116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The last black bear in Iowa was found near Spirit Lake in November of 1876.
After eons of occupation, they were extirpated, a mere 30 years after statehood. According to Professor Emeritus James Dinsmore, the Black bear in Iowa was really gone by the Civil War, the Spirit Lake bear was an anomaly.
Nevertheless, a keystone species with a myriad of ecological roles was gone from the land between two great rivers.
I was interested in bears as a boy, I knew some dwelled in the expansive Wisconsin forest nearby. Once, one raided the neighbors fruit trees. Despite what I thought was adequate habitat in northeast and southeast Iowa, there were no bears, but I’ve been looking anyway.
I got a tip a bear was spotted in Dubuque. A little bit of sleuthing got me to the owner of a specific bird feeder targeted by a bear, and a drive after work brought me to the backyard and woodland where my search began.
I was looking for proof of a bear — a sample — be it scat or hair that could prove, yes, a genetically verified black bear was here.
In June of 2020 we did talk about Bruno. “Bruno” the bear, that was. He wandered Eastern Iowa, rather conspicuously in Scott County, seemingly looking for something. Bruno made it as far south as the tangle of interstate highways of St. Louis. Biologists captured Bruno and relocated him to the south before he could cause a traffic accident.
Bruno was a dramatic example of the predictable, though rare transits, of black bears into Iowa, almost always in the Driftless Area. Where did they come from and where were they going?
The former question needs a genetic sample, the latter only an imagination of the lusty drive of a young male bear looking for a mate.
The agreeable homeowner showed me where the bear helped himself to bird seed and the usual escape path. Armed with his can of bear spray — his insistence — I set off, up the hill and into a tangle of invasive shrubs and meager softwoods. I was looking for a pile of that very thing that bears are famous for doing in the woods.
I worked in a grid pattern. Deer tracks abounded as did their scat, thank goodness the differences between the deposits are pronounced. North and south, then east and west went the search. I could have been mistaken for a mushroom forager with my slow step and intense forest floor gaze. With each grid cleared, I felt a little more anxiety that this would be a fruitless pursuit, the lengthening shadows reminded me the clock was running.
About 15 years ago I learned the indispensable fact as to the dearth of black bears in Iowa: they had no legal protection. Even animals classified as vermin have their species acknowledged, not so for the bear. Pigeon, crow and coyote enjoy rich legal language in comparison to Ursus americanus. I’ve been doing my part ever since to rectify that glaring omission.
If classified as a “game animal,” like the deer or turkey, then the state would be obligated to attend to them, no matter how small the population. Rep. David Jacoby of Coralville sponsored a bill to do just that. The General Assembly never even gave it a hearing.
My search in the tanglers had found a patch of wild onions, two bolting rabbits, discarded patio furniture and other dumplings but not the deposit I wanted. Paralleling the woods was a grassy strip. I stepped out into the sun, really to take a perfunctory peak so at least I could tell myself that I looked everywhere.
Then lo and behold, illuminated by a ray of sun was the object of my desire. I felt like I found the end of the rainbow. I gave a double-fist pump and then circled my prize to take it in from all angles. Turns out that a bear will do business in a lawn as well as in the woods.
Iowa is the odd state out. Like the white-tailed deer, then turkey, the American black bear is the more recent animal comeback story. And like the deer and turkey it was no accident, it took motivated citizens, laws and funding.
After settlement, the black bears of Wisconsin were relegated to the Northwoods. But without scientific management their numbers dwindled. In 1985, the bear hunting season was closed, then re-opened in 1986 under a highly managed and science-driven format. Since then, their range doubled. About 24,000 bears live in America’s Dairyland.
As of 1950, Missouri had zero black bears. Careful management of bruins dispersing from Arkansas now puts the Show Me state population at 1,000. Missouri held its first limited hunt last autumn.
And New Jersey, yes, New Jersey: Gym, tan, laundry … bears. Their bears came from New York and Pennsylvania. With careful management the Garden State hosts more than 3,000 bruins. New Jersey is one-eighth the size of Iowa and has triple the people.
Scat at hand, now I had the proof I needed. I collected two golf-ball sized samples in two new plastic bags. Before I zipped shut the bags I took a moment to appreciate the visibly intact seeds in the scat. With simple guts and large territories, bears were an important seed distributor, the original Johnny Appleseed.
Since the bag was open for inspection I couldn’t help but take a whiff, for science. It smelled like active bread machine dough, cut hay that’s just started to dry, and a hint of sweetness.
I’m awaiting special specimen tubes from a lab in Idaho. There, genetic testing will confirm the species, sex and its unique genetic fingerprint. As future bears in Iowa leave deposits, they will become a scientifically verified accounting of their presence as well as a road map to the source populations.
What’s in the future for black bears in Iowa? Today, none. The law does not support it. But active citizens and sound science might just win a right to exist for black bears. We rebuilt habitat, and they came. Now we need to make it OK to stay.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion, teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.