Can we coexist with black bears?

Image: Michael Collier photographed this black bear visiting his bird feeder at his home on Miller Hill, east of the Glen Lakes, in June 2014.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Sleeping Bear. It’s our home, the namesake of our national park, the furry face on our brands and logos. We teach our children the legend of the mother bear and her cubs escaping the forest fire across the great lake and forming the dunes and the Manitou Islands; we delight in living here, on the edge of the wild; we swap stories and share security camera photos when one wanders into our yard.

But when a large black bear emerges from hibernation and crosses our privacy thresholds, breaks into our shops, drags our dumpster trash through the village, eats our chickens, and leaves paw prints on our windows, do we suddenly fear it? Do we condemn its right to live amongst us? Do we breathe a collective sigh of relief when the authorities set traps and take the bear away? This may be the land of the sleeping bear, but only so long as it sleeps, we tell ourselves. When it wakes, we must remind the bear that this is our land now.

Black bears in the Upper Midwest typically rise in the spring and go looking for food. Their post-hibernation diet can include fresh berries, fruits, nuts, insects and grasses, or bird seed from our feeders. But these mammals have a terrific sense of smell. When humans leave easy food for them outside, they’ll eat it.

A 450-500-pound bear that adopted downtown Empire in mid-April found plenty of culinary gifts on display. Then it took the initiative and created its own meals. The bear visited Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate on five consecutive evenings, rummaging through dumpsters and spreading garbage for blocks. On Tuesday, April 16, around 10:30 p.m., a camera recorded the bear wrenching open the locked back door and entering the popular chocolate shop for no more than 20 seconds, stealing a 50-pound bag of sugar, and returning to the sidewalk to eat it. The bear touched nothing else in the shop, not even the small, chocolate bears on display at the checkout counter.

“He could have ravaged the chocolate shop, he could have gotten five gallons of honey, but he didn’t. He only got the bulk bag of sugar,” said Grocer’s Daughter co-owner Jody Hayden.

Staff bolted the door shut the following day. Even so, the bear returned on Wednesday evening and tried once again to open the back door. Its robbery attempt stymied, the bear instead licked the pavement where it had consumed the sugar the night before. We posted a video of the break-in on the Glen Arbor Sun Facebook and Instagram accounts, which was viewed by thousands and picked up by news outlets nationwide—a dramatic story during an otherwise quiet month.

Townspeople marveled at the “sugar bear,” its strength and dexterity, and its foresight to leave the chocolate alone (like dogs, chocolate can be toxic for bears). But they also deadbolted their own doors and wondered if Empire, the village of less than 400 which is bordered on two sides by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, had suddenly become a little too wild. Steve Griffith, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) set two live bear traps in Empire Township.

On Earth Day, April 22, at 3 a.m., the bear visited writer Anne-Marie Oomen’s home less than two miles from downtown Empire. It was the second visit this spring, and Oomen believed it was the sugar bear that had raided the chocolate shop the week before. She posted on Facebook that the bear broke into the compost bucket left on the front porch, selected a few morsels and then attempted the back door of the garage, smearing it with nose and paw prints. Then the sugar bear stood on its hind feet and looked into the garage window. Oomen believed he could smell the meat smoker stored there.

“Then the sugar bear just clambered over the only part of our split rail fence not run with an electrical line and ambled down the drive as though it knew what driveways were for,” she wrote. “I watched from the kitchen window in awe and wonder.”

Trapping the sugar bear

Early the following morning on Stormer Road, 2.5 miles southeast of Empire village, Joshua Evans Fast heard the bear caught in the trap that the DNR had set on their property the previous day. The bear had eaten 16 chickens over the past two weeks after breaking the door to the Fast’s chicken coop.

“You could hear it moving around in the trap from inside our bedroom,” he said.

That afternoon the DNR came and removed the bear still in the trap, taking it to a location 60 miles or more away from Empire and rereleasing it in Michigan’s rural interior. The state agency also removed the other trap it had set. Griffith told the Sun that they believed the bear on Fast’s property was the sugar bear.

“It was with mixed emotions that I read that [the sugar bear] has been relocated,” Oomen posted on Facebook. “Yes, relief permeated my response that a nuisance bear was being managed, and I am truly grateful to those who take charge of that, but I can’t help thinking the creature was beautiful, glossy and wild, and despite the fact that I don’t want [sugar bear] raiding my front porch, I will miss knowing that presence is out there snuffling among the ramps just beyond the light.”

Griffith had received reports of the bear getting into trash cans and eating chickens from at least half a dozen locations around Empire Township. While the bear wasn’t sedated and weighed before being taken away, Griffith estimated its size at 450-500 pounds and assumed it was a male bear, based on the weight. It is one of roughly 12,000 bears that live in the state, more than 10,000 of which roam the sparsely inhabited Upper Peninsula (Griffith said that bears rarely cross the Mackinac Straits). Michigan’s black bear population grew by 25 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the DNR.

