’d been talk among state wildlife officials about re-capturing the bear and relocating it as far away as the Upper Peninsula, should it become a marauder again. And now that’s happened.
Griffith previously said that option involves wildlife disease considerations because the Straits of Mackinac form a natural barrier between Upper and Lower Michigan for black bears. Euthanizing the bear would be a last resort, he said, and placement at a wildlife preserve would be preferable before that.
Cody Norton, DNR wildlife biologist and large carnivore specialist, said Michigan is home to more than 12,000 black bears: nearly 10,000 in the Upper Peninsula and more than 2,000 in the Lower Peninsula.
“In the northern Lower Peninsula that population is increasing more rapidly,” he said, quadrupling in the last four years.
Norton said black bears are generally considered a species Michiganders are keen to have around, finding great value in knowing they are in the environment even if they never see one themselves.
“It’s a big deal knowing bears are out there and occasionally seeing them,” he said. “It’s a symbol of a healthy forest.”
Miller wholeheartedly agreed, she said.
“It was interesting to see him — beautiful animal.”