The car ahead of me is braking. A deer? No, a coyote. No, it’s a wolf!! A timber wolf is trotting across the highway! If that’s not a good omen, I don’t know what is! It was the long legs that made me think deer, but as it got onto the road, it was trotting like a canid, which in Illinois means coyote. Except that it’s the size of a white-tailed deer, and I’m in northern Minnesota where the locals will later tell me coyote sightings are rare. A wolf welcomed me. How about that!
Vince Shute and the American Bear Association
I’m on my way to Orr, Minnesota, a town of 200 people located near Voyageur’s National Park, to spend the weekend photographing black bears at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary. A little explanation is in order. Vince Shute was a logger with a homestead up here in the remote Northwoods in the mid-1900s. He had a problem with black bears repeatedly breaking into his cook shack, and for a shamefully long time, before realizing there was a better way, he shot them. One day, he thought that since the bears didn’t intend harm, they are just hungry, he would begin feeding them outside the perimeter of his camp. It worked like a charm. The bears chose the easy food and left Vince in peace. From the 1970s-1990s, he fed them, growing more attached to them as they became more habituated to him. He started naming them and came to think of them as family. In the days when Yellowstone National Park was installing bleachers for visitors to watch bears at the dumps, Vince was inviting people to come and feed his bears to gain a better understanding of them. He was hoping to replace fear and persecution with understanding, but it got a bit out of control. Known as “The Bear Man,” Vince would sit in an old aluminum lawn chair with a fraying woven seat and hand-feed “his” bears. The visitors exploited Vince’s mild demeanor by taking unsavory liberties like petting, feeding, and putting children next to the wild bears for pictures.
A Better Plan
As Vince grew older and his controversial feeding practices drew more attention, he began to worry about what would happen to his bears when he was no longer around to protect them. The American Bear Association (ABA) was formed in 1995 to manage the bears and the property. Their first task was separating the public from the wildlife. In 1996 volunteers built a viewing platform to keep the visitors from touching, feeding, and generally misbehaving among the bears.
Many long discussions were had about whether to continue feeding the bears. As a conservation organization, the ABA strictly opposes the feeding of wild bears. However, the land would not support the number of bears currently in the area without supplemental feeding. There was concern that these bears could become nuisance bears as hunger drove them into contact with people, homesites, and towns. On the up-side, it provides a unique interpretive opportunity for education and research. Ultimately, the hard-wrought decision was made to continuing feeding the bears in a more controlled manner.
“Obviously, this choice will always stir debate, which is certainly understandable. To be sure, ABA struggles with the decision every day. We agree that the situation is not perfect. But the outstanding opportunities for “teachable moments” at Vince’s homestead begged for a chance to transform prevailing unrealistic and fear-driven judgments about bears into more accurate and respectful ones. ABA’s efforts could reap long-term benefits by nurturing more tolerant and safer human/bear relations.” – Klari Lea, past-president ABA
The bears are fed no protein. Instead of the pancakes and sweet rolls that they used to gorge upon, they now get oats, seeds, and nuts left in piles throughout the viewing area. It is estimated that the bears get 30% of their nutrition from the site and still forage and “act like wild bears” for the other 70%. In fact, during good wild berry seasons, the numbers of bears visiting the sanctuary plummets. Some bears only use the sanctuary as a way-station to fuel up before continuing on their journey. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources did a four-year radio-collar study on bears that use the refuge and found that they range pretty far and don’t become “problem bears.”
The sanctuary offers summer internship programs for college students studying wildlife sciences or conservation. They live rustically on-site, provide labor to the sanctuary, educate visitors, and conduct their own research projects.
Many of the bears that visit the sanctuary are used to people within the small feeding area and consequently ignore us. However, many of the bears are still wary and stay within the cover of the woods or only visit at night to avoid people. Over the rest of the 360-acre property, the bears are hazed away from people and structures. Because of this, the bears are wary of and avoid people outside of the feeding area.
I was a little apprehensive about coming up here because of the feeding practices and concern that it would alter the bears’ behavior. Now that I know why they do it, the limitations and precautions in place, and have seen these bears engaging in such a variety of normal bear behaviors, I am more comfortable with it. I had an unprecedented opportunity to observe and photograph a wide array of wild black bear behaviors in these beautiful Northwoods. I’ve been amazed at the care of mothers with their young and laughed at the antics of curious, playful one-year-olds. I watched hierarchies play out as one bear calmly and quietly ceded space to another. Every day, there were some of the regulars and always newcomers in the area, too. Random wildlife encounters that require planning, stealth, patience, and some degree of luck remain most extraordinary. This feels a little bit like cheating. Having said that, it was an unforgettable, immersive educational experience. Stay tuned for the bear stories!
If you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t miss the next one! Subscribe here to receive an email whenever a new blog posts.