Vince Cavalieri, the wildlife biologist with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is no stranger to black bears. He grew up in Iron Mountain in the UP, which has one bear for every 30 people, and while doing a bird survey as a graduate student in Oklahoma, he was once charged by a mother black bear who stood on her hindlegs 20 feet away from him. Cavalieri and his field assistant stood their ground, raised their arms into the air and made noise, which eventually scared the bear away.

But such dramatic encounters are very rare, and he has never heard of a bear threatening people at Sleeping Bear Dunes, where he has worked for 15 years—five as a biologist and 10 before that with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nevertheless, the Empire sugar bear story surprised him.

“Certainly, black bears are known for getting into things and causing mischief,” said Cavalieri. “But actually breaking into a building in the middle of town and stealing sugar was pretty brazen, even by black bear standards.”

National Park staff talk to visitors, especially those staying at Platte River or DH Day campground, about bears and how to avoid direct encounters with them. Campers are encouraged to pack up food and trash at night and avoid leaving out pungent targets like citronella candles, so they don’t unintentionally feed the bears. Leaving meat and grease on an outdoor grill is definitely a bad idea. Locals are also encouraged to consider bringing in their bird feeders at night. The Park plans to supply more animal-proof food storage receptacles at the campgrounds. Last October before the Sleeping Bear Marathon, Cavalieri placed bear awareness signs on the Heritage Trail after a black bear was seen.

“We’ve had a number of black bear sightings in the campgrounds,” he said. “Once the bear gets a food reward, they will continue returning to same area. We want to make people think about being safe in bear country. There have always been bears in northern Michigan, but now they’re increasing in numbers again.”

Makwa bear knowledge

To Anishinaabeg Native Americans, the black bear is called “Makwa” and is one of seven clans or totem, which represents leadership and organization within tribal communities. Those who belong to the Makwa clan are sometimes associated with healing and medicine, as the bear is considered a self-healer who knows Mother Earth’s natural medicines in her plants, berries, roots and tree bark.

The bear is also a symbol of power, courage, physical strength, wisdom and leadership. Bear claw necklaces are thought to provide protection for those who wear them. Bears are also seen as symbols of fertility and abundance, representing the connection between humans and the natural world.

“Anishinaabeg have a relationship with all beings in creation, including black bears,” said JoAnne Cook, an educator and chief appellate judge for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians. “We understand there is a connection and reason for all that exists on our Mother Earth. We respect their purpose and also know they have a spiritual connection to Anishinaabeg. We respect their right to live among us and will not disturb their home and their children. We also know they can be dangerous when provoked, when their young are close by, and when they are hungry. We do our best to let them be.

“In the spring when we know bears are coming out of hibernation and when someone in our community hears they are [out], everyone is notified they are around and we make sure we have things put away, our animals are inside or stay close to the house and we stay inside or are very careful if we have to go outside in the nighttime. We know they will be around for a few days but then will head to their home for the summer and fall.”

Frank Ettawageshik, a Harbor Springs resident and former tribal chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said we need to think about how we coexist with bears and other wild animals.

“We live in the habitat of the bear, and we should expect the bear to do bear things,” he said. “Every being on earth has its need to live and a need for area and space. And they all have gifts, their own sacred duties.

“We don’t own the world; we share the world with other beings. We also don’t own the world for this generation—we share it for those generations yet to come.”

Ettawageshik warns against white people of European descent automatically looking to tribal communities for advice on respecting and living with black bears.

“All people are indigenous to the Earth,” he said. “Some of us are a little closer, but at some point in all of our histories, our families interacted with other beings and found ways of coexisting and respecting each other. We native people have our teachings. We do the best we can to follow those responsibilities. But just because we have that right and responsibility doesn’t mean that others should look to us to fill a void in their own world. Everyone has a right and responsibility to interact with those beings.”

What the bears know

Our coverage of the sugar bear at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate and subsequent capture on Stormer Road prompted a friend to reach out and express displeasure with all the publicity which, in her words, “caus(es) further harm to our bear friends and leaves room to villainize wildlife rather than address the core of the problem (the human problem) and spreading awareness of the silly-easy, sustainable solutions that we can each do at home, or at work, to keep wildlife wild, and bears safe. … My heart just aches for this bear, and all bears in the area whom are victim to relocation due to the ignorance of the human population.”

She recommended that I read What the Bears Know: How I Found Truth and Magic in America’s Most Misunderstood Creatures, a 2023 memoir by the bear whisperer of California, Steve Searles, a self-taught bear expert who has worked with the animals for nearly three decades in the tourist ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes. Asked in the late 1990s to shoot and kill 16 troublesome bears, Searles instead developed a global reputation for his novel approaches to keeping residents, and the bears, safe. He developed nonlethal tactics to control their behavior and overpopulation that heralded a landmark moment in the care and handling of the American black bear. He founded the town’s “Don’t Feed Our Bears” program and helped formulate Yosemite National Park’s initial bear program. In 2010, he was the topic of the reality show The Bear Whisperer on Animal Planet.

What the Bears Know, written together with Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine, shows how Searles found fellowship and deeper meaning in the natural world—like John Muir and Bear Grylls before him. He followed bears in and out of their hibernation dens; he studied their social traits, their eating habits, even their sex lives, and he learned how to persuade them to avoid (dangerous) encounters with human beings. Searles came to understand that bears have an inner peace that seems to offset their power and strength. That may explain why no other animal on the planet is as revered as the bear.

In his essay “The Metaphysical Bear,” Paul Shepard writes: “In their social interactions bears seem more like humans whose life is always on the knife-edge between the soliloquy of the self and the chorus of the group. Evolving man moved toward individual uniqueness, liberation from group-think, away from the invisibility of the one in the many, or the final tyranny like that of the ant colony. Who better to demonstrate to us autonomy and its special style of attention and introspection than the social yet irascible, supreme recusant, Aretes?”

Shepard quotes the poem “Many Winters,” by Nancy Wood to honor the bear’s lessons.

There is the young girl in me traveling west

With the bear which taught me to look inside.

The bear stood by himself and said,

There is a time for being alone

So that you do not take on

The appearance of your friends.

There is a time for being at home with yourself.

A problem bear is a dead bear

Empire’s sugar bear has been relocated (at least) 60 miles inland, according to DNR’s Steve Griffith. He wouldn’t disclose exactly where it was set free. We collectively hope it will find a new habitat and won’t return to Leelanau County. Because if it does, the bear might not survive.

A black bear that roamed the parking lot at Meijer in Traverse City in 2020 returned there the following spring and was seen along the heavily trafficked US-31 corridor, near the Great Wolf Lodge, the Cherry Blossom movie theater and the YMCA. After relocating the “Meijer bear” 90 miles west near Alpena, the bear returned and was ultimately trapped and euthanized in September 2021.

“I’m depressed. It’s kind of a bowling ball in my stomach,” Griffith told Interlochen Public Radio at the time. “But if that bear stayed in any location with a large amount of people, it’s just waiting for something negative to happen.”

A 350-pound black bear that climbed a tree in Traverse City’s Central Neighborhood to escape people last Mother’s Day was shot with tranquilizer darts, fell asleep and then fell onto a mattress. That bear was relocated and shot four months later in Emmet County by a hunter during bear-hunting season.

Asked what the DNR would do if the sugar bear returned to Leelanau County, Griffith didn’t have an answer.

Sleeping Bear Dunes’ Vince Cavalieri emphasized that bears are part of our habitat, as well as our identity and our story.

“They’re a native part of ecosystem. They are part of the reason people like living in northern Michigan,” he said. “This is a wild and forested place. If you want to live here, living with those potentially dangerous animals is part of it.

“I feel like we can do our part by taking in your trash, and grill, and bird feeder. It’s to protect you, but also to protect the bears. Because a bear that becomes a problem bear is a dead bear.


Second Visitation

By Anne-Marie Oomen


This time, only me, awake, pacing

the night. For what?  That old restless

waiting.  She appeared at last.

On the front porch this time, holy

and dark, shattering the compost

bucket we had forgotten to lock.

She muddled it, sorting for apple peels,

any sweetness. Earlier in the week, videos

circulating: her at the local chocolate

shop, clever about the pull-down latch,

entering the hall, and pulling out

a fifty-pound bag of high-grade sugar

onto the sidewalk.  She ate it all,

licked the sidewalk as if kissing it.

Now, our front porch, dissatisfied

with compost, she looks up at me,

squints in moonlight so bright

it casts a shadow dark as her fur.

She studies my silhouette in the glass

and I wonder if this is how Mary felt,

awed as much as afraid, noting how

beautifully light glazes her, catches

her ear tufts as if they were feathers.

She seems to sigh, turns away,

heads for the garage. At the door,

she rises to her full height, stares

in the window. She studies the glass as if

it were a mirror, a window into ancient

time, into other worlds. But no.

She is considering the grill, freezer,

beer fridge. She drops, nuzzles

the knob.  It holds.  She glides to the rail fence,

flows over it like a dark dirigible, as

though it were no fence at all, ambles

down the driveway as if she knew

what driveways were for.

The dogs have slept through it all.

I am still now, standing at the window,

filled with moon, with ice, bruised with beauty,

lost in a country of brambles and hollows,

swamp grass and ruminants and the pin

feathers of mythical birds, fallen to earth,

silver and black with loneliness.