Outdoors

Bear sightings in Iowa getting more common

Are they here to stay - or just passing through?

Cedar Rapids native Nancy Patterson leads people on hikes into bear country in Kenai Peninsula. Alaska. (Nancy Patterson
Cedar Rapids native Nancy Patterson leads people on hikes into bear country in Kenai Peninsula. Alaska. (Nancy Patterson)
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When land-hungry settlers moved across the Mississippi River before the Civil War, they discovered a land teeming with wildlife.

Elk, deer, wild turkeys, black bears, mountain lions, bison and wolves roamed throughout what became Iowa.

Big wild animals didn’t stand a chance against massive habitat change as prairies, wetlands and forests were rapidly converted into farms. Few settlers passed up a chance to shoot a tasty animal or one that might kill their livestock. By the end of the 1800s, they’d all be extirpated.

Deer and turkeys have made a remarkable Iowa comeback and may even be more abundant today than they were before settlement. Otters and bobcats also are expanding their range. And they may be joined by black bears.

Every few years, a bear is spotted in Iowa, probably a young male wandering down from Wisconsin. Earlier this month, one was spotted in Clinton and Scott County cornfields.

These bear sightings are becoming more common. Do they indicate the return of a reproducing population to Iowa, or just a few individuals out on a tour?

Clues come from bear biology and the experiences of biologists in other states.

Black bears are amazingly adaptable animals. Many view them as carnivores, but they’re actually omnivores and usually eat more plants than animals. They graze on grass, snack on fruits, scoop up acorns, eat dead animals they find and enjoy meals of any hapless creature they can catch. Favored meals are ants and other insects.

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Bears are equipped with powerful muscles and stiff claws that help them dig insect nests from the ground. Unlike cougars and wolves, bears have lips and a tongue that can be manipulated to pluck the smallest mulberry from a tree or extract a termite from a rotting log.

In our modern world, bears enjoy dining on pet food, bird seed, beehives and livestock feed, which often puts them in conflict with people.

Black bears today live from tropical Florida to frigid Alaska and many places in between. There are a few in Mississippi and many more in New England, the Upper Great Lake states, the Rocky Mountains and along the West Coast.

Young male bears tend to wander far from their birthplace, but females are homebodies. They seldom move more than a few miles from where they were born. Because females stay close to home but males wander, early sightings in unoccupied areas are usually males and occur years before a reproducing population is established.

New Jersey has the nation’s densest human population with urban areas and suburbs stretching for miles. Years ago, no one would have dreamed that bears would be able to live in the midst of so many people, but today they occupy all of the state’s counties. Some live just across the Hudson River from New York City.

Acclaimed wildlife expert and author Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III has spent his life in rural northwest New Jersey and recently shared his bear observations.

“I first saw bear tracks in the snow in a remote area of New Jersey in March 1953 and spotted my first bear nearby later that year,” he said. “They’ve gradually spread out as mature bears have driven younger ones out of the most favored wooded habitat. They are now found throughout the state.”

Bears are becoming increasingly common in Missouri. Jim Low, a retired writer for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said there may have been a few bears surviving in remote Ozark forests but most of the state’s current bears spread up from Arkansas, where they had been introduced in the 1950s.

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“Most of Missouri’s bears are in the southern part of the state but some have moved north. One was spotted recently near Jefferson City,” he said.

With bears becoming increasingly common in Missouri, and with strong populations in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa is a crossroad for bear colonization.

Years ago, biologists believed wild turkeys could live only in Iowa’s few large forests and would never be common elsewhere. The plucky birds proved them wrong. Today they’re abundant statewide, even in urban areas.

No one knows if bears will ever have a reproducing population or be common in Iowa, and with few large forested areas the state doesn’t seem to be ideal bear habitat anyway. But New Jersey didn’t seem well suited for bruins, either.

The big animals have proved to be very adaptable.

Everyone has heard of people being attacked by bears. Black bears are large, fast, nimble and powerful, but overall don’t pose a major safety threat to humans. Shy and retiring, they mostly roam at night. Black bears often destroy apiaries while feasting on bees and honey and don’t lose opportunities to snack on pet food or bird seed left out overnight.

They also love smashing trash cans to access food scraps. Keeping all these potential bear foods inaccessible to the animals helps reduce damage and conflict.

Cedar Rapids native Nancy Patterson worked in Yellowstone National Park and now is manager of Alaska’s Campbell Creek Science Center. Visitors walking trails there might encounter black and grizzly bears.

“Just like people, bears don’t like to be surprised so I encourage people to make noise when they hike,” she said. “If you see a bear, leave lots of space between you and it. Stop moving. Walk slowly backward. Talk in a calm voice.”

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Unlike Yellowstone or Alaska, Iowa has no grizzly bears and our occasional black bear is likely to avoid people. But Patterson’s advice to keep your distance still is appropriate.

One thing is certain. If bears become more common in Iowa, they will spark controversy. Some people will want them eliminated while others will stridently seek their total protection.

In New Jersey and Missouri, bear populations are political.

This summer there is at least that one bear roaming Iowa’s cornfields. Whether it returns home or others wander in to populate the state is unknown. If they follow the pattern of deer and wild turkeys, they could become somewhat common.

A very few mountain lions have moved into Iowa. Once in a while one is spotted, but they don’t seem to be establishing a reproducing population. That also could happen with bears. No one knows.

Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at windingpathways.com.

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