Black Bears Set Up Shop in Iowa

Black bears from the neighboring states of Minnesota and Wisconsin are spilling into northeast Iowa — maybe to stay.

Black Bears Set Up Shop in Iowa

Are black bears calling Iowa home? (Photo: iStockphoto.com)

While much of the Hawkeye State does not have the habitat to support a substantial black bear population, these large predators have ventured into the northeastern region of Iowa in recent years as they wander from their home ranges in Minnesota and Wisconsin during the May through early July breeding season. And it’s quite possible that some are setting up residency. 

While black bear populations in Wisconsin and Minnesota are stable to increasing — estimated at 24,000 and 12,000 to 15,000 respectively — it is possible that a small population could set up residence in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and within the next three to five years, Iowans can expect to see cubs show up and a small breeding population become established

“If that occurs, we should look to our neighbors in Wisconsin and Minnesota who have learned to live with bears,” said Vince Evelsizer, furbearer and wetland wildlife research biologist with the Iowa DNR. “It won’t be perfect and there will be bumps along the way, but we need to start having conversations about the idea of bears coming back to Iowa, at least in certain places along the Mississippi River and northeast Iowa where suitable habitat exists.” 

“For example, in Wisconsin, with that many black bears, residents have learned to make a few adjustments to minimize bear conflicts, like putting away their bird seed in the spring, putting away their barbeque drip pans and by keeping pet food and garbage in places bears can’t access. There are still occasional problems, but these basic precautions result in much fewer negative encounters between bears and humans,” Evelsizer said. 

During the spring, when bears emerge from hibernation they are as hungry as, well, as hungry as a bear, and they feed heavily on newly emerging tender grasses and sedges, turning to ants and ant pupae in June, a variety of berries in summer and nuts (primarily acorns and hazelnuts) in autumn. They also prey on whitetail fawns during the spring and utilize corn and other crops for subsistence in the fall. 

“They’re like a big raccoon, motivated by hunger and willing to take advantage of whatever food is available, from fawns to eggs, beehives, bird feeders — this is where making some changes can minimize nuisance bear interactions,” Evelsizer said.

While black bears are native to Iowa, the state hasn’t had a resident bear population for more than 100 years and they are not listed by the DNR as a wildlife species found in Iowa. This means the Iowa DNR does not have the legal authority to manage black bear populations through actions such as designating protection status or adding a limited hunting season if the population eventually supports it in the future. Iowa is the only state among its Midwest neighbors where the state’s wildlife agency does not have regulatory authority to manage bear populations, which typically includes handling nuisance conflicts and conducting research. But it does have a bear response protocol. 

“The objective with the response protocol is to provide guidance for our staff in dealing with any potential human-bear conflicts that arise,” Evelsizer said. “A proactive strategy will increase the odds for a better outcome for both the bears and for humans. For example, trap and transport of bears is a common scenario shown on TV shows, however in reality most states have moved away from this method because it often results in simply moving the problem to someone else’s backyard. It’s all about reducing conflicts where bears are instead. We want to keep Iowans informed about this interesting and emerging wildlife story and increase our collective knowledge about bears in order to live with them successfully and minimize conflicts.” 

According to the DNR, since 2002, there have been 43 confirmed black bears in Iowa, and two to five per year since 2014. As bears have become more of a regular visitor, the chance to encounter a bear, although small, is a possibility. 

“Bears are typically nocturnal but get more active during the June to July breeding season, especially at dawn and dusk,” Evelsizer said. “Most of Iowa’s bear sightings start in late May continuing into July. If you encounter a bear, avoid running away. Instead, back away slowly and cautiously while facing it. Make noise so they know you’re there.”

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