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Bear shooting by Frazee cop sparks outcry

The shooting of a bear by a police officer in Frazee Saturday unleashed a barrage of public criticism so intense the police chief referred one hostile e-mail to the city attorney for possible charges.

The bear's history is unclear, but one report puts the animal, with its head encased in a clear plastic jug, near Cass Lake, Minn., about 90 miles northeast of Frazee, as early as July 16. Another witness reported the bear near Lake George, about 60 miles east of Frazee, on July 21.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources set up a live trap to capture the animal, but it avoided the culvert-like device.

Last Saturday evening, the emaciated bear walked into Frazee in the middle of the town's annual Turkey Days.

Angry e-mail

Officers cornered the animal behind a downtown building known as the Baer building, and after conferring with the DNR, killed it with one shot from a shotgun.

News of the event set off an angry stream of phone calls and e-mails to the city of Frazee, some from as far away as West Virginia and New York, said Police Chief Mike Lorsung.

He said one angry e-mail from the Minneapolis area was referred to the city attorney for possible charges.

"They signed their name to it," Lorsung said of the e-mail, which he summarized as saying: "a jug should be put on my head and I should be shot."

The officer who killed the bear, whom Lorsung declined to name because of the threats, took no joy in the duty, according to the police chief.

"There's been a lot of outcry from people about the bear being shot and how we should have done something else," Lorsung said. "They don't understand this is small town USA. We don't have tranquilizer guns available."

On Saturday night, the nearest DNR officer with expertise in that area was 2½ hours away.

Dave Garshelis, bear project leader for the DNR, said if someone had been able to reach him Saturday night, it would have been dark by the time he reached Frazee and darting the bear would have been impossible.

"It always seems odd to me that, after the fact, people make a judgment that maybe he (the officer) was premature shooting the bear," Garshelis said.

"Had he not shot the bear and some kid wandered over with an ice cream cone ... everybody would have been all over the police," said Garshelis, who added he had been monitoring reports in hopes of darting the bear while it still wandered northern Minnesota.

Moving target

But the animal didn't linger long enough in one place to get a fix on its location, he said.

Driving to areas where the bear was last seen and staying in motel rooms on the chance it would appear again would not have been a good use of time, Garshelis said.

"It's good that people feel that way about animals," he said. "But you can't overreact and say, 'We're going to call out the National Guard and pull out all the stops.' You can't invest that much in one particular animal."

Between 3,000 and 3,500 bears are killed each year in Minnesota during hunting season, said Garshelis, who described the animals as extremely hardy.

"I never underestimate their ability to survive," he said.

Chris Vinton, a DNR conservation officer who arrived in Frazee shortly after the bear was shot, said he had to work hard to remove the jar from the bear's head.

"I tried to just pull the bucket off and actually picked up the whole bear. It wasn't just going to pop off," said Vinton. He described the animal as not much more than skin and bones.

"Really, the death sentence started when it stuck its head in the bucket," said Vinton.

Amazing grit

Whether the bear struggled with the jar on its head for six days or 11, the fact it was able to walk into Frazee on Saturday is remarkable, said Charlie Stoltenow, an associate professor with the Animal Sciences Department at North Dakota State University

"I'm kind of amazed, especially in the heat we've had. The hotter you get, the shorter the lifespan," said Stoltenow, who added it is difficult for severely dehydrated animals to recover.

"Sometimes you get animals that are dehydrated and we try to rehydrate them and it's kind of a losing battle," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